How do you ensure that a simulation game actually produces transformative learning as well as being a fun, engaging experience for the participants? Over the last few years we have been evolving a proven “game engagement process” around which we run our games which last anything from an hour to a couple of days with groups of between 10 and 25 participants playing in 3 or 4 teams.The process which is summarised in the diagram below uses best practices in experiential learning, informal learning, balanced scorecards and facilitation to guarantee that insight, learning and behaviour change are the outcomes of simulation games. We have learned from experience that all of the 8 steps are vital for games and missing or neglecting any one of the steps (e.g. to save time) risks significantly reducing the value of the learning results produced.
Step 1: Team Briefing ensures that the overall game and each round thereof are put into a meaningful business context and imbued with a sense of seriousness that “this is not a game”. This step is supported by off-sim business briefing materials which frame the game and update the players on what has changed in the game world between each round (“Market Updates”). A vital aspect of this step is also to set and where necessary clarify the game objectives and exactly how success will be measured (“targets”).
Step 2: Mental Models is one of the most critical steps in setting up a game for success. The purpose of the type of simulation games we run is to challenge participants’ mental models about what it takes to be a high performer in a specific business or leadership area. You just can’t do this unless you first take the time to “surface” participants’ mental models (a key experiential learning technique). This is easily done by inviting them to draw out simple “cause and effect” models linking the decisions in the game to the results they think will be produced. If you neglect this step there is a serious risk that the participants will try and “game” the simulation by guessing its underpinning rules. Playing a game like this, just to win, is unfortunately of limited value terms of learning and behaviour change.
Step 3: Team Game Plans is where each team playing the game look at their targets and then based on their shared mental models come up with their strategy or game plan for excelling. It is important that the teams are encouraged to think of the simulation as running real business area or project and not just a game as this will help them interpret any ambiguities (which there always are) in their objectives and targets in a more powerful way.
Step 4: Team Discussions. Once the teams have established their game plans they need to decide on decisions for the particular game round which make sense in the light of their stated strategies. This is where facilitation is crucial as somebody needs to ensure that discussions are inclusive, comprehensive and that decisions are based on evidence as well as player’s gut-feel or prior knowledge. The facilitator also needs to shut down low value conversations (e.g. how do we win this game) and amplify high value conversations (e.g. what would we do in our real business in this situation).
Step 5: Team Decisions is where the teams enter their decisions into the simulation and hit the big red button to see what results they produce. It is important to record the decisions and their rationale in the team game book to enable the participants and facilitators to conduct any necessary post-mortems later. It’s amazing how different team members recollections of the decisions they made can be if nobody has kept a hard copy record!
Step 6: Team Results Analysis is where the team review the results they just achieved for the round and see where this leaves them in terms of their targets and what changes in priority or strategy they may have to consider in the next round. Well-designed games provide a dashboard of indicators which offer a mix of laggingindicators (e.g. financial results) and leading indicators (e.g. organizational health) which give early warnings of likely future business results.
Step 7: Learning Review is where the team and its participants capture learning whilst it is still fresh. Team learning can be captured by placing sticky notes on aLearning Board each round which record new team insights (typically things done well, badly and surprises). Learning boards allow teams to learn from the insight gained by other teams and this should be encouraged as a very effective Informal Learning technique. Individual insights should also be recorded between rounds as this is ultimately how the game should conclude with individuals, not teams, making commitments around behaviour changes and KPIs impacted back in the business. It is important to remember that there are always 3 domains of potential learning in any team game:
• The Subject Area (e.g., Change Management or Running a B2C Business)
• Team Dynamics (how are we working as a team)
• Individual Dynamics (how am a working as an individual in a team)
Step 8: Team Results Review is where each team’s performance is compared using a running Leader Board which records the key performance measures through which the different teams will be judged. This should summarise the game dashboards and contain a mix of financial and non-financial indicators. A well-managed Leader Board professionally shared and revealed will create great competitive tension. This provides an essential balance to the sense of collaboration in collective learning. In our experience the Leader Board should always be the last thing in the round (and at the end of the game) as it then sets the teams up nicely for starting the next round. Also if a Leader Board is done too early or is too dominant in a round it makes teams reluctant to share their learning as the sense of competing and winning can take over.
In summary, if you take the time to carefully follow these eight steps in how you use team simulation games they will not only be extremely exciting and fun but more importantly will deliver the transformative learning and behaviour change which is the real reason you decided to run them in the first place!