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14 The In-Basket
Exercise—How
to Conduct and
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Design It
Many persons might have achieved wisdom had they not
supposed that they already possessed it.

—Seneca, Roman philosopher and


author (B.C. 4?–65 A.D.)

THE in-basket exercise is a management simulation designed to provide skill practice in prob-
lem solving and decision making. It is composed of a set of 15–20 items, more or less interre-
lated, which have to be acted upon in a relatively short time frame under considerable
pressure.
The completed in-basket is subsequently analyzed and discussed by the group, thereby
giving the participants an opportunity to receive feedback about their prowess as decision
makers. The feedback may also reveal strengths and weaknesses in other leadership/
managerial skills such as communication, motivation, delegation, planning, and time
management.
What might participants derive from an in-basket activity in the way of specific learning or
benefits? The following are typical end results:

1. Skill in problem solving and decision making should be strengthened. More specifi-
cally, participants are challenged to note the interrelatedness of items awaiting action,
to respect the importance and urgency of problems (prioritizing), and to take appropri-
ate (logical) action in a short time period.
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The In-Basket Exercise—How to Conduct and Design It 297

2. They may also learn that it is all too easy to evening at 5:30 P.M., or the like. (As we said, this is
over-emphasize, under-emphasize, or overlook just before flight time, so one cannot dally.)
various elements which relate to the decision- And what are the conditions under which one
making process. attacks the in-basket? Not only are there no staff
3. Conceptually, participants should learn that members present because of the time of day, but typi-
there is no “best” way to handle (decide upon) cally the secretary has just gone on annual leave or is
a managerial problem. This learning comes hospitalized (“I’ll be back in a week. Sorry I wasn’t
about through exchange and discussion of the there to help you.”). Also, the manager’s immediate
actions taken. assistant has just been killed in a private plane crash;
4. The importance of utilizing staff in working the telephone switchboard is unmanned and inopera-
on day-to-day problems also comes through tive or is simply out of order; the file cabinets are
quite clearly. locked; the photocopier is in a locked office, which
means that one cannot make copies of any items to
5. Participants can possibly learn to coordinate
take along for further study, but must act now.
matters with colleagues and superiors.
So what do all these harrowing circumstances add
6. Effective time management skills are usually up to for our manager, as decision maker?
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developed.
7. New managers may be expected to learn about 1. The pressure is on!
the kinds of problems they are quite certain to 2. The in-box must be examined in a short time
encounter, as well as how to go about resolv- frame (one to two hours).
ing them. 3. No one can be reached now for advice or to
give oral instructions.
4. Instructions to staff, if any, can only be given
WORKING WITH THE IN-BASKET in the form of short notes, either scribbled on
the in-basket item or written on slips which
To appreciate more fully how participants operate are clipped or stapled to it.
in relation to the in-basket, let’s examine the situation 5. All action is taken solely on the basis of the
that exists when the in-basket is first encountered in information in the in-basket, even though
the exercise. there may be information voids, irrelevant
Typically, the participant, in the role of manager, facts, or conflicting information.
is about to report for duty on a new job. The new
assignment has come up suddenly. He/she is to suc- Are the limitations and pressures contained in this
ceed someone who has just transferred, retired, died simulation likely to produce a feeling that this is not a
of a heart attack, etc. The visit to his/her new office very realistic situation? Not at all, for managers typi-
is very brief—60–90 minutes, sometimes 2 hours. cally work with the in-basket and often find them-
Why the short visit? Because he/she has to catch a selves in pressure-laden situations. Also, the
plane to go to headquarters to work on a special problems themselves are plausible.
project, or attend an important conference, or take a
field trip, or attend a three-to-four-day management
seminar. THE IN-BASKET EXERCISE—
What is the purpose of the visit to the new office? ADVANTAGES AND LIMITATIONS
To check the in-basket to see if there is anything
which may require attention (must be “handled”) An in-basket has a number of advantages:
before going off on the required trip.
When does the visit to the office take place? 1. It can provide participants with materials for
Unfortunately, at a time when no staff members are analysis which are marked by a high degree of
available—Sunday evening, Saturday afternoon, pos- realism. What is more natural than for a man-
sibly a weekday morning at 7:00 A.M., Friday ager to “attack” an in-basket?
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298 The Winning Trainer

2. It is a truly inexpensive form of training for 3. The moderator/facilitator must both be skilled
managers. Most trainers should be able to in working with groups and possess the cre-
study the guidelines for the construction of an ativity, logic, perseverance, and management
in-basket exercise described herein, plus the (or other) knowledge to develop an interesting,
models provided here and elsewhere, and cre- challenging, and technically sound in-basket.
ate an engrossing and high-impact learning Not all trainers might meet these multi-faceted
tool. (Of course, the trainer should have expe- qualifications. (Of course, in-basket materials
rienced the in-basket activity, too.) can be purchased from publishers of training
3. It is a flexible tool and thus can be used in a materials. They may also be found in books.)
variety of ways: as the basis for a rather com-
prehensive management training program or
as an adjunct to such a course; for general and/ HOW TO DESIGN YOUR OWN
or more specialized managers; with or without IN-BASKET
small group work in the evaluation phase of
the activity. Also, the content (examples) may While in-baskets may be obtained from various
be closely work-related or more general in publishers, you may wish to tailor-make your own.
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character; the individual analysis and group This procedure will allow you to include problems
evaluation phases may be separated timewise typical of your own organization. The greater realism
by several days if necessary. of and interest in such materials should help to aug-
4. Since the basic work-analysis of the in-basket ment participant learning. Also, by avoiding the off-
is done on an individual basis, there is no the-shelf product, you may keep your costs down. Of
problem of self-consciousness arising among course, a printed in-basket from a publisher may look
participants. Other management training tech- more polished than your own.
niques, such as role playing, and certain exer- In any case, here are the steps you should follow if
cises may present this problem for some you wish to design your own in-basket.
managers.
5. It helps to “pep up” the training program. Step 1: Study Several In-Baskets
Some limitations of the in-basket are these: This procedure will give you a feel for their gen-
eral thrust, style, format, tempo, etc. These materials
1. The total time of the in-basket activity is fairly
are available in books and from publishers of such
extensive. While the individual processing of
materials. Colleagues may also be helpful in this
the in-basket is ordinarily limited to one hour
regard.
or so, the subsequent group-in-action work
(analysis phase) takes two or three hours. (On
the other hand, the time investment is worth- Step 2: Selection of Subject Matter
while if real learning ensues. In fact, some
In designing an in-basket for managers, you have
trainers may argue that the long time element
these choices as to subject matter:
is what gives the activity its impact.)
2. For the trainer, considerable detail is involved F General character. The items in the in-basket
in preparing and reproducing letters, memos, can be general in nature, that is, applicable
etc., to give them an authentic look. Also, and of interest to all managers, regardless of
large amounts of materials have to be carefully their organizational affiliation. Our goal in this
assembled; for example, visualize an in-basket situation is, of course, to provide practice in
of 15–20 items for 15–20 participants. Obvi- analyzing and resolving management prob-
ously each packet of items must be complete lems. In other words, just so there is a good
and assembled in its appropriate order. Dupli- mix of problems, with enough elements of
cates must be avoided. complexity, challenge, pressure, realism, and
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