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Simulation Training Builds Teams Through Experience

June 1, 1993
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
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You've entered Crocodile River. It doesn't have thick clusters of vine-covered trees and hordes of mosquitoes. It isn't hot and humid. You might not even recognize it as an equatorial jungle. An experience on Crocodile River, however, forces team members to depend on each other as if they were a group of lost travelers braving the Amazon.

Crocodile River is a team-building simulation used by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. It takes place in a large room that contains four platforms, each representing an island. As the story goes, two of the islands originally were joined, but a river has washed through and divided the island into two parts, separating the inhabitants from each other. About 15 people stand on each of these small islands, which are approximately three feet by three feet square. It's very crowded.

There's a smaller island, called Fire Island, which is approximately two feet by two feet. A larger island, which is approximately five feet by five feet in size, lies directly across from Fire Island. Employees know it as Paradise Island.

Each team has two wooden boards—a long one and a short one. Using only these tools, the employees must move through an obstacle course of crocodile-infested waters to Fire Island and then reunite the entire team at Paradise Island.

It's a daunting challenge, because if any player steps off an island or falls off the small boards as he or she tries to cross, the entire team must start over. The employees also receive steep penalties. The facilitators blindfold them or tie their legs together with bandannas, so there's a great incentive not to make mistakes.

It takes from one and a half to three hours for the teams to complete the crossing of Crocodile River. Some teams never make it. There's nothing to worry about, because this simulation exercise is only a game. However, it's a game that offers powerful insights.

"We wanted to focus on the diversity of behavioral characteristics within a team," says Liz Hinna, senior instructor for employee development and training at Southwest Airlines. "We think that simulations like Crocodile River can enhance the self-awareness of people within teams. They can understand themselves better and then can function more fully as team members."

Just as the game of chess simulates military strategy, just as moot court mimics actual courtroom situations, team-building simulations provide players an environment that's deliberately charged to offer abundant learning experiences in a short time. These simulations focus on how people can work together as a team.

Business simulations have been around for a long time. Team-building simulations have been around long enough to have their share of proponents and critics. What are team-building simulations and how do businesses use them? What are the advantages and limitations? When are they most effective? What guidelines should human resources professionals use when they consider implementing simulations? Finally, as much fun as they are, do team-building simulations make good business sense from a training perspective?

Simulations replicate real life.
Whether your in-house trainers develop them, you hire a consultant to customize them for your company, or you buy an off-the-shelf product, simulations come in many forms. They can take from several hours to several days to complete.

Some simulations resemble intense, though typical, business days, during which team members must accomplish specific tasks within strict limits. Some simulations are fun, out-of-the-ordinary experiences, such as Crocodile River, that require teams to work together on physical tasks or on decision making. Other programs can be outdoor group training or opportunities for groups to create new products or construct things. They can be board games in which participants learn teamwork as they play.

Whatever their form, simulations do a number of things at once. They offer a chance for individuals to increase their self-awareness and monitor their own behavior, specifically regarding how they interact with the other team members. The simulations encourage decision making and the discussion of complicated topics while promoting teamwork. Usually, the focus is on interpersonal behavior. Good business simulations help employees concentrate on specific skills and learn in an atmosphere in which the consequences for mistakes are minimal. Typically, a facilitator helps guide participants through the experience. However, since all teams are different, no one can predict the outcomes, so results vary widely.

"The challenge is to do something differently as a result of the simulations"
Shelley A. Farnham,
Hughes Space and Communications

Effective simulations take the best of the experiential and combine it with more-traditional learning methods. Human resources experts are clear that simulations enhance, but don't replace, traditional learning techniques.

Typically, some form of lecture precedes the exercises. Sometimes some additional instruction occurs during the rounds of a game or during the breaks. Finally, good team-building experiences include in-depth debriefing after the exercises.

Simulations have advantages and limitations.
"Simulations take the learning process one step further," says Bob Carr, president of Atlanta-based Executive Adventure Inc. and founder of the Association of Experience-Based Training and Development. "They confirm the understanding of the participants. Rather than taking a test, the participants perform what they've learned."

