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The Answer Is “B”

Upper East Sider Laurie Pollock remembers when she first seriously considered running for her co-op board: it was five years ago and the board was planning a lobby renovation. The word in the hallways was that half-a-million dollars had been set aside for tapestries to decorate the halls. “It was nuts,” recalls Pollock. “People were calling up board members and yelling at them.” Pollock put in her own quiet call to the president to find out what was going on. The director responded by asking a question of her: would she run for the board? Pollock agreed, but before she was elected, she proposed a solution to the lobby controversy. Why not send out a survey?

Surveys simplify matters – if they are done right. They can be useful on several fronts: for branding the building; prioritizing capital projects; distinguishing the wish lists of the old and new guard; adding amenities; hiring/changing staff; and creating a greater sense of community. Pollock should know: she has worked in market research for ten years and is currently research director of Pollock/Spark, a consulting firm that works with leaders of creative businesses.

The most important elements in creating a successful survey are keeping it simple; asking key queries several different ways to eliminate “question bias” (if you get the same answer to two differently worded but similar inquiries, then you know you’ve gotten the right answer); and be sure to follow up with shareholders on the results. Nothing makes shareholders crankier than feeling left out of the loop: do the survey, and release the results as soon as you can.

In the lobby redesign survey, Pollock tackled the issue of taste from several angles. “The questions were: ‘Do you believe that your home begins at the door of your apartment or the door of the building? How do you feel about your home? What kind of feeling do you want people to have when they come to your home? What kind of person are you? Modern, creative, sophisticated?’ One of the questions included a little stick figure with an empty thought bubble over its head, saying, ‘This is a visitor walking in to the lobby now, what’s he thinking? What’s he thinking after the renovation?’ By [using humor and] tackling the issue of what individual shareholders wanted to see by finding out what they were comfortable with first, the survey elicited a surprising consensus: most of the shareholders wanted a lobby that was elegant, but unpretentious. This was very useful. We restored the lobby [to] its original style.”

She adds: “If you ask [questions] in the right way, you can neutralize objections. That’s the key. If you don’t ask the right question, you don’t know what problem you are solving.” Is it useful – can you use the answer’s results to effect change? – or is it simply interesting? The most important thing about a well-crafted survey is distinguishing between the types of questions: fact-finding, opinion-gathering, and course-setting. It is important to emphasize that the board will use the results to inform its decisions about how to proceed, that the survey isn’t a vote, but a way for the cooperators to have their ideas heard. A well-designed survey is critical on two fronts – showing shareholders the board is listening to the cooperator body, and neutralizing the loudest of the board’s critics.

When creating a survey, keep it simple. To encourage as much participation as possible, it should be kept short, copies hand-distributed to each of shareholders with a request to return the completed forms to a box left in the lobby; the survey should take no more than five to ten minutes to complete; give an incentive to participate (the chance to win a $20 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble, for instance); include a few silly multiple-choice answers to break the tension; and ask the key question, about whatever issue is most contentious, in several different ways.

“You have to get people to imagine things they haven’t thought through before,” explains Pollock. Designing a good survey is like playing volleyball. “You do the set up and then the spike. You ask them an easy question to get them thinking about it, and then you can ask them a hard question.”

One key mistake boards make when writing surveys is asking open-ended emotional questions, such as, “What do you think of the super’s work ethic?” Or, “How much should we spend on a lobby renovation?” Stay away from such queries and focus on more tightly worded questions that elicit original ideas that can be instituted, such as, “What amenities should the building add?” And, “What will increase the building’s curb appeal?”

“If you ask questions like ‘What do you think of the board?’ you are going to get answers you don’t want to read, and answers you can’t use. If you ask a question like, ‘How much money should we spend on the lobby?’ that’s a bad question. You don’t know how much money you have to spend [and] not everyone understands how the financials of a building work.” It’s important for the board to stay focused on the threefold purpose of the survey: collect facts, gather opinions, and find out what kind of course the shareholders believe the board should be steering.

“The first advantage of the survey is to make people feel heard. Little things build up unless you find out what people are thinking,” notes Pollock, who then adds: “A survey makes people feel heard. It makes them feel understood.”

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