Let Your Managers Fail: Using Simulations for Real-World Management Practice

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Leadership development continues to be a crucial priority for organizations as demographic trends constrain the available talent pool.

Although the nature of leadership remains a fruitful area of academic research, the challenge talent development teams face is not simply “What should our organization’s leadership competencies be,” but “How do we develop those competencies?”

When it comes to leadership content, talent managers may choose from a wealth of options. But when it comes to learning methods, even with the advent of new learning technologies, satisfying solutions are rare. 

It isn’t difficult to understand why.

Leadership is not about insights or knowledge. Leadership is lived through relationships. Leadership competencies are, above all, interpersonal skills. And like any other skills, they must be acquired through practice.

However, unlike piano skills, for instance, where practice is mostly solitary and failures are harmless, practicing interpersonal skills is human resource-intensive, and mistakes can be highly uncomfortable, and even damaging to relationships. This tension – leadership competencies require practice, but practice opportunities are costly and hard to engineer – is the true challenge of leadership development.

No leadership competency model alone can resolve this tension.

In addition to the many learning approaches used to acquire knowledge about leadership – lectures, online and offline self-study, self-reflection exercises, leadership style assessments, etc. – the tried-and-true learning method used to actually permit practice of interpersonal skills is the role-play.

However, role-plays suffer from significant drawbacks: 

  • Their content – the topic of conversation between the role-players – is contrived.
  • They have no context: there are no repercussions to the role-play.
  • Finally, they place cognitive and emotional burdens on participants, requiring acting, imagination, and improvisation skills that are at best secondary to the leadership competencies.

Due to these burdens, many learners engage in role-plays only reluctantly, which is itself a barrier to learning. 

At the root of these problems is the fact that role-plays are divorced from a clear setting that provides the topics of conversation and in which repercussions occur.

One way to provide such a setting is to situate the role-plays within a business simulation.

Such a simulation should mirror relevant aspects of a real-world business and place participants into the kinds of relationships through which leadership operates. With content and context in place, the cognitive and emotional burdens on participants are significantly reduced.

A business simulation can provide a stage for role-plays that allows participants to transcend role-playing and instead engage in real leadership behaviors.

Such a simulation must be team-based in order to provide the web of relationships in which interpersonal leadership competencies are enacted. It may be competitive as well, both between different teams to drive engagement and benchmark success, and between collaborators to reflect the tensions and power struggles of the workplace.

Finally, the simulation must be facilitated by a leadership coach who can observe behaviors, call attention to them, and coach participants to improve.

Leadership Competency Models versus Leadership Development Methods

The past 50 years have been characterized by enormously fruitful research into leadership and its best practices: John Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard’s Situational Leadership, Ram Charan’s Leadership Pipeline, MIT’s Four Capabilities Leadership Framework, and Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s Leadership Challenge are just some of the many leadership competency models in the marketplace of ideas.

Many of these schools of thought more often complement rather than contradict each other. 

With this wide array of practices, one of the initial challenges of those in leadership development is defining a set of leadership competencies for their organization.

Many organizations collaborate with thought leaders and leadership consultants to devise competency models that align with organizational culture and values, drawing on various research-based frameworks as needed.

A second challenge lies in designing learning journeys for emerging leaders to develop any set of competencies. The number of pixels spilled over the question “Can leadership be learned?” testifies to the difficulty of this challenge.

A simple Internet search for the exact phrase “can leadership be taught” results in 184 scholarly articles alone! 

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Along with the majority of researchers in the leadership area, we believe that leadership competencies can be learned and improved. However, engineering learning journeys for emerging leaders is no trivial matter.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will follow Hersey and Blanchard’s definition of leadership: Leadership occurs any time one attempts to influence the behavior of an individual or group.

The fundamental insight here is that leadership is about leveraging relationships between people to pursue goals. Leadership competencies lie squarely in the interpersonal arena. 

As with any skill, practice makes perfect.

Creating a learning journey for emerging leaders ultimately requires engineering a framework for application and practice. Of course, the learning journey will involve other components as well.