Southwest Airlines' Crocodile River training is a perfect example. Before the experiential portion, there is an instructional segment. Individuals take a self-assessment to analyze their own behaviors within a team. The training designers have defined individual behaviors and translated them into eight characteristic team roles. Some of these roles include:

  • The shaper—the person who leads the group
  • The innovator—the individual who has the creative ideas
  • The monitor/evaluator—the person who stands back, and observes and analyzes the process.

Team members discover their typical responses within the team—their own strengths and weaknesses—and how others perceive them because of their strengths and weaknesses. After people comprehend their own styles, the facilitator encourages them to look at other team members. Based on the information they have about themselves, employees are asked to speculate about the roles others play in the team. They identify their own team roles and the roles of others who are present at the simulation.The facilitator then gives employees the opportunity to identify the possible roles of team members back at the workplace and encourages them to think about what that means on the job. It gives the participants the chance to see why there might be friction between two or three individuals who have conflicting styles.

After the lectures and assessment, they have a break. When the group returns to the classroom, jungle music is playing and they begin to play Crocodile River. The facilitator doesn't tell the participants that there's a connection between the upcoming exercise and the previous instruction.

"You have to appeal to all the senses," says Hinna. "If you present a simulation team-building program, you usually want to talk about some aspect of learning in the program first. You take people through the experience. They experience it and catch themselves doing the very things that you're going to talk about after the simulation. Rather than telling them what people usually do or how people usually react or what's happening on their teams, you put them into a situation in which they have firsthand knowledge. You let them react to things in a way that's similar to [the way] they'd react in the workplace."

The debriefing, which is crucial, then becomes smoother. Players have as much feedback as the instructor to discuss what has happened and why. In the Crocodile River experience, for example, people catch themselves making a lot of assumptions and realize that their own perspectives may be limited.

Hinna summarizes this way: "We talked about it. They experienced it. They saw it. They felt it. They caught themselves a number of times making the same mistakes. They walked away remembering the program."

Although simulations can be helpful, they do have their limitations. "I think the value [of team-building simulations is demonstrated] when you have a group that has team potential but lacks what I call team working skills," says Jon R. Katzenbach, coauthor of The Wisdom of Teams. "Maybe they've never worked in teams before. Maybe they're unfamiliar with working together in that context, and they need to learn the problem-solving and the decision-making processes of a team. In that context, I think simulations can be helpful because people can learn and practice skills in a harmless context."

But Katzenbach, who's a senior consultant at New York City-based McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm, says that once employees learn the basic communication and interpersonal team skills, it's best to move into another mode. "If you're talking about bettering their results, I think you're then into something that's less likely to benefit from simulation. It isn't real to participants, and they don't make the immediate and the imperative transfer to working in the team situation they're in." According to Katzenbach, if you have an intact team in which you're doing a simulation, why not get help with real problems from the person who's helping the team work with the simulated problem?

Katzenbach highlights a critical point. Business simulations are most effective when used with other training methods. For one thing, you must be clear that team building is what the group needs. For simulations to be successful, you first have to be clear about your goals.

How companies can make simulations work.
"You have to do a complete diagnosis of the situation to determine whether team building is or isn't appropriate," says Shelley A. Farnham, senior management assistant specialist at Hughes Space and Communications in Los Angeles.

For example, Farnham says that team building often is helpful if an intact team:

  • Seems to be complaining a lot
  • Isn't producing as it had been previously or its quality has dropped off
  • Is losing team members.

On some occasions, Farnham would turn to simulations for team building. "I think that simulation has value, but I wouldn't do it just for the sake of doing it. You have to be clear about the points you want to make," she says.

Farnham, who also served as training manager at Union Bank in Los Angeles, echoes Katzenbach's points. She believes that simulations can work if two things occur:

  1. The facilitator makes a strong connection between the simulation and the daily work environment.
  2. The actual business team is working together in the exercise.

