Planning the Next Family Vacation With Teenagers

Planning the Next Family Vacation with Teenagers

Vacations are supposed to be many things.  Vacations are supposed to be a great time for the family to enjoy each other’s company.  Vacations are supposed to afford an opportunity for the family to change their pace of living, learn more about what makes life enjoyable, and possibly even to be educational.  At least the parents see it that way.  The children, for the most part, when they are young, just want to eat and play, it does not matter where, it seems.  But, then, they become teenagers.  Teenagers show the independence of mind that you want them to have.  But independence is a double-edged sword.  Now you need to come together as adult minded people and agree on the vacation experience.  It is too late to wish they were little again, and you could be the vacation planning dictator. 

Setting all of that philosophy aside, the fact is that planning a vacation, especially when there are children, and most especially if the children are teenagers, is a trying experience, not to be undertaken by the meek.  There is simply no man that I know of, that reaching old age, and reflecting back, would want to re-live the experience.  Maybe if we approach the task as a business person would who was planning a group meeting at work, we could achieve a better result. 

Generally, it is true for all people who have to make a decision in a group setting, and live with its consequences, need to meet the two equally important criteria of using methods that are both technically sophisticated and also politically feasible. 

Organizing the planning process, with inputs from individual personalities in the hope of forming into an effective team, and being an enjoyable experience, can be a daunting task.  Any small group, whether a family unit or unrelated loose confederation of partners, that decides to go on a vacation, for example, needs to choose a location.  In an all volunteer undertaking each is committing time and money to an effort that is hoped to compensate them greater than would be possible by their individual efforts, hence forming into a team rather than each taking off on their own. 

Before the team ever starts out, probably the greatest indication of their probable success is whether they can develop a plan and communicate it effectively to each other, especially the changes that are inevitable.  If they cannot do that, they are unlikely to have much success and they will be less willing to attempt a team effort ever in the future, at least with your participation.  So, the approach to getting the plan set is very important and I will suggest ways to structure that effort and attempt to maintain the good communications.  That way you should have a better chance at success.  At least you and they will not regret joining the team in the first place if you are not successful.  If you are a family unit, of course, you are stuck with the consequences. 

There are many opportunities in life for individual decision making.  But, there are also times when a group decision might be better.  The appropriateness of individual or group decision making may depend upon many factors.  One might wonder if group decisions are inherently better than individual decisions.  The answer will depend on why a decision is being made, the time constraints, the need for a high level of quality in the decision, where the people are who might be involved, the importance of the decision, and the likely consequences from the decision.  The point is that individual decision making has its place and group decision making has its place.  So, to do a direct comparison between them is not always easy and may not even be appropriate. 

The capacity of one person’s mind to formulate and solve problems is small compared with the size of the problems in the real world.  That statement implies that an individual’s decisions will always be based upon an incomplete comprehension of the problem that prompts a look for methods that might combine the capacities of several individuals.  The total information possessed by all the members is probably going to be greater. 

There is the added political problem that a decision will not be effective unless those who must implement it understand the decision, accept it, and make it work.  But the team organizer must use caution because in many situations the individual decision maker would do better without some forms of groups.  There is often no good reason to bring people together.  Crowds are unpleasant and not healthy.  They can be dangerous.  The mob rushes in where individuals fear.  Groups exert a tremendous conforming pressure on its members. 

There are factors to organizing the group that can prove to be assets or liabilities, depending.  The clash of ideas that develops in a group can foster creativity and innovation, or it can breed resentment and hurt feelings.  Group members often disagree on solutions, because they approach the problem from different perspectives and with different goals in mind.  There is evidence that in some situations groups make riskier decisions than individuals might make.  Group decisions take longer than individual decisions.  Time can be an asset for group decision making because it permits full discussion of alternatives, and it can be a liability because it results in a delayed decision. 

Rarely do all group members start with the same possible solution to a problem.  To reach an agreement, some group members usually change the position with which they started.  This can be an asset or a liability depending upon whose mind is changed.  If those with the most creative ideas are induced to change, the group winds up with a mediocre decision.  If those with the least constructive views change their minds, the final decision is improved. 