Lectures and discussions about leadership competencies, self-reflection exercises, personality assessments, and one-on-one coaching can and should figure into a comprehensive leadership learning solution. But the real value occurs when emerging leaders practice their skills.

For leadership competencies, this means practice on real, live human beings.

Pre-Employment Leadership Development

If we believe Malcolm Gladwell, it will take emerging leaders 10,000 hours of practice to become truly world-class leaders.

Perhaps emerging leaders need considerably less time to become competent, but the point remains that practice makes perfect.

We get a lot of our interpersonal skills practice “for free” as it were, just by being social human beings, embedded in communities of work, play, and family; although, Gladwell would argue that it takes focused, intentional practice to make true progress.

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As much as we can leverage our standard complement of interpersonal skills – which actually vary quite widely from person to person based on background and experience – opportunities to practice leadership competencies even “casually” are rare.

Our educational system, focused as it is on individual achievement, provides few opportunities to influence the goals and direction of a team. With the major and significant exception of team sports, it often isn’t until we reach our first job that we enter an environment in which team collaboration is essential and leadership opportunities arise naturally.

By that time, our behaviors are already quite entrenched.

Inevitably, some people will have had more opportunities to practice leadership-like competencies than others, whether through sports teams, scout dens, rock bands, theater troupes, or community organizations.

If their other job-related competencies are also well-developed, they will be identified as high-potentials and encouraged into management track careers.

The question then becomes: how can we further develop these haphazardly acquired competencies in an accelerated fashion through targeted learning experiences?

Conventional Role-Plays

Successful leadership programs incorporate a variety of learning mechanisms, both formal and informal.

A recent study published by Bersin and Associates revealed that organizations of all levels of sophistication and maturity in their leadership development programs most frequently use instructor-led classroom lectures, though other approaches – among them e-learning, virtual classrooms, webcasts, social learning, and others – play important roles as well.

Although many of these mechanisms are powerful ways to communicate content about leadership, few of them offer meaningful opportunities for practice.

Among them, the instructor-led classroom seminar offers the most opportunities for genuine interpersonal skills practice, although all too often these opportunities are overlooked in favor of standard lectures and discussions.

In a classroom, role-plays have traditionally provided the bedrock of interpersonal skills practice.

In a conventional role-play, emerging leaders pretend that they are in a real-life leadership situation and act out leadership behaviors with an interlocutor. That conversation partner may be a fellow learner, the instructor, or, if resources permit, a third-party actor.

Both parties act out or improvise a conversation based on a pre-determined scenario – the delegation of a task or the communication of a new company strategy – as the other participants look on.

The instructor and class may evaluate this performance, providing feedback and potentially requesting a do-over.

Many variants of this model are possible, for instance by varying the scenarios and staging multi-participant conversations.

The role-play is an effective tool, and in many ways, it is the only solid way to provide the opportunity to practice interpersonal skills like leadership competencies.

However, it suffers from many drawbacks.

First, as a conversation, the role-play needs to be about something. Instructors will provide a baseline scenario – e.g., “Delegate a task” or “Communicate a company strategy” – but that scenario will almost necessarily be poor in detail.

What task should I delegate? What strategy should I communicate?

Any good facilitator has a bag of tricks that will disguise this problem of role-play content as much as possible, but it will always remain an awkward exercise. 

The second problem is the related issue of context.

To truly practice a leadership competency through a role-play, the emerging leader should experience the repercussions of good behavior and failure.

Also, in reality, a conversation is not like a math problem that is solved finally. It leads to subsequent conversations, and must sometimes even be repeated.

Conventional role-plays provide little context for the consequences of leadership behavior to unfold.

The role-play’s lack of content and context is itself a problem because it limits the degree to which the practice is meaningful.

It leads to an additional set of problems.

To fill in the gaps in content and context, a good deal of mental and emotional energy flows into imagining the details of the scenario, improvising them, and trying to act in a realistic fashion.

