Not real life, but real
Simulation isn't just for your minecraft obsessed 9 year old. Organisations keen to learn regularly use imitations of a real world situations, (or processes, products, systems etc.) and encourage teams to interact, experiment with and respond to them in order to improve.
When done well, simulation based learning has been shown to improve learning and performance more quickly and more effectively than other training methodologies (Woolliscroft, 1987; Smithburger, 2012). Simulations work because they integrate cognitive learning with emotion and action (Hofstede, Caluwé & Peters 2010) in a social environment. Well-designed simulations reflect the real world. They require players to adopt a multidisciplinary approach; bringing different types of knowledge together to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities. It is the fact that players need to take action based on their decision making; to test out the impact of choices, which is where simulations come into their own. Behaviour and social interactions, not knowledge or insight drive simulations. The immersive nature of the simulation coupled with immediate feedback from action (or inaction) allows players to experiment, collaborate, test, innovate - in other words it allows players to play.
In one of the very few papers on debriefing simulation games Peters and Vissers classify simulations according to four core objectives: training, assessment, exploration, and research. They suggest that each one poses specific requirements for debriefing (Peters and Vissers 2004). This is helpful in recognising that for skills development to be effective there needs to be clearly articulated learning outcomes (Issenberg et al, 2005) whereas if the objective is to test readiness for a large emergency for example, the facilitator should be aware that there may be unexpected learning or even unconscious learning. (such as socialisation into the organisation’s culture) which can be powerful and may need to be explored.
Simulations provide rare and valuable opportunities to ‘get into the shoes’ of other people and see the process, product or service from another point of view. I recently worked on an emergency response simulation where we asked the group to create a paper design for a food and household goods distribution. We then created a prototype and tested it in simulation. An experienced humanitarian worker who was part of the simulation team, taking the role of an IDP (internally displaced person) was profoundly affected by her insights into how it felt to be shepherded through a system. The experience highlighted for her the link between provision of clear information and dignity.
In his book Serious Play, Michael Schrage focuses on simulation’s role in innovation and organisational learning. He raises important questions for anyone running simulations, to be explicit about who the simulation is actually for; who will benefit? Schrage warns us that the organisational process or model that is being simulated is not neutral or devoid of meaning but is “a battlefield on which power relationships are enacted” (p158 Schrage 2000). Once the simulation is in action, technical problems are usually easy to solve, the challenge is to resolve conflicts that arise as a result of how the model or process is managed. Simulations will highlight where there are (legitimate) disagreements about organisational trade-offs that need to be made more explicit. Running a simulation means managing these relationships and power dynamics.
This can work well. A recent simulation I facilitated; to test decision making in the event of a global emergency, demonstrated the value of having the legal team in the room from the onset. Even in the initial chaos, their collaboration saved the organisation time, money and reputation.
Simulations are effective if designed and managed well but it is worth heeding Schrage’s warning that “simulations can have a bigger impact on the organisation that is does on the problem it is designed to solve”.
Hofstede, G. J., Caluwé, L. de. & Peters, V. (2010) Why Simulation Games Work—In Search of the Active Substance: a synthesis. Simulation & Gaming 41(6) 824–843
Issenberg, S.B., McGaghie, W.C., Petrusa, E.R., Gordon, D.L. & Scalese, R.J. (2005). Features and Uses of High-Fidelity Medical Simulation that Lead to Effective Learning: a BEME systematic review. Med Teach 2005 27: 10–28
Peters, V. A. M. & Vissers, G. A. N. (2004). A simple classification model for debriefing simulation games. Simulation & Gaming 35(1) 70-84
Schrage, M. (2000). Serious Play; how the world’s best companies simulate to innovate. Harvard Business School Press
Smithburger, P.L., Kane-Gill, S.L., Ruby, C.M. & Seybert, A.L. (2012). Comparing Effectiveness of 3 Learning Strategies: simulation-based learning, problem-based learning and standardized patients. Simul Health 7(3) 141-6
Woolliscroft, J.O., Calhoun, J.G., Tenhaken, J.D., Judge, R.D. Harvey (1987). The Impact of Cardiovascular Teaching Simulator on Student Skill Acquisition. Med Teach 9(1) 53-57
Better than sliced bread
A couple of years ago a colleague commented (in an email) that the introduction of a new process in our team was “the best thing since sliced bread”1. A quick google search revealed that sliced bread was invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder in 1928, and so started a lively online discussion as to whether the new process for sign off really was better than, say… penicillin, the microchip, birth control, laser technology, colour television, crocs, radar or cheese and onion flavoured potato chips.
The conversation was a fun afternoon diversion and it highlighted the sheer number of new technologies introduced in the last hundred years which have fundamentally changed the way we relate with one another and with the world around us.
“We are living in times with an exponential rate of change.”
How many times have you read or heard that? It seems self-evident, particularly in light of the discussion above … but is it?
There is a huge amount written about managing change in organisations, much of it extremely helpful. Implicit in most of the models however, is the idea that change is an event or an episode; with a beginning middle and end. Jeanie Duck in her book The Change Monster2 talks about the five stages of managing change: 1) things stagnate, 2) leaders make a decision to change, 3) leaders announce the change (new reporting lines, alternative assignments, different process etc.), 4) there is determination to work out the change and make it stick, to 5) fruition, where the tangible benefits of the change are experienced. John Kotter’s eight step process for leading change is another well used model for a project management approach to change.
Both see change as a disruption to normality. Underlying this is the assumption that the organisational life is static, leaders need to disrupt this stability in order to drive change and then once the change is enforced, things will settle down and 'get back to normal'.
It is no wonder that in a world where there is one episode of change, followed immediately by another and then another, that individuals and teams feel exhausted, with little time to reflect or learn from the last change. It can feel like there is no time to get proper work done before you are having to focus on the next period of change.
Is there a way to conceptualised change differently? Instead of seeing change as an interruption to the ‘norm’ of organisational life, what would it be like if we viewed our organisations and teams as dynamic evolving entities which are always in a state of changing and adapting? Change therefore doesn't need to be driven, it just needs to be nurtured. Rather than you implementing a change in your team, would it be different if you supported your team to incubate change instead?
Jim Grieve in his in depth review of the origins of organisational development3, claims that organisations are currently experiencing:
Approaching change differently needs a different sort of leadership. Leadership that is able to be steady and not have the answer; that focuses on building capacity for creative conversations and is prepared for change that is less predictable but is transformational.
1 An English language idiom meaning, it is a wonderful thing
2 Duck, J. D. 2002. The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change. Three Rivers Press.
3 Grieve, J. 2000. Introduction; the origins of organisational development. Journal of Management Development, 19; 5 p345 - 447