As the team begins to form, it will be obvious that each of the participants will bring a different opinion that needs to be incorporated into a single choice for the team.  In ignorance of alternatives, and if working under a time pressure, those planning a group vacation can waste a lot of time with poor location selection.  As one acquires information, one makes better decisions and is less apt to waste time.  The way to see the group is that no one person can know everything but a group of like minded family members or close associates might be able to provide additional information that the individual by him or herself does not have. 

Even the group experiencing a successful vacation experience probably does not know how much more successful his or her efforts could have been if he or she had conducted operations under different conditions.  He or she probably does not know the upper limit of future performance.  Most of the information he or she has on which to make decisions is restricted, distorted, contaminated, inappropriate, or unimportant.  But, he or she still has to choose where to go next and has to sell the other members of the team that it is the best choice.  To do that he or she must convince the rest of the team that the decision is timely, of high quality, and the process of information gathering generated a reasonable number of alternatives from which to choose. 

The team members need to understand clearly why that choice was made, and they need to feel the decision was reasonable and credible.  To do that, complete and perfect information is not always necessary.  There is always a tradeoff between the amount of information that can be assimilated in making a decision and the cost to acquire that information.  The perfectly accurate decision eventually is not as good as a decision now that is correct generally. 

The major problem with decisions is that once made we really have little feedback as to how good they were.  A decision may have been correct given the information on which it was made, but all information was not considered.  Or, the passage of time made the decision stale.  Besides, good decisions often have some bad outcomes, and even bad decisions often have some good outcomes.  Eventually, it is possible to spend so much time in acquiring information on opportunities that it is just not worth it to the typical person who has other things he or she could do with the available time.  This is known as reaching the point of diminishing returns.  At that point, the vacation planner should be satisfied with a reasonable approach and get on with the work. 

There is often the need to blend perceptions to see the problem more clearly.  When you wake up each morning, you open your eyes and start an adventure that before that moment no one has ever traveled.  To navigate successfully you will have to use both sides of yourself, the analytical and the intuitive.  They give equally important but conflicting information for you to consider in your decision approach.  Because decisions are made in a turbulent environment where there is too much data, you are faced with what has been termed over-choice.  There are too many variables to consider, too much data to process, and far too many decisions to be made.  You need one side of you that is unemotional, logical, cold, and precise, and thinks like a computer.  You have to be that way, or get the assistance of someone who is, to sort out what is important so you can throw away the rest. 

On the other hand, decisions are uncertain because of too little relevant data.  There is not enough data to support most important decision making to the point where you can have confidence in your choices.  So, you need to address your intuitive self and play a hunch, or have the assistance of someone who is that way.  Because there is a high degree of uncertainty, anxiety, and feeling associated with situations, emotions provided some input.  There needs to be a balance between the analytical and emotional sides that can flesh out our decisions. 

The assumption is that more complete and accurate information will lead to better decisions.  If you had a hundred people all of them cold and logical give their opinions you would be worse off than if only two people, but one person from each of the types logical and emotional give their opinions, because the domain of considerations would be better understood.  It also helps us to realize that the differences in opinion reflect important different avenues to the study of an issue.  When there is apparent conflict in the study of a problem or its recommended solution, it may be that the opposing tendencies both have survival value in the different possible environments. 

Let us look at the various forms of decision making when a group is involved.  Some approaches deal with soft data impressions (e.g., its a nice place) rather than hard data measures (e.g., it is one mile from a paved road) on the alternative vacation sites.  Two general strategies are possible when using impressions.  One general strategy is to rate a location with a number ranging from 1 to 9.  Whatever number is assigned would be an evaluation that reflects your impression of the site’s probable performance on several categories.  The other general strategy is to rank a topic in comparison with the others who are in the same zone of consideration.  Thus, more than or less than is the comparison made and a ranking puts all locations on a single scale.  Ranks have advantages over ratings.  Ratings tend to cluster near the middle of the distribution or are very positive.  Ranks force a flat and widely spread distribution and so have that statistical advantage.  Many analysis techniques combine the data, both hard and soft, to reach a decision. 

Obtain an indication of what is important to each member

While the overall goal is to find success in vacationing, the route to that goal is achieved by sub goals that are instrumental in initiating and maintaining the effort.  I will assume that you have collected a list of possible sites for initial consideration from your past experience in these matters.  You arrange these in a table for analysis.  Let us assume you told each member of the team that they had to pick one criterion that they believe is absolutely necessary for achieving a successful vacation experience.  They are each to choose their single most important criterion on which they would make the selection decision and make it the heading of a column with the locations you provided shown as rows. 

