Today I’m pleased to share another guest post by Paul Laughlin of Customer Insight Leader. This post originally appeared on his blog last year.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a business game being run over the course of two days for some management trainees.

These graduates came from a variety of functions, including Finance, Marketing, Sales, HR, and Operations. It was a really fun day, and I was very impressed with how my new associates ran the day.

But beyond the fun, I was struck by what a powerful learning experience this event provided. There were several ways that participants recognised they had learned and grown as a result. I thought I’d share my own reflections.

Business games – preparation matters

My first impression was the level of work that had gone into this business game. The scenario was set in an imaginary country within the former USSR. The imagined business manufactured a range of alcoholic beverages, and participant teams had been appointed as a new board of directors.

Competitive teams were briefed on the back story as well as provided with sets of financial reports. In addition, they were provided with some former external consultancy advice, which they could choose to ignore partially or fully.

The real star of the business game was the amount of effort that had gone into building a simulation engine, which enables teams to experience years (rounds) of making decisions and then seeing the outcome of them – but more on that later.

It was clear from the start that providing competitive teams with a depth of financial detail and market challenges was going to work well. Delegates formed their teams months before arriving and had been required to submit a business plan in advance, so they could be assessed against it.

If you are considering the benefits of a business game for your team, it’s worth discovering how much preparation has gone into its design.

Anyway, I’ve started this post by saying that these two days of playing a business game are so much more than just fun. What do I mean? What were the benefits I saw for participants?

Benefit 1: Commercial Understanding

I’ve written previously on the need for greater commercial awareness amongst analysts & data scientists. A well-designed business game is a great way to increase those skills.

In the one I attended, delegates had previously been briefed on how to read the three key financial reports:

  • Profit & Loss Statement
  • Balance Sheet
  • Cash Flow Statement

They were also provided with a lot more detail, sufficient to enable them to experience the commercial dynamics of HR, Production, Buying, Sales, Marketing, and their Assets. During each round (simulating a year), they were prompted to make decisions in each of these functional areas.

As someone who designs and delivers training courses, it struck me how much more effective such experiential learning is. What better way to understand a Balance Sheet than to have to decide when to build up stock or take on debt to fuel the growth you need to compete?

I think it is also worth saying that the learning about commercial dynamics is also richer because of competition. This brings to life the need for each team to consider what others will do. When updated results are delivered to each team, you can see the penny drop about others’ tactics.

Benefit 2: Simulation, learn by doing

That point leads on to why I was so quick to praise the complex simulation engine behind this business game. Much more powerful than financial training or economic theory is to see what happens when you act.

In a simulated business game, teams have the opportunity to experience the inter-dependency of businesses. If you are too optimistic about your ability to sell, you’ll be left with excess stock. If you buy market share, you’ll erode your profitability and possibly damage product brands. It you have a “fire sale” of excess stock, you might just shut out the competition.

When arguing for the importance of Data Science methodologies, I mentioned the need to return to the Scientific Method. One key element of that is closed-loop feedback. Such an approach to business games delivers that in spades, especially when teams have the opportunity to make decisions and see the results of several years of their business.

Rather than it all sound dry and worthy, I should mention that the surprise of results each round is also great fun. Teams are taken by surprise, spot their mistakes too late, or are caught out by competitors or market changes.

For the business game I attended, there was also a lot of fun at the end. Senior leaders from the client business (where the graduates work) attended in the role of shareholders. Each team then had to present their learnings and expected final results. I say “expected” because no one knew their final results until they were presented in front of everyone at the very end.

It was a great way to see the character of different teams and enjoy the fun of suspense. With so many dynamics at play in a business, there is plenty of opportunity for “the first to be last.”

Benefit 3: Team Building and Learning

My mention of team character above is also deliberate. In their final presentations, everyone had to participate. So you heard from every member of every team.

As well as presenting on the decisions they had made and changes since their business plan, they also shared how they worked together. It was striking how many had learned so much from this element of the game. Collaboration was the buzzword. But there were also lessons learned about learning from mistakes, shared mission, and persistence.

During the game itself, you saw the normal mix of alpha types and introverts attempting to work together, the