There is often a disconnect between our thinking and our actions. Simulations can help bridge the gap.<br /><br />The most interesting realization shared by participants at the conclusion of a simulation is that the key lessons they learned during the experience were things that they already knew: Implementers of change should be involved in the planning process; teams perform better with clearly defined objectives; having a clear vision helps to align functional interest.<br /><br />So, if participants already have the knowledge they need, why aren’t they acting on it? If they were, it’s doubtful their organizations would continue investing time and money in simulations and other development opportunities. <br /><br />The answer, and a key factor in the reason simulations result in significant learning and real behavior change, may stem from the theories of organizational and experiential learning theorist Chris Argyris. What we know — our espoused theories — does not always translate into what we do — our theories-in-use, according to him. This is especially true when situations are ambiguous, stressful or emotionally charged, as they often are in today’s fast-paced, high-stakes business environment. <br /><br />We all know that what we do — our behavior — affects how others regard us — our relationships. Common sense and research indicate that the ability to build and maintain good relationships is critical to leadership and team effectiveness. As a result, our relationships are often where our greatest learning and development challenges and opportunities can be found.<br /><br />Effective managers know this. A study by Discovery Learning Inc. revealed that when 3,000 midlevel managers participating in a leadership development program were asked about personal development goals, 37 percent said they selected goals related to being a better manager or administrator, while 67 percent said they selected goals related to building better relationships. <br /><br />Effective managers and leaders realize that when actions are taken without considering the people affected, we often weaken our relationships with the very people on whom we must depend to accomplish our objectives. <br /><br />This is common sense. We know this. Yet when pressed for time, we don’t always act on what we know — this is the disconnect between our thinking and our actions identified by Argyris, and this is where simulations can help.<br /><br /><strong>Bridging the Gap Between Knowing and Doing</strong><br />Simulations, when facilitated effectively, can help bridge the gap between what we know and what we do by allowing us to compress the “learning horizon.” The learning horizon, as described by organizational learning thought leader Peter Senge, is the time required to experience and then understand the consequences of our actions and behaviors. When we are dealing with complex problems in an environment with a lot of noise, the learning horizon may be extended so far that connection between action and consequence can be lost. <br /><br />This can be remedied with simulated learning. By compressing the learning horizon in a simulated learning experience, we effectively accelerate the time from action to consequence to learning. Simulations provide opportunities for reflection on current behaviors and experimentation with new ones in a compressed, safe and nonjudgmental environment. During a simulation, we get to step outside our comfort zone, try new ideas and behaviors and make mistakes — all without risk to our careers or the organization. <br /><br />Evidence of the power of discovery through personal experience for effectively learning and adopting new behaviors can be found in Benjamin Bloom’s theory of overlapping domains. This includes the cognitive domain, which encompasses our intellectual capability and ability to think — our knowledge; the affective domain, which includes our feelings, emotions and behavior — our attitudes; and the psychomotor domain, which includes our ability to physically perform what we’ve been taught — our skills. <br /><br />Bloom suggests that to be effective, especially in the work setting, where development efforts are intended to create behavior change, the learning experience must call on all three domains. In a simulation, attitudes, knowledge and skills are called into action as learners actively participate in situations involving the whole person. The best simulations challenge the heart as well as the head; this is not often the case in the traditional classroom training experience.<br /><br /><strong>Traditional Training vs. Simulation Facilitation</strong><br />In traditional training, teachers are responsible for transmitting specific content and information to the learners consistently and clearly. By contrast, simulation facilitators are responsible for leading learners in the discovery and exploration of new information and its value and relevance to the individual. Because the responsibilities are different, each role requires a different set of skills.<br /><br />While both the traditional trainer and the facilitator must be capable communicators to be effective, the facilitator also must be a keen observer, skilled questioner and good feedback coach who can handle conflict and is comfortable with ambiguity. These additional skills can be better understood by reviewing the simulation process.<br /><br /><strong>The Simulation Process</strong><br />Unlike traditional classroom training, which starts with participants sitting down to hear or see a presentation and ends when the instructor finishes delivering the content, a simulation is facilitated in two to four distinct activity phases that require the participation and interaction of the participants.<br /><br /><strong>Activity 1 (mandatory): </strong>Groups work through an assigned challenge or project together without help from the facilitator.<br /><br /><strong>Activity 2 (mandatory): </strong>A facilitated debrief provides the opportunity to share and reflect upon the experience and uncover significant findings together as a group.<br /><br /><strong>Activity 3 (optional): </strong>Peer and facilitator feedback offers the opportunity for participants to gain enhanced self-awareness of their behaviors in a group.<br /><br /><strong>Activity 4 (optional): </strong>Facilitator-led planning offers the opportunity for the group to consider how key lessons learned from the simulation will be transferred to the workplace. <br /><br /><strong>When Simulation Is More Effective Than Traditional Training</strong><br />Unlike the traditional training experience, a simulation models natural systems and human interactions. This makes simulations an effective intervention when learning objectives include a change in behavior, such as to: <br /><ul><li>Enhance self-awareness of a team of senior leaders.</li><li>Help a struggling team work together better and get more done.</li><li>Improve a group’s communication processes and its ability to handle constructive conflict. </li><li>Prepare a department to undergo significant change.</li><li>Assist a group with redesigning outdated work processes. </li><li>Conduct an assessment and diagnostic for a leadership development or organizational culture change process.