Ken Thompson’s Golden Rules of Good Simulation Design

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated April 2017


From designing simulations for varying purposes for over twenty years I have accumulated my own little set of “Golden Rules”.

I share these dozen with you knowing that there are many more rules and issuing a warm welcome for you to extend my list with your own favourites!

Rule 1: Einstein’s Law: All models are wrong but some are useful

Rule 2: Machines can be faithfully simulated - sadly however organisations, people, culture and social structures are not machines

Rule 3: Past Behavior Rule: Beware of any simulations which cannot reproduce past behaviour (necessary for usefulness but not sufficient)

Rule 4: Some simulations produce forecasts but no simulation predicts the future

Rule 5: You can have realism or usefulness in models but usually not both (see Rule 1)

Rule 6: In simulation complexity reduction is the biggest challenge and abstraction is the best tool to help achieve this

Rule 7: A good simulation makes visible what is important - a poor simulation makes important what is visible

Rule 8: Requisite Complexity Rule: every unnecessary equation or variable in a simulation reduces its potential user base by 25% (credit to Corey Peck)

Rule 9: Clever don't count Rule: The value of any learning simulation is measured only by the new actionable insights it produces and not by anything else

Rule 10: The 7 Year Old Boy Rule: No graphical user interface on a simulation can ever compete with the human imagination (“Radio is like TV only with Radio the pictures are better”)

Rule 11: Dilemma-Based Design Rule: If you want to capture the absolute essence of any function don’t model its decisions model its central dilemmas.

Rule 12: Occams Razor Rule: if you have a choice of two simulation design options always go with the simplest one

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More about Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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