Traditional management training primarily uses case studies. While effective, this approach doesn’t capture the high-pressure environment managers experience. The modern manager must make both small and large decisions at a heightened rate and often under duress. What managers need to learn is how these decisions impact their lives and the companies they work for incrementally, leading ultimately to excellence or mediocrity.
Is there a way to teach mid-level and senior managers how to be successful decision makers and exceptional leaders in extreme conditions? Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company, has attempted to do this with its recently launched Business Masterclass program.
Built around a “total immersion” concept, the Business Masterclass reinforces five topics routinely taught in other Novartis learning programs: dealing with complex situations; stakeholder management; performance management; strategic decision making; and working with people.
Total Immersion Via Simulation
Novartis found that the traditional case study method of management training, although grounded in real-world examples, falls a bit short, so it wanted to explore ways to make its lessons more pertinent. This class simulates the day-to-day energy drain most managers experience while being expected to perform high-functioning duties. The company sought to merge the foundational truths of a good case study with the real world.
In creating this program, Novartis first replaced its notion of “class” and “teacher” with that of active participation in a reality miniseries starring an employee as a member of a team at a health care company. The class consists of 30 to 35 people broken up into teams of five to seven. Through a computer simulated real-world office environment — complete with a boss, urgent calls and text messages, various interruptions and a general expect-the-unexpected melange of events — participants must make decision after decision either alone or with their fictional co-workers.
Facilitators are there to guide the teams, but never to solve problems. Also, add in the fact that each team is in competition with each other. Just as in the real world, there are winners and losers in these simulations.
Decisions Under Pressure
The objective is to prepare managers for leading and making decisions in urgent situations to ensure superior business performance. Leaders are required to perform in an environment that is continually changing, sometimes mired in crisis, and getting more complex every day. So, depending on how these incremental decisions play out, managers end up with a result. Whether the manager knows it or not, he or she has built a “decision tree.” The question becomes, “How did I get here? And, is this the best spot?”
Prior to the class, students prepare by reading two small background stories about the simulations and are told that they will be expected to deliver a presentation on the final day. Class is held during a four-day period and concludes with each team’s presentation. Instruction is facilitator-style using internal and external coaches. Participants include mid- and senior-level managers with previous management training from all areas of the company, who are nominated for the class by their superiors.
The simulated work scenario they step into is culled from the real health care business world. Although it’s an artificial story, the business challenges are realistic. Besides using computer simulations, employees are also engaged in role-playing and coaching with respect to team dynamics. And, while the coaches provide guidance, they are not there to solve problems.
Lessons Learned From Execution
Computer simulation is IT- and labor-intense. The class contains many small simulation subsets. With the addition of coaches and facilitators, it can be an intense undertaking requiring a lot of resources.
Nevertheless, Novartis believes the time is right for this program, given that learning styles have changed dramatically with the global adoption of interactive technology in everyday life. In the end, the Business Masterclass aims to prepare managers to lead and make the best decisions possible in urgent situations. Every day has its share of crises — a flood of important phone calls and emails or the conference system not working when a meeting is starting — and in the midst of this environment, an enterprise needs to remain a high-performing, competitive organization. That is the point of this program’s total immersion concept — confronting the unexpected.
Frank Waltmann is head of corporate learning at Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.