For those lucky few to whom imagination, improvisation, and acting come easily, the role-play does not provide an undue burden and can be intrinsically engaging. For the rest of us, role-plays involve an enormous cognitive load.

With so much cognitive and emotional energy going into using these skills, little is left over for the development of our core leadership competencies.

Performing an improvised theater scene in front of peers is an anxiety-causing experience for many of us. Although the engaged mind is primed for learning, the anxious mind’s reception is impaired.

In short, role-plays are imperfect.

Although there are many non-technology-intensive ways to improve upon traditional role-plays, computer-based multi-player business simulations can substantially compensate for role-plays’ drawbacks and enable them to become a much more powerful tool of leadership development.

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Role-Plays Within Business Simulations

Simulations can enhance role-plays by providing content and context.

In a simulation, participants have tasks to perform, information to communicate, and decisions to make.

When a business simulation is properly designed for collaboration – for instance, by placing participants on a joint leadership team of a fictional company – participants must interact with each other to pursue the simulation’s goals.

Team interactions are excellent opportunities for practicing leadership competencies.

In a business simulation, participants’ activities and decisions become the content of interpersonal interaction. Unlike in a conventional role-play, this content is complete within its frame of reference.

For example, a task delegation conversation becomes a literal assignment of a simulation task from one participant to another, instead of a contrived assignment of a hypothetical task.

The simulation also provides context: the execution of a leadership competency – for instance, ensuring that a team is strategically aligned – can have direct consequences within the simulation.

If the emerging leader rallies the team to her strategic vision, execution becomes easier and success more likely. If the rallying cry fails, execution will be confused, and the company will suffer the financial consequences.

Faced with concrete decisions, actions, and their consequences, emerging leaders playing a simulation are not artificially pressured to display imagination and acting skills.

Instead, they immerse themselves in a virtual world and can behave naturally as they practice new leadership competencies.

In conventional role-plays, participants must imagine relationships between themselves; a simulation places participants into genuine relationships for the span of the experience.

Simulation-powered role-plays allow an emerging leader to transcend playing a role to actually becoming a leader.

Optimizing Simulations to Power Role-Plays

Not all business simulations are suited for leadership competency practice.

Simulations used for leadership competency development should be team-based in the deepest sense: individual participants should interact together on teams, but they should each have individual tasks, information, and decisions to make.

Participants need to apply leadership competencies to coordinate activities and decisions.

Competition can be an important element of a well-designed simulation in two different ways.

Competition between teams – for instance, through competing fictional companies in a virtual market – provides engagement and focus on the one hand, and on the other, it helps teams gel internally.

However, there is a second form of competition that can be equally if not more important: competition between collaborating team members.

In real life, we face competitive struggles within our teams, often competing with our collaborators for resources or prestige. Interpersonal and leadership competencies are often specifically framed around overcoming these natural and inevitable struggles.

This tension – my collaborator is also my competitor – is highly illustrative of the kind of workplace context that is nearly impossible to replicate within a conventional role-play, but can be elegantly engineered within the context of a team-based business simulation.

As in conventional role-play-based leadership development programs, the instructor is absolutely essential to the simulation-powered role-play model.

Indeed, the content and context of the simulation provide much better frameworks for instructor-led coaching conversations and discussions.

“How did your team choose its strategic direction? Whose voices dominated the discussion? Whose contribution was drowned out?” are just some sample questions an instructor might ask after having observed the team interact.

A good instructor can tie observed behaviors to the leadership competencies targeted.

Computer-based simulations are not the only way to boost the effectiveness of role-plays by providing content and context.

Long-term group projects such as joint business plan proposals may provide opportunities for leadership competency practice and development.

Some low-technology simulation-like experiences such as board games or learning maps may also be effective in providing content and context.

However, the advantage of computer-based simulations is the facility with which they can pack complex systems behind a simple, user-friendly interface, thus allowing a complex web of relationships, information, and decisions to evolve in a concentrated time-period.

How have your experiences been with role playing as a learning tool? Let us know in the comments!

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