"You have to make the connection back on the job deliberately and thoroughly," says Farnham. "More importantly, you want to get the actual team that works together to do the simulations together and then have them look at the problems they encounter." Then they should decide how to work on them and what they learned from the simulation. Next, have them evaluate how the mock situation resembles the real problems they confront. Then you have done team simulation and team building.

One value of simulations is that people can get lost in the exercise and their real behaviors surface. Often, these are the same behaviors that are getting in the way of their actual teamwork. However, if individuals are unable to make that clear transfer back into their everyday work lives, the experience isn't as beneficial as it could be. Learning styles play a role in the successful transfer back to the workplace.

"The challenge is, how are you going to do something differently today as a result of what you have seen and done here?" asks Farnham. "People who are concrete learners scratch their heads and say, 'I guess I see a connection, but I'm not too certain.' For others who are more conceptual or experiential, the connection can be extremely powerful."

Farnham has gone through an outdoor-training course that included rope climbing, and found it to be helpful. But she says that she's experiential. "If you can demonstrate something to me, then I believe it more [easily] than [if I'm] just talking about it or conceptualizing it. But that's because of the type of learner I am. Other folks need a stronger link to what happens back on the job," she says.

Using simulations for work teams.
"People and the service and quality they can build are your competitive advantage today," says Duffy Smith, vice president of operations for Hostess Frito-Lay Co. in Mississauga, Ontario.

Smith is sold on simulations. He says that they're tools that can go hand in hand with philosophical, quality-driven change. Teams can use simulations when a company is making structural and cultural changes.

He uses a game called Self-managed Work Teams: A Business Simulation, which is produced by People Tech Products in Toronto, Ontario. Smith helped develop the board game when he was at Campbell Soup Co. The one-day workshop includes an elaborate scenario that puts participants into the roles of the members of newly formed teams in a fictitious organization.

The name of the company is One World Energy Systems. One World has commercialized a futuristic technology that converts food waste into electrical energy. The product, Transformer, supplies enough energy to power a household or small business. The company has determined that self-managed work teams are the most effective way to sell the new technology. These self-managed teams are responsible for all production, service, installation and billing of their customers. They're responsible for all administrative needs. As the game progresses, each round puts more pressure on the teams. They have more orders to process but not enough capacity for the orders.

The game is constructed so that groups of five participants sit at a table, each with a game board and game materials. There are usually five teams playing simultaneously in the classroom. They face such issues as:

  • Monitoring quality control
  • Investing in employee training and development
  • Fulfilling customer orders
  • Meeting customer needs.

During the game, the teams discover that product and service quality are linked directly to profitability. They discover that team strength underlies the entire system.

"We developed the Self-Managed Work Team game because we believe it's a critical tool for on-the-job training," says Lorne Hartman, managing vice president at People Tech Products. He says that the game gives teams firsthand experience in a low-risk environment. Hartman joined with others at Campbell Soup and at IBM Canada to develop the simulation.

It clearly parallels the stages of team development:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing.

During each phase, there are structured exercises that draw the team members' attention to specific behavioral values. For example, at the beginning of the forming round, there's a team meeting, during which the participants commit to a set of shared values and define them behaviorally. Then, after each game round, members review how they worked together as a team—both as a team that's learning to play a new game and one that's working as a team in the simulated world of One World Energy Systems.

Teams quickly learn that they're more efficient if they collaborate with other teams. Mimicking the real world, they discover that each team within one organization has a greater capacity to perform if it cooperates with the other teams. Although each team is competitive and wants to do better than the other teams, participants quickly realize that there isn't a lot of value in competing that way. They realize that an organization will perform only as well as all the teams in the group do.

Participants at Campbell Soup, Skill Dynamics Canada and Hostess Frito-Lay, among others, have played the game. According to Smith, the game was so helpful for two companies that it became a developmental component of a plan using teams to redesign a factory. "The companies actually [placed] the people who [had played] this game onto a work team and used the simulated experience as part of the creative process in redesigning a factory. It's an automatic transfer into the workplace. As people are working at the game, they're automatically substituting their real work world," says Smith.