In this example, the availability of potable water is scored 1 for yes or zero for no, proximity of a general store for re-supply of stores and spare parts yes or no, the opportunity for alternative quality recreation score from a popular outdoor magazine for fishing, the distance off a paved road in miles with the added consideration of the probability of inclement weather which could make access and exit difficult.  When all of this is accumulated in a table it can be approached in a number of ways.  You have seen tables like this in consumer magazines for the evaluation of just about anything.  Usually, a multiple cutoff procedure is used wherein sites are eliminated if they are not suitable on every category.  The result is a location that at least meets minimum specifications on everyone’s list of essentials.  Ideally, there is a site that is left by eliminating those that fail on something critical.  It may not be perfect but you could do worse. 

The portfolio approach to budget time at various sites

As the number of possible locations considered for the vacation increases, the selection of the best choice becomes more complex.  A class of techniques is available to assist in making this decision.  The technique enables a person to maximize or minimize an objective taking into consideration the variables that the person can estimate.  The method can handle a problem containing many variables.  This capability means that it can expand the analytical ability of the team.  It conducts a search of the numerous alternative solutions and selects the optimum one.  After a solution has been selected using a first pass, the person may alter or add a constraint or change the objective.  The method can provide a new solution under the revised set of conditions.  By several restructurings of a problem, the person can comprehend more easily the effects of alternative assumptions. 

Let us try a short example of a technique where the data will be synthesized into a single figure of merit.  We will expand the problem by saying we want to visit several sites to spread our bets around a little better.  There is an overall constraint of time that is to be devoted to the task of vacationing.  This would perhaps be the 14 day summer vacation.  The time assigned to one specific location from among several is exclusive to that location and cannot have its status changed without transaction costs both leaving the one location and traveling to a different location.  There is usually a financial cost to travel to and the setting up in the other location.  We will assume that slack would be spent on equipment maintenance. 

With this technique you set up a table.  Specify a planning horizon (I suggest 14 days for example purposes) for the first cycle.  List down the left hand side of a lined piece of paper the location alternatives you would consider.  Think very realistically at this point about what should be in your consideration list.  List absolutely nothing you are not seriously considering.  Remember that you are not forced to vacation at all.  List down the next column on the line corresponding to each row item, the relative value or desirability, everything considered, for the location.  You should pool impressions of future probable success, ability to do other recreation such as fishing, nighttime temperature, mosquito hatch, remoteness of the location, probable weather interference, or whatever.  This whole evaluation is reduced to a single number.  Ratings should be on a scale of one to nine with nine being high while one represents that it barely made the list of possible alternatives.  This rating is the hardest part of the activity. 

Here is where you put together and make a decision you have to live with on the desirability of each specific alternative.  You may find it helpful to discuss these alternatives with others, but the final decision on the relative weight of an alternative rests with the person making the rating.  On the next column to the right on the line corresponding to each row item, list the minimum amount of time that you would need to commit to the alternative.  For example, maybe one day is the minimum for a location not too far off the highway on public land, but five days minimum for a location where you would have to backpack in to a remote location you were considering.  Deal in one day units.  Calculate the ratio of the value of the location divided by its minimum time commitment amount.  The ratio expresses the relative importance of each unit of time spent on that location.  This sounds, and is, simple. 

Given the example, here is the algorithm:  Examine the column that indicates the minimum time needed for the alternative and put a line through any that exceeds the overall time constraint of 14 days for this example, which is none on this first pass.  For the remaining items select the item with the highest value ratio, in this case it is A, and subtract its minimum from the overall constraint.  Selecting A, you would subtract 3 from 14 leaving 11 as a constraint to enter the next cycle.  The list is examined again and the highest remaining value ratio is selected.  The process continues until one either runs out of items to select or exhausts the time constraint.  In this example, the A, B, C, D, and G are selected.  The sum of values equals 18 and is the highest number that can be obtained, within the established time constraint.  The algorithm is simple yet it yields the same solution as if you were to conduct the goal programming solution on a computer.  The real payoff is in reaching the numbers to enter the table.  Once the numbers are known, the procedure, while technically sophisticated is very simple to calculate.  This technique is referred to as the Knapsack problem in textbooks on quantitative methods for business applications. 

