Simulations engage learners in meaningful experiences that allow them to actively apply learning to real decision-making situations. But building an effective sim requires that instructors cede control and embrace divergent results.
How do I apply what I have learned? Every faculty member and leadership development professional has been confronted with that question by a skeptical listener at the end of a presentation or case discussion.
Most of us have a stock answer to that question for the particular topic we are teaching, but it does not always satisfy our audience. Occasionally, someone will get right to the heart of the matter by asking, “I understand what worked or didn’t work for the organization in the case study, but can I really build my judgment and leadership skills simply by reading about what others have done and discussing their approaches?”
In short, managers and students want to actively practice key skills and competencies as part of a leadership development program. They want us to take active learning to a whole new level. Active learning certainly beats passive learning, but are case studies sufficiently active? Can we enrich the experiential learning that takes place in our organizations and thereby enable people to improve by actively practicing the art of leadership?
It didn’t take me long as a young teacher to learn that I didn’t want to put students in a listen-only mode in my classroom. When students were actively engaged in discussion and working through problems, as with the case method at Harvard Business School, they were more motivated and invested in learning. As their instructor, I could assess their ability to synthesize the information from cases and give them feedback in real time.
However, in working with both MBA students and participants in executive education, I started to think about adding another dimension. Could we go beyond reading and talking about what the executives should have done in a case study and create a mechanism to give the students more real-life experience in decision making, teamwork and problem solving? How could we put the student in the case so they might experience what an executive saw? How can they be forced to react to the feedback he was getting minute to minute as he faced a challenge?
These questions led me to experiment with simulations, in which students use online technology to get information, make decisions and get immediate feedback on their choices and those of their colleagues in a particular program or class. Simulations bring climbing Mount Everest to life as a study in leadership, teams and decision making.
A multimedia case study about the Columbia space shuttle disaster teaches critical communication skills. In the Columbia multimedia experience, students are assigned the role of one of six team members at NASA. They experience the first eight days of Columbia’s final mission as that individual did. They listen to re-enactments of meetings in which the individuals participated, read their e-mails, review phone messages received and examine other data that the individuals examined during the mission.
Students do not see the data to which other individuals at NASA had access — they only see their character’s view of the world. When students come to class, they must role-play what they think happened at the critical mission management team meeting that took place on Flight Day 8. We conduct the role-play in two ways: first as they think the NASA managers and engineers actually behaved and then as they believe the people should have behaved. The role-plays put them on the spot, and they truly live in the shoes of those managers in a high-stakes situation.
The Columbia and Everest simulations are just two of a growing group of business situations and challenges that simulations are bringing to life in organizations and schools around the country. Simulations are proving to be powerful teaching tools with both students and executives. However, it is important to understand that these are not info-tainment games designed for passive viewing. Good simulations allow participants to create and own a powerful personal learning experience if they make the emotional and intellectual investment. Instructors do not just stick students in front of computer screens to play with a sim. It takes up-front investment to frame the goals for students, identify the relevant content and then energetically direct a discussion that identifies the core concepts.
A good sim can do some things that other teaching methods do not. The experience takes the participants out of their normal element, and as cognitive neuroscience researchers have discovered, novelty spurs the brain. The sims reinforce the power of experiential learning. It is one thing for people to read a case and say, “This is what I would do if I were CEO.” However, as research has shown, people often say one thing and do another when faced with a real situation. With a sim, we can put people in an exercise, see how they behave and then give them instant feedback so they can assess the consequences of their actions and reflect on how they might improve.
Sims are not just for the students raised on video games. When I first wrote the Everest case, some colleagues thought teaching leadership by discussing decision making on Mount Everest would never fly, particularly with an executive audience. That could not be further from the truth. Groups of executives connect with the Everest story, and they see the parallels to many business situations.
For instance, as they discuss the decision not to turn back from the summit — a decision that could have saved the climbers’ lives — executives often point out that they have failed to cut their losses in crucial situations. They will say, “Look I’ve made a mistake like that; I’ve failed to ‘turn around’ and refused to cut my losses on a bad decision.”