"The benefit to the student is that they can't be passive," says Doug Jennings, program manager of executive and management education at Skill Dynamics Canada™ (an IBM Canada Company) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "They don't just sit back and receive the education. The game really forces them to participate, to question, to think about what they're learning and how it relates to the workplace. It's a more powerful education—a more powerful training."

However, both Hartman and Jennings agree that off-the-shelf interventions aren't a panacea. "It isn't a quick-fix solution. Just because you play the game, [it doesn't meant that] you [can just] wave the wand and then have self-managing work teams," says Hartman. "It's a way, however, for organizations that are moving in a direction to get their people to feel what it's like to be empowered and to make some of the decisions."

Jennings says that a game like any of these makes a good start at teaching awareness of broad issues and principles. "It allows the student to see the kind of strategy involved in the bigger picture," says Jennings, "but I question whether simulation of this nature can teach important skills. I haven't seen it."

When it comes to results, it's crucial to measure the effectiveness of the training. Typically, trainers measure results on four levels:

Level 1:
Consumer ratings. At the end of the day, did the participants say that it was a good experience? Did they indicate that they had learned something that was going to influence them?

Level 2:
Content knowledge. Was there a transfer of knowledge? An informational test usually determines this.

Level 3:
Behavioral change. Do participants in the training demonstrate through their behavior that they've generalized the learning to apply it to their work?

Level 4:
Organizational results. (This is the toughest to evaluate empirically.) Were we able to reduce our unit costs, increase productivity, improve quality or increase profits as a result of the training?

To see if useful learning took place, evaluations must be done several months after the training, in addition to the evaluation immediately after the simulation.

Simulations aren't always appropriate.
Knowing when to use simulations and when not to use simulations is crucial to the success of a team. Price Pritchett, chairman and CEO of Pritchett and Associates in Dallas, is the consultant who helped Southwest Airlines create Crocodile River. He cautions human resources professionals that simulations, and even team-building efforts, aren't always the type of intervention that's needed. "A lot of people mistakenly think that the people on the team want team building. What [people really] want is for the team to work, [to have] good... results by the group. That's what brings job security. That's what builds morale," says Pritchett.

Laying off hundreds or thousands of its workers sends shock waves throughout the organization. The organization downsizes some units and fractures other work units. When turmoil hits a corporation, it isn't the time for team building, according to Pritchett. This is the time during which teams revert to primitive stages of group development. "This is when people are trying to get a reading on their own roles in the organization. They need to find out what the group is going to be like, what's accepted and what isn't accepted," he says.

Conventional team-building techniques won't go very far in this atmosphere because these techniques presume that you can build trust, and at this point, the trust level is low. "People are preoccupied with self-preservation issues," says Pritchett. "They look to the person in charge to point the group in the direction it's supposed to go. It's a leader-dependent outfit."

Pritchett has developed another management approach called Team Reconstruction. It starts from the premise that when organizations are undergoing a destabilized period, commercial realities, not team building, are most important. Companies want to make profits, protect productivity, preserve quality and provide good customer service. Team building is only a means to an end. Consequently, during these difficult periods, team reconstruction focuses on building a strong leader. "We say to the boss, 'Discipline the group. Give it structure. Give these people a sense of magnetic north—what some people call vision.'"

Pritchett says that the intangibles of low trust and morale will take care of themselves once the group begins getting results. "The focus is on operational improvements. The Team Reconstruction approach can be done rapidly. It's a focus on preservation instincts. Until you get those resolved, you can't get people excited about loyalty, trust or being a team player," he says.

Team-building simulations have their share of pros and cons. Whether you choose a simulation that imitates a mine field or whether your group forms a self-directed work team to construct a product, the value of the experience depends on many factors. If a company uses simulations in tandem with other teaching techniques, has clear goals and provides continual follow-up, simulations can make good business sense.

You may not play Crocodile River jungle music as you start your simulation, but it's likely to be just as successful if you choose carefully and keep your goals clearly in mind.

Personnel Journal, June 1993, Vol. 72, No. 6, pp. 100-108.

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