A technique using ranks

If you are going to rank locations, one method of arriving at the ranks is the alternate ranking method.  The names of the sites are listed on one side of a page and the person doing the evaluation chooses the best choice in an overall figure of merit, crosses the name off the left side column and puts that name on the right side of the paper at the top of the list.  The person then selects the name of the poorest choice in overall merit, crosses it off the left list and puts it at the bottom of the right list.  The procedure continues until all the names have been assigned to the right column.  What is especially desirable about this method is that you might be only required to come up with the best and worst of the bunch.  That is where the important decisions are made.  The rest would fall into a group in the middle.  If you have success at the first choice you would stay there, if not you have a suggestion as to where to try next. 

In the previous example, examine the list and pick your favorite for saving.  In the list you liked both A and B.  You have to choose between them.  You have a pool remaining of six more choices and a high anchor.  Pick out your first choice for deleting.  You now have five items in the pool and a bottom anchor.  Repeat the cycle and you will have two keepers, two for deleting, and three in the middle pool.  These last few are probably the ones that give you trouble. 

You have your two top and two bottom anchors so now use a different technique.  Consider how the two at the top are similar and how is that different from the two at the bottom.  Then, how are the two at the bottom similar and how is that different from the two at the top.  In this way, you will begin to structure the decision space.  Those evaluative dimensions of meaning for you reflect your preferences and are used to redefine the remaining items of the original list of alternatives.  The combination of the two techniques will provide you with an action statement.  If you decide to eliminate two from further consideration you will know which ones, and your understanding about the structure of your decision evaluation will help you to decide which of those in the middle to part with if that should also be the case.  You also have an evaluative guide for future site selection. 

Several people can combine judgments to pick a location using a ranks table.  Ranks are especially useful where there is the requirement to make a decision acceptable to several people.  It should be noted that there is no procedure that can guarantee that the ranks are correct, only that there is a way to check consistency and to make a decision.  In this example I have set up a table where three people (X, Y, and Z) have ranked six possible locations, which I provided, on their judgment of overall suitability.  I add to the table a sum of the ranks after I collect their scores.  Since the low scores are considered better (i.e., you give a rank of 1 to your highest choice) then the best possible sum would be 3 from the three rankers.  The worst would be a 6 from each of them, for a total sum of ranks of 18 for the poorest site.  In this example assume the scores range from 8 to 14.  Sites A and F are tied for best and B is the poorest.  As a team you will have to decide whether to go with A or F.  Perhaps flip a coin to decide.  A neutral may be a better choice than one that already has something noticeably wrong with it and is disliked by at least one ranker.  In the table F might be considered better than A because nobody thought F was the poorest.  If you are person X and you have only sought the advice of others you could go with your choice of A.  If you are person Z you would go with F for the same reason. 

Several people combine judgments to pick a location using a best idea approach

Closely related is a technique that does not allow verbal exchange between the members but they do know who each other are.  In terms of number of ideas, uniqueness of ideas, and quality of ideas, research has found non-interacting groups to be better in performance than those that interact and spend the same amount of time on the problem.  The fact is that interacting groups inhibit creativity.  The process structure of this technique tolerates non-conforming ideas, minority opinions, and conflicting philosophies.  During the critical phase when problem dimensions are being explored, elaborate and evaluative interactions are avoided. 

The technique requires more time to be devoted to idea generation and less time to idea evaluation, producing more high quality ideas.  It forces equal participation among members.  Each participant has the time and opportunity to think ideas through and record each idea, producing high quality problem centered ideas.  By not allowing evaluative discussion during the listing and recording steps, the structure eliminates the problem of getting stuck on one train of thought for long periods.  Eliminating discussion during the idea generation stage reduces arguments over semantics.  The structure precludes premature closure and allows the search for more and better solutions. 

