“Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. What are you up to today?”
“Oh, we’re just playing some games!”
“Huh. I thought preparing for a crisis was on the agenda today. And you thought it was appropriate to start playing some games…?”
Besides knowledge, procedures and some analysis we also need certain skills to effectively manage a crisis. Those skills are not easily trained, for crises are (fortunately) very rare. We can use simulations or scenarios instead of real emergencies. But to take part in a full blown immersive scenario, you need to already possess a certain skill level. If you don’t have them yet, the scenario will not be very successful for you and just point out what you can’t do yet. Not very satisfactory.
Enter games – not necessarily Virtual Reality.
Humans have played games since before the stone age. We find them entertaining, no matter which culture or ethnic group we belong to. While some are just fun, others help you to keep fit, or practice skills. Ancient African tribes played Bao, to practice strategic thinking. Some other tribes still teach their youngsters about the art of hunting utilizing games, today. The Venetians used their plays to educate people about right and wrong.
Games help us develop. Besides being fun, they allow us to practice skills we would not be able to acquire easily without playing them, as real situations may be dangerous or too scarce to be effective. Because games are fun to participate in, we keep repeating them, further developing our skills.
Games can do what scenarios can’t: allow you to acquire new skills. We need a couple of circumstances to allow you to focus on just those skills, and nothing else.
- First, we need to pull you out of your comfort zone. People do not learn easily, if they feel very comfortable, suggesting they already know what is about to be taught.
- Second, we can’t allow you to fall back on existing (specialist/technical) knowledge. If we challenge you with a problem that you can solve by using your expertise, you will focus on the successful outcome of the challenge, not the skill needed to get there. Your game role will be different from you day to day job.
- We need to engage you. If the problem is not experienced to be interesting or worth resolving, we won’t get any results.
By creating an unfamiliar yet simple game setting that is generic and does not need a lot of specialist knowledge to understand, we eliminate any focus on “technical” solutions from your own background. Day to day solutions from your expertise no longer apply.
People want to win. When we enter an element of competition, people are engaged and want to participate. Sitting back relaxed will result in losing the game. No one disengages during a game. As a consequence, no one misses the learning objective.
If the game setting is slightly out of the ordinary, participants start to wonder and ask questions. We open your imagination. And when your mind is open, we slide in our learning objectives.
Games need to be fun. They may have interesting characters, may contain some hidden jokes or un expected plot changes. The same elements that make a movie worth watching. By making the games fun and enjoyable, we make you want to participate. People learn better if they enjoy what they’re doing. Skill retention is higher when people had fun acquiring them.
Removing highly specialized personnel from a subsea contractor from their own field of expertise and placing them in a setting where they act as managers of a hotel, disqualifies their knowledge in solving subsea problems. Great! We don’t want to teach them about subsea problems (they already know), we want them to acquire the skills to manage an emergency. A hotel is an ideal environment: without denying the expertise you need to run a successful hotel, everybody has a generic concept of what a hotel is. Everybody understands that if the hotel is on fire, we need to evacuate. Or, should we? A basic understanding of the game setting will do, as the focus is not on the complex reality.
Placing participants in a very out of the ordinary setting makes them curious: making them manage a company specialized in breeding Koi fish (usually some participants have heard of a single specimen being sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of euro’s, but otherwise nobody has a clue) makes participants smile and wonder what that business is all about. Eager to find out more, they absorb the hidden game content. Ending the game with an unexpected cliffhanger opens their minds to the evaluation which is about to follow shortly.
By means of handing out cue cards, participants quickly learn about the roles they’re about to play. By carefully adding well-dosed amounts of information to the group (jigsaw puzzle pieces), we make sure that everybody knows exactly what they need to know – and nothing more. Those pieces do not necessarily match, but may be confusing, lacking or opposite.
Everybody gets a personal goal. Achieving this goal will be rewarded at the end of the game. Enter competition: the individual goals may be mutually exclusive or fail to align with the overruling team goal. This will teach teams that there may actually be (hidden) personal or departmental stakes, hampering team success.
Differing viewpoints and selective access to information will highlight the importance of Team Situational Awareness. Differing departmental goals will need the team leader to align his team using briefings.
Limiting the time that teams have to come up with solutions will mimic time pressure experienced during emergencies, introducing the need for a structured approach.
Handing out updates trains teams to handle unexpected situations and make team leaders practice in steering their teams in an alternate direction, or finding new information or question existing information before continuing.
Shifting emphasis to a different player, engages the entire team and allows everyone to play his or her part.
At the end of a well-designed game, the participant has adopted his newly acquired skill and is ready to put it into practice. Because he’s felt and experienced what worked and what didn’t, he’ll feel that it’s his own. Quite opposite from a trainer who tells you what to do. Being told what to do by a (perceived) authority such as a trainer can provoke skepticism, resistance or reluctance. Having people experience new skills during a game, overcomes this obstacle.
So, what’s the difference between a table top and a management game?
- A table top prepares organizations for very realistic and company specific scenarios. It allows team members to think about which decisions to make in which situations and which consequences to account for.
- Games do not focus on a company specific hazard or its ramifications. It focuses on developing individual or team skills. Once acquired in-game, these skills can be utilized in table tops or immersive scenarios – and, of course, when the excrement hits the fan for real.
 “Chucky” in Child’s play, 1988