</li></ul>In these situations, a simulation provides the context in which learners can gain the insights necessary to acquire the knowledge and self-awareness that lead to real changes in behavior. This takes traditional training one step further by actually having the participant transfer knowledge into action. The enhanced learning, retention and transfer of knowledge into action provided by a simulation are only possible through skillful facilitation of the discovery learning process.<br /><br />The primary roles of the facilitator are to help participants discover mental models and corresponding behavior that may be limiting them; test those models; and learn how to change or adjust corresponding behavior to maximize personal effectiveness in each situation. Senge defines mental models as “deeply held internal images of how the world works; images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.”<br /><br />Through the process of discovery learning, each participant has an individualized learning experience that will make the most significant difference to him or her. Effectively facilitating managers through this individualized process of discovery requires a specialized skill set:<br /><br /><strong>Capable communicator: </strong>To help participants fully engage in a simulation and get the most out of the experience, the facilitator must utilize good communication skills throughout the process. Simulations are designed to provide limited information initially so as to provide participants the opportunity to tackle ambiguous assignments. It’s also important to make sure that participants understand instructions, so quality, not quantity, of communication by the facilitator is key.<br /><br /><strong>Keen observer: </strong>The facilitator must observe and take note of what’s happening with each individual and the group as a whole throughout the entire simulation process. These observations will guide the facilitator in the debrief process where learning is identified and reinforced. The facilitator’s knowledge of the group and the learning objectives is invaluable for good observation. Facilitators must resist the urge to intervene when participants are slow to get started or struggling to succeed because anything that happens in a simulation is a part of the overall learning experience, and intervention can interfere with valuable learning. <br /><br /><strong>Skilled questioner: </strong>The art of asking discussion-provoking questions is critical to facilitating an effective debrief, which determines the success of a simulation. The main goal of the debrief process is to help participants begin to understand the mental models and assumptions that frame their view of the world and may be limiting effectiveness. This understanding is often the catalyst of learning that contributes to improved future performance. <br /><br />Good questions help tie the group’s ideas together and push the group members when they are avoiding critical issues. The facilitator navigates a tightrope throughout the process — challenging a group to discuss the “elephant in the room” while maintaining a supportive and safe learning environment. This is analogous to trying to unravel a knotted ball of string. If you pull a piece of the string and there is resistance and you continue to pull, the knot gets tighter. When you pull or ask questions and meet with resistance, simply move to another question. Eventually, you find the piece of string or the question that unravels the knot. <br /><br />It may take several questions to get a group to engage in a sensitive discussion. Silence is sometimes the initial response to debrief questions. A skilled facilitator will allow the group to sit with the silence before rushing on to the next question. Silence itself is an effective tool, and if the facilitator appears comfortable waiting for a response, someone will usually weigh in and a discussion will ensue. <br /><br />If a group presses the facilitator to share his or her observations, the effective facilitator continues to use good questions to help the group members discover the observed findings for themselves. If a key finding remains unmentioned by the group, a facilitator may choose to share that observation at the end of the debrief session, but only if there is sufficient discussion time available.<br /><br /><strong>Feedback coach: </strong>Some simulations include the opportunity for participants to receive behavioral feedback from their peers and their facilitator. Feedback is usually delivered after the debrief session has been completed. The facilitator has the important opportunity to coach participants in a feedback model that they can take back to the workplace. An effective facilitator sets up the logistics for the feedback process, models the way to give positive and constructive behavioral feedback, and carefully monitors the session to ensure that each participant is given equal time to receive feedback. <br /><br /><strong>Ability to handle conflict: </strong>Participants’ initial reactions to a simulation experience are varied. Some are excited; others are a bit skeptical; and some can be completely resistant. Facilitators must recognize obvious and not-so-obvious resistance and handle it in a nonjudgmental way that encourages resisters to engage for the good of the group. Handling resistance openly and early usually results in full participation and also may provide a valuable learning experience. <br /><br />Once any initial resistance is addressed, participants usually engage to the point where the simulation begins to feel quite real. As a result, tension can result and conflicts may arise. The effective facilitator refrains from intervening — to do so could interfere with a valuable learning opportunity. Instead, he or she continues in the observer role and allows the participants to handle the conflict themselves. If the simulation itself is being compromised by the conflict, the facilitator should intervene in the least intrusive way.<br /><br /><strong>Comfort with ambiguity: </strong>What happens during the simulation can be as varied as the group itself; that’s why the learning is so individualized. Trainers accustomed to using a curriculum with specific objectives when designing and delivering a learning experience may find the ambiguity and unpredictability unsettling. While there may be specific objectives in a simulation experience, the way in which those objectives are attained is not within the facilitator’s immediate control, but rather left to the group to explore and discover. As a result, some objectives may not be attained, while other unidentified objectives may surface instead and be equally valuable.<br /><br />The simulation experience facilitates the discovery of mental models that affect behaviors and limit effectiveness. The individualized learning provided by an effectively facilitated simulation can help participants bridge the gap between what they know and what they do, resulting in accelerated learning, retention and transfer of knowledge into behavior that strengthens relationships and increases effectiveness.