The first step is to give participants an idea of where this is going.  Tell them the problem that they should think about ahead of the start of the procedure.  In this case you want to choose one best place to vacation first.  The silent generation of ideas in writing is a major step in the technique.  Then a structured sharing of ideas takes place.  The team does not have to meet in a location.  This can all be done by email.  The first person to send you a response is designated A then additional participants take the letters B to whatever as their responses are collected.  Each person in turn states as a declarative statement his/her one best idea.  These ideas are collected by you and you maintain the record of the responses.  There is no discussion.  The complete list is now fed back to all participants and is examined, in order, for clarification only if necessary.  Then each participant in private ranks the priority of the choices down the list in his/her column and the ranks are then added across the rows.  The simple sum of ranks then determines the group’s final answer.  The lowest score is the best. 

Some conclusions about the structured nature of the technique are that high quality ideas tend to result probably because each group member is required to share his/her best idea.  There is a high degree of task concentration because of the low opportunity for social interaction.  Generally there is a good accomplishment of the task with low administrative time, cost, or preparation.  This technique benefits by group involvement but without the group spending actual time discussing the issues. 

Group decision on a time limit to be at a site

One technique has become popular for forecasting a time limit.  We will use it here to have team members judge how long they should stay at the site before judging it to be non-productive.  No decision technique will ever be able to predict the future completely but this technique seems to be as good a crystal ball as is currently available.  The technique has many variations.  The group to make the judgment is assembled.  They do not have to be face to face; this can be done by email.  Each person is asked to make an anonymous prediction on the number of hours they will need to be at a location before they get bored and want to leave.  Collect and tally the answers, and feedback the distribution to the participants.  Let us say that half thought the 8th day, the other half thought it would be later.  In the next step, each member of the panel gets a composite feedback of the way the others answered the question.  This is all anonymous.  After consideration of the feedback, each panelist is asked to make a new estimate.  The results are tallied and the distribution reported for feedback.  The median is predicted to be the best estimate by this procedure and it gives the team a realistic target for when they should expect to consider moving on.  You should note the range of estimates on the first and second round, and note whether the median changed. 

Keeping the responses of panel members anonymous eliminates the problem of embarrassment or saving face and encourages the panel members to be more flexible, and to benefit possibly from the feedback knowledge of the estimates of the other members.  This procedure avoids the common problem that occurs in an interacting group where the participants may be more concerned with defending their stated positions than they are with making a good decision.  The main advantage here is that you have a time envelope that everyone understands. 

When others methods fail, try consensus and synergy

Almost everyone has been a member of discussion groups whose outcomes were less than expected.  Consensus seeking is harder work than formalistic modes of decision making.  The investment in energy expended to make the group function effectively without wasting time can have a dramatic payoff.  The ideal situation is to reach a consensus when all other methods have failed.  The way to reach consensus is to have the team members present rationale for their opinions but avoid arguing for individual judgments if it is only the pride of authorship that is speaking.  Tell them that if they hear new evidence and rationale that persuades them to change their opinions, feel free to do so, but avoid changing simply to avoid conflict.  If they find that they have reached an impasse, they should set aside the issue temporarily and try one of the other possible solutions.  They should avoid techniques such as majority vote, averaging, or trading opinions on one item for the other opinions on another item to reach a solution.  Try to view differences of opinion as an opportunity for covering new ground not as a threat to group action. 

The success of the group in using the information provided by the individual members is known as synergy.  Synergy means looking at what appears to be opposite or paradoxical in terms of its combinations rather than its differences.  It is looking for meaningful relationships between what are often thought of as dichotomous elements of a situation.  A synergistic outcome is greater than the sum of the parts of the group.  Synergy is operationally defined as the ability of the group to fuse the divergent views of its members and to be more accurate in decision making than even the best decision maker within the group could be.  Synergy is a group variable and not a score for an individual.  A group has synergy only when the group is closer to the correct answers than even the best decision maker within the group.  Some would argue that unless the group could achieve synergy they should not do group decision making at all.  If one person has the right answer just ask him or her. 

Summary

Making vacation decisions is difficult because of the amount of information that might bear on making a very good decision.  Hidden agendas are a very real part of group activity.  Sometimes you can see the right answer, it is obvious to you, but those who have to do the work and carry out your instructions or lend participation do not see it.  Therefore, having a group discussion can be one way of clarifying the issues.  Vacation planning especially when you have teenagers involved in the process is a chance for both of you to learn.  Hopefully, what you learn prepares you better for planning another vacation in the future.