A View from the Frontline: Ditch the Work Plan! Zip Code Day in Mount Vernon, Iowa

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So… I am standing in the middle of Main Street dressed in a full mailman costume, complete with pith helmet and official U.S.P.S. satchel. My friend and uber-volunteer Kim stands beside me in a similar get-up. The brass band begins to play over my left shoulder and 700 children march in parade formation up one side of the blocked-off Main Street and down the other.            

This is our Zip Code Day afterall, the day when the date matches our Zip Code, 5-23-14. And, of course, our volunteers have planned quite a celebration, all culminating in an historic photo to be taken from the roof of the Sun Newspaper building at exactly 5:23 and 14 seconds.
Visitors snap photos of Kim and I, volunteers slap me on the back, my mayor shakes my hand, and I turn to Kim and whisper proudly in her ear as the Fifth graders, followed by the Second graders, followed by the Third graders, followed by the First graders, followed by the Fourth graders (think about it…) begin to cross the street and make their way up the other kim and joe revisedside of Main Street. “We did it again, dear heart,” I say to Kim with a wink.              

Just then the photographer sitting on top of the historic brick building with his camera and his bullhorn starts screaming orders at the crowd: “Line up on your marks, face me, put the signs on the ground, children off the shoulders. We are not going to leave until this photo is perfect. Per-fect!  Got it!”
Wait, I think. Something’s not right. This is not how we planned this at the committee table. The parade is supposed to end up in front of the stage at the other end of the street. I am supposed to introduce the band.  We are supposed to stand and remove our hats as the band plays the “Star Spangled Banner.” It’s Memorial Day Weekend for crying out loud!  Wait, stop, this is not going the way we planned it at the committee table!
My heart is racing, my palms are sweating. The event is getting out of my control.              

“Wait. Stop. Everyone. Excuse me… Oh no.”
Deep breath.
Why is it that EVERY time we have an event, something doesn’t go according to the detailed work plan? And why is it that EVERY time this happens, I am always surprised? Live events are fraught with all manner of complications, many of which can not be predicted or planned no matter how experienced the committee. Of course, if I were a better Main Street Director, maybe I could have allowed the photographer to get his shot, and THEN instructed the band to play, but I didn’t… I held onto the original idea. And things were not going according to plan. Not!
Kim and I huddle and have a quick subcommittee meeting -- certainly the outdoor P.A. system will get the attention of 700 kids and their parents and grandparents and other guests. Certainly this will drown out the photographer on the roof barking orders through the bullhorn. Certainly when the crowd hears the beginnings of the “Star Spangled Banner” they will stop what they are doing, stand at attention, remove their hats and listen. Certainly. Right?
No. The crowd is in a heated frenzy to get our historic photo taken. Everyone is in place on their numbers, standing on strategically placed duct tape pre-strapped to the street that outline “5,2,3,1,4.” The crowd is talking and laughing and taking orders from the one man with a bullhorn and a camera three stories above me. And I can’t get his attention.
I step up to the microphone and say “Ladies and gentleman, ladies and gentlemen…” Wait. There is no sound. Kim scrambles to check the cords. The sound system was working just 20 minutes back before the parade, during sound check, which was just after the street closing, but before I changed into my pith helmet and khakis. It WAS working! It WAS working! “Kim, it WAS working!”
“Test. Test. One, two, three…” Kim gives me shrug from behind the P.A.’s power source. I doublecheck that the microphone is indeed on. The band director quietly asks me what I want her to do. And I shout as loud as I can: “Ladies and gentlemen, please stand and remove your hats for the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
zip-code-day-logoMaybe 15 of the more than 1,000 people on the street hear me, the band begins to play, and the photographer on top of the Sun building is not phased – not one bit. “I need more people in the one. The ONE! Everyone move to the left. No, MY LEFT!”
And I am mortified.
In one moment I have gone from proud festival producer to humiliated Main Street Director, standing in the middle of a crowd of residents and visitors all dutifully standing in 5-2-3-1-4 formation, and waiting for a photographer on top of one of our historic downtown buildings to snap his photo. The crowd is having a great time and are completely unaware of the huge break in protocol.
The song ends and I hang my head and join the crowd. Kim and I take our places at the top of the “Five.” We smile for the photo and we are permanently recorded for history. The photo will later be preserved for 100 years in a time capsule, and future generations will have no idea of the major break in the day’s painstakingly thought-out plan and agenda.
flags revisedThe rest of the event goes off basically without a hitch. We read the mayoral proclamation, introduce a local poet who wrote a piece to commemorate the event, the elementary school children sing their song for the crowd, we introduce the youngest and oldest residents, we announce the winners of our postcard contest, the committee takes their bows and the time capsule is filled and carted away – everyone had a great time.
However, I stand dejected, pith helmet in hand, as the tents are taken down and the tables and chairs are carted up and taken away. My final thought just before the street is reopened and the festival ends is that sometimes a work plan is just a piece of paper. And sometimes throwing it out -- is the best course of action. I wish I had waited until I could guarantee that the crowd could be present AND attentive, so that we all could take the time to see to it that our National Anthem was treated properly.
But we couldn’t and we didn’t. I followed the work plan to the letter.
Perhaps at the 2nd Annual Zip Code Day, on May 23, 2114, the next committee will take the time to create a work plan that includes a Brass Band rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and that if it is clear that circumstances are not going to allow that the National Anthem get the full respect it deserves, then perhaps that future committee -- will wait.
My advice to them is the same as it is to you – don’t ever be afraid to throw out your work plan, and Happy Zip Code Day from Mount Vernon, Iowa!