Simulations are a great way to learn, but they have to be used correctly.In over 30 years' experience, we have seen that simulations are a great tool to help develop people. They are fun, engaging, interactive and help people understand concepts faster and easier vs. other methods of learning such as case studies, presentations or reading materials.
However, we have also seen that a few key ingredients must be present to make the experience successful. By successful, we mean making sure that the learning takes place and is applicable for the participants, whether on innovation, commercial excellence or for leadership development.
Below are a few ways to avoid some common pitfalls.
The customization trap
A common question when we start talking to potential sponsors about using a simulation for their audience is whether we can develop a customized simulation, that represents exactly what their company or audience does. Of course, that is doable. But when speaking about customization, the better question is why do you want to customize and finding the right balance between mirroring exactly the real world vs. creating a learning environment.
Even if you create a great simulation, it will never be a 100% reflection of the real world. Also, we believe that creating a fictitious environment where participants do not bring their existing knowledge of the marketplace is better for learning: everyone starts from the same point, whether you are new to the company or have 30 years of experience. It also forces people to go back to the basics: who is the customer, what do they want, how do they want it, what price, what is the best go to market strategies, etc.
Of course, customizing exercises and application around the simulation is then important to ensure transfer of learning. But finding the right balance between making it real for participants and recreating reality is critical.
Complexity vs. simplicity: the answer is always in the learning objective
A related question is how complex the simulation should be: are we trying to stretch participants? If so, do we have a lot of decisions and encourage people to go above and beyond their comfort zone? While this idea looks appealing, we have found that making it too complex can create frustration and defeat the purpose.
When we create a new program, we always need to ask ourselves what is the learning objective of this particular exercise or decision point. Sometimes, keeping things simple is best as we can link a learning objective to a particular decision point. That is especially critical during the debriefing part, which is our next point.
Debriefing the simulated exercise in order to link to the real world
Finally, a key element is not even included in the simulation itself but related to what happens after each round, or simulated year. Debriefs, where participants look at the results from the previous round and can compare to other teams are key to bringing in the competitive element. Of course, everyone wants to know if they have won. But more importantly, they are critical moments to connecting the dots.
Connecting the dots with the real world, with the learning objectives and with the overall program objectives. This can also be a good moment to illustrate what can be similar in the simulation to the real world but also what can be different and why it may not be part of the simulated environment.
Having a senior facilitator prepare and present the debrief is critical. That person is then best suited to interact with the teams to talk about some of those critical learning points. We find that the best debriefs are interactive ones, where the facilitators can ask questions to the teams about their choices and what led them to it. What was the discussion? Why did they go one way vs. another? What was the process and the rationale? Ultimately, the decision is not even the most important but how the team got to that decision.
If you are ready to add simulations to your learning and development program, or have any questions, please contact one of our consultants by filling out our contact us page.