Play to win

In business, playing the game is important. But game playing can be just as
crucial to business success, says John Handley. Just taking part, though, is
not enough. You have to aspire to learn and be willing to put ideas into
practice if you really want to add a new – human – dimension to your business

Business games can transcend geographical and cultural boundaries, and they
work between various management levels and different business functions –
between education and industry, public sector and private enterprise.

So, what exactly are business games, or simulations? Think of them as the
commercial management equivalent of the simulator for racing-drivers, pilots or
astronauts. Using a business simulation, a group of people can test commercial
decision-making in a relatively risk-free environment, with only personal egos
at stake, and without the risk of commercial failure.

Organisations request our simulations for many uses:

– to develop commercial awareness;

– to highlight interdepartmental understanding and co-operation;

– to consolidate corporate identity following organisational re-structuring,
mergers or acquisitions;

– to encourage and develop strategic vision and creative thinking; to
develop teamwork and decision-making skills;

– to encourage networking by bringing together personnel from different
geographical locations;

– or as part of an detailed assessment.

Games often come into play at company conferences as a tool to change the
pace, offering a quick shift into group activity, which can motivate, challenge
and instruct. Learning with fun is a potent mix.

One beauty of a business game is that it can meet diverse objectives, and
can be ‘topped and tailed’ to meet precise goals. Some contend that it is ‘only
a game’, that what goes on in the game play is not what would happen in real
life. But experienced facilitators argue just the opposite: What goes on within
the business game group frequently mirrors day to day personal confrontations
and different perspectives which can either enrich or, more frequently sadly,
hinder or even de-rail the decision-making process.

"What happened today is what happens at work," is an expression
one often hears at the end of a business game. However, "I did all the
numbers, I told them how it was and what we had to do, but they wouldn’t listen
– until we went bankrupt", is also a regular assessment. Seldom does a
player admit "I just couldn’t convince them. I just didn’t have the
necessary skill to persuade them that my analysis and ideas were sound."

In the past, the main thrust has been to use business simulations to
increase commercial awareness, to emphasise total business profitability and
cross-functional dependency. Now, the focus is increasingly on the human
dimension in business. The same models are used but facilitation differs. An
example is the increasing use of a business simulation in dealing with change –
a real issue for most at some point in our lives. Change is more prevalent in
business today than possibly ever before because of the speed of technological
developments and the uncertainties of an ever increasingly competitive and
global market place. Simulations become useful then as a tool to help people
recognise the reality of a change, and to be able to analyse and handle it

Cherry picking

In one game, qualified observers watch teams of five who act as the board of
directors, working together to drive their company towards profit.

The change intervention is to move one or two members out of a team, as if
headhunted by a competitor. Common reactions are of annoyance and frustration
that the team has been broken up. The effect is more extreme if the team feels
it has been operating successfully up to that point. The members who leave the
team are always regarded as the ‘best’ members. The replacements are regarded
as ‘cast-offs’ from the competitors. It takes time, rational thought and
understanding to challenge this instinctive reaction which more easily sees the
negative side of change.

In a de-briefing session, the participants’ attention is drawn to their
responses to change and they are made aware of the chain of reaction. Then, and
only then, can the healing process begin and lead to the development of new
behaviour patterns that will hopefully lead to better team-working and improved

For young executives cutting their teeth in a leading financial company, and
who regularly switch between new project teams, experiencing this in a
relatively risk-free environment proves to be a powerful and valuable lesson.
The organisation benefits, and life becomes more exciting and rewarding for the
new executives as they learn to embrace change.

Top bananas

A similar ploy with an organisation’s top management team reveals why
progress is so difficult in day-to-day situations.

After working together for two days at a conference in ‘running’ a
well-established business, members of each team are ‘made offers they cannot
refuse’ and accordingly transfer their experience, skill and knowledge to a
competitive team. Uncertainty is a common reaction. Other feelings – such as
resentment, annoyance, anger, disappointment, surprise, delight, welcoming
smiles – are also evident.

Some teams see a newcomer as a new asset, and are quick to absorb them into
their team – information is shared, resulting in wider knowledge of the market.
Other teams treat newcomers cautiously, revealing nothing of their strategy.
And there are teams that treat newcomers with disdain and gain nothing from the
additional resource. Where one newcomer joins a team of two, the original pair
strengthen their working bond. Where two newcomers join two existing members,
the balance of power has to be negotiated. The behaviour is often entirely at
one with previous professional assessments and also with individuals’
confidential opinions of their colleagues. In fact, this ‘game’ turned out to
be a microcosm of the organisation concerned – mirroring the daily activities
of the managers involved.

Plum positions

Project management cultures provide fertile ground for business games.
Learning how to juggle several projects simultaneously is crucial for managers
who find competition high for their time and expertise. In this instance, when
such experience is the aim, the business simulation is only one of several
concurrent tasks. The process is paramount to the learning and qualified
observers work with the groups as well as the business game facilitator.

As an assessment tool, the game is simply a catalyst for behavioural
observation. It is not the commercial success that is being measured, although
that remains the players’ goal. What is being assessed is individuals’ capacity
to lead a group, fit into a team, use data, analyse, and his or her
decisiveness, flexibility, clear-headedness, imagination and creativity – or,
communication skills in their widest sense.

In this simulation, it is no longer necessary for the playing field to be level
for all teams at the start. The game facilitator sets the starting positions
following predetermined strategies for the competing teams. The players need to
deal with the position they inherit, and the situation left by their
predecessors. In most game plays, data gradually builds up for teams to handle,
but in this game they are bombarded from the start with data, graphs and

A joint-venture company is created from the existing teams to avoid an
overseas competitor buying into the market. The venture capitalist supporting
this initiative sets performance standards. Employee trades unions enter into
negotiations when profits surge. The simulation in this case is the essential
skeletal framework on which any amount of flesh can be hung by imaginative and
skillful educators.

One of the strongest messages to emerge in all simulations is how the
subject of the brief does not seem to matter. Tasks, as opposed to processes,
predominate in most peoples’ behaviour. It does not seem to matter when the exercise’s
aim is simply to run your business successfully or profitably. The behaviour is
always task-oriented and the goal is to win, to be the most profitable,
allowing players’ inherent competitiveness to generate momentum to a grand

Industry has always had difficulty convincing its different functional
elements to talk with each other and to understand their inter-dependence.
Increasing specialisation demands that greater awareness is needed of the
whole. In the orchard of personal development, business simulations are a means
of harvesting the fruit of successful communications.

John Handley is a management development consultant at
the Cranfield School of Management and general manager of Cranfield Business

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