Designing Business Simulation Games

Much of the independent work I do at LearningSim and with my partners at ThinkWorks (now affiliated with LearningLens) involves the creation of custom business simulations and simulation games for specific client situations. To design a business simulation game that changes the way people think and act on the job, we have to work through some details. I thought it might be helpful to share an example of a template I’ve used to gather information and make design choices. This checklist of questions is tailored for building a client business simulation game around data-based decision making, but you can tweak the checklist to whatever topic is of interest to the business.

 

Checklist – Key Questions for Designing a Business Simulation Game

What Do We Want to Achieve?

A game can be about anything, but a business simulation game has a specific purpose. The purpose of this game is to improve the data-based decision making ability of the participants. The answers to the questions below will tell us what we should design the game to do.

  1. Whose data-based decision making performance, specifically, concerns us?
  2. What business results, specifically, do we want to improve? What metrics or qualitative indicators will change, and how much?
  3. What do these people need to do differently on the job to demonstrate skill in data-based decision making? (Be specific)
  4. Why aren’t they doing it now? (Do they know they have to? Do they know how to? Do they want to? Does the system encourage and support them?)
  5. What needs to change in order for them to achieve the desired results? How do we know that a change in decision making ability will yield the desired change in business results?

What Does Successful Performance Look Like?

We need to put the right amount of detail into the business simulation game—enough to get people to work hard and learn things by playing the game, but not so much detail that the lessons to be learned are too hard to see. Answers to these questions will help us design the rules, content, and scoring system for the business simulation game in a way that engages and makes sense to the participants.

  1. How can we tell when people are making data-based decisions well? What would we see as the decision is being made that would demonstrate the desired kind of skill? (Specific examples are helpful.)
  2. How can we tell when people are not doing this well? What will we see when the decision is being made that should tell us that this skill is not being used as effectively as it should? (Specific examples are helpful.)
  3. What are some immediate indicators of a failure to recognize and use relevant business drivers to make sound decisions? In other words, when will it become apparent that a faulty decision was made, and what would we see to tell us this?
  4. What kinds of situations or decisions require employees to use this skill? Give some specific examples that we might build into the simulation. What kinds of decisions do not require this level of skill or financial acumen?
  5. When people make these kinds of decisions, what data is available to them? For each set of data that is available, what are the key business drivers, and how should we identify them?
  6. What sort of information in these situations do people have to ask for, and what sort of information is usually given to them with the problem or the situation?
  7. What are some examples of decision criteria (or required information) that should always be considered to be business drivers?
  8. What are some examples of decision criteria (or required information) that might be business drivers in some situations, but not others?
  9. What are some examples of decision criteria (or information) that seem like business drivers, but are probably not?
  10. What are some examples of decision criteria (or information) that often distract people or get in the way of making sound, data-based decisions?

What Kind of Game do we want to Play?

There are two main kinds of business simulation games: (1) simulations based on an underlying financial or quantitative system model and (2) simulations based on a set of common work-based challenges. Both types have great value for learning purposes, but they differ in how they are designed and played. Answers to the questions in this section will help us to choose a simulation game design that will most effectively match the needs and expectations of the audience.

  1. Are all of the decision situations we are talking about similar enough that one single financial system model could cover them adequately? (In other words, is this skill only used with one kind of decision, like deciding whether to launch a new product or not?) If the decision situations vary, a financial model is probably not appropriate.
  2. To what extent does it make sense to follow a progression of decisions from round to round? Consider these types of progression: (a) Product Life Cycle Story, (b) Different Decisions, (c) Business Story. More on these types, below.
  3. How close to the current reality should we make the game scenario? There is an optimal point where the novelty of a fanciful, fictional situation balances with the relevance of challenges that are similar to what the participants experience on a daily basis. The game ought to be different enough to be fun, and to prevent participants from relying on pre-existing knowledge and habits, but not so different that it is hard to make the connection between the business simulation game and the topic of data-based decision making on the job at the client company.
  4. What creative and fun suggestions do different members of the team have for the specific game scenario?
  5. Given the available resources (timeline, budget, event logistics, approval and QA requirements, etc.), what is a reasonable approach to address the answers to the previous questions in a way that promotes real engagement and transfer of learning to the job?

How should the Game’s Story Progress?

Product Life Cycle Story Progression: In this game model, the participants follow the same set of product or service offerings from round to round, trying to maximize lifetime profit contribution, or some similar goal.

  • Round 1. Given some starting information, participants evaluate a slate of new product or service offerings. They make GO/NO-GO decisions for different potential offerings and allocate resources to the products or services they feel will be successful. Participants may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions. The decisions are scored, with feedback.
  • Round 2. Given some additional information, participants evaluate the results of their product or service pilot testing and decide whether to continue with development and launch of the offerings and how to allocate resources. Participants may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions. The decisions are scored, with feedback.
  • Round 3. Given some additional information, participants deal with issues that arise during implementation by making further decisions. Again, participants may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions, and decisions are scored before teams receive feedback.
  • Round 4. Later in the life cycle of the same product(s), participants must make the decision to re-invest/refresh, continue, or retire the product or service offerings based on the information they have or can request. Teams may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions. The decisions are scored and feedback is given.

Different Decisions Progression: In this model, the decisions that participants make are not related to each other; they are about different situations, products, or services. The cumulative scoring and engagement for this model are not as strong, but a wider variety of situations and types of decisions could be covered.

  • Round 1. Given some starting information, participants are faced with a specific business decision challenge. Participants may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions. The decisions are scored (typically according to “best,” “good,” and “poor” outcomes), with feedback.
  • Rounds 2-4. Participants are faced with different business decision challenges in each round. As in first round, participants may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions. The decisions are scored, with feedback.

Business Story Progression: In this game model, the participants have a number of decisions to make as a common business situation unfolds. Instead of following a set of product or service offerings, they work through a different sort of business issue—often one that is focused on a change in business strategy, process, product/service mix, customer mix, or business model. This game model is most often used with an underlying web of consequences—each round’s decisions affect the kind of decisions and the information available to the participants in the next round, and the final outcome of the simulation can vary considerably from team to team. (Note: This model takes more effort to build than the others. While the total detail and depth is the same as the other models for the same development budget, participants will see less of it on a single play through the game.)

  • Round 1. The participants receive starting information and are faced with a set of situation-specific choices (which may include resource allocation decisions). Participants may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions. The decisions are scored, with feedback.
  • Rounds 2-3. The results of the initial decisions prompt new information and new decisions. Again, participants may have to request additional information in order to make the best decisions. The decisions are scored, with feedback.
  • Round 4. The situation comes to a climax, with the specifics determined by the decisions that the participants have made in previous rounds. The teams have a final opportunity to make crucial decisions that will decide the ultimate outcome of the situation. The decisions are scored, the results are revealed, and feedback is given.

Summary

We are exploring the questions, above, in order to make sure that we have the information we need to do a good job of following these simulation design principles.

Simulation Design Principles

  • Make the simulation feel like real work
  • Strip away excess complexity and focus on the key dynamic
  • Make the situations, choices, and outcomes believable
  • Allow participants’ choices to influence the simulation outcomes
  • Keep the rules in the background

Information from the three sections above will help shape the purpose, the details, and the structure of the business simulation game. With these elements identified, the design team, the project managers, and the various subject matter experts involved can work together with a shared understanding of the constraints and the goal.

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