When I first developed the Columbia multimedia experience, I taught the case to a group of executives from a pharmaceutical company. They recently had witnessed a crisis at their main rival, when the company failed to pull a drug quickly off the market after safety concerns arose. Immediately, they saw the parallels between drug safety decisions that they had to make all the time and the safety decisions confronting the NASA managers.
Preparing an executive group to work with a sim is important. You have to frame it for them and explain why it is valuable and why they should take a chance to engage in a rather unorthodox learning experience. It you do not get them ready for an unfamiliar learning experiment, they might say, “Oh, we’re just playing a game.” It’s important to note that learning objectives come first, and technology simply is the enabler. Technology might simply help us teach in a different way and achieve something that we otherwise could not do.
With the Everest sim, the technology allowed us to put participants in teams, in which members interacted around a set of decisions to climb the mountain. We embedded a series of challenges in which participants have to engage in good decision making around issues involving the health of a climber, weather on the mountain and supplemental oxygen required for the final summit push.
Each climber possesses different pieces of information, but no one had the entire picture. In addition, each member has a different goal and a different reason for being on the mountain. As a result, each team has asymmetric private information and somewhat asymmetric goals, meaning they have built-in conflict, much like most teams at work. They have to grapple with the challenge of dispersed information and conflicting objectives as they try to solve tough problems. Powerful research shows groups do not discuss privately held information very well. Instead, they talk about the commonly shared information. Consequently, poor decisions are made.
At the end of the exercise, the simulation technology allows us to quickly see how each team and each team member performed. We also ask the participants to complete surveys about team effectiveness and the group decision process. The immediate feedback enables us to compare and contrast experiences during our debriefing, which drives a vigorous dialogue and debate about various leadership approaches.
People don’t like feedback from a boss, of course, but in this feedback, they see the results of their actions within minutes. They can reflect and adjust their behavior. It’s not like work in that the consequences are not as substantial. However, it does play to their competitive instinct. They get deeply involved, but they don’t have a huge fear of making mistakes. They are more open to talking about their mistakes than they would be in a real work environment.
There is a learning curve for instructors who work with sims. When you give a lecture, you have a lot of control, and there is little unpredictability. However, when you use a sim, you have much less control. You set it up, the students have two hours to run it, and then you have an hour to debrief. You have a few minutes to look at the data, and the results are not going to be the same every time.
Thus, it can be more work at first to teach with a sim because you have to be ready for all these different paths with different personalities and skills in the room each time. That variance allows you to compare and contrast the results among various individuals and teams. Divergent results provide fodder for discussion and learning. You cannot have a formulaic lesson plan. The worst thing you can do after people have gone through a sim is to put them through a rigid, preordained discussion.
If you don’t let participants talk about their experiences and compare their assessments, you stifle learning. Thus, there is a fixed cost in getting yourself ready to teach through simulation. Once you do it, you get a long-term payoff. Whatever the content, whether it is marketing or operations or leadership, sims are natural experiments in group process. While you might have a primary objective of teaching about marketing, you inevitably will have an opportunity to teach about team dynamics and managerial decision making. Every sim, in essence, becomes a lesson in leadership.
What will you learn through simulations? Will you come away with a set of answers on how to act in a specific situation? No, that is not the primary goal. You will learn how to make strategic decisions rather than coming away with a set of prepackaged solutions to various management problems.
Management guru Peter Drucker once said: “The most common source of mistakes in management decisions is the emphasis on finding the right answer rather than the right question.” Through simulations, we constantly are searching to build students’ capabilities to identify the right questions to ask in an uncertain and dynamic situation. We want to help them become comfortable grappling with ambiguous data, as well as situations in which no single correct answer exists, much like the circumstances managers find themselves in everyday.
- 5 Forces Shaping the Future of HR
- Why ‘Leaders Eat Last’
- Leadership development should begin with “why” — and that’s usually not behavior change
- Change is incumbent on all of us
- Visions and missions — defining your value and purpose proposition
- The Reskilling Revolution versus the ‘clay layer’
- When the leader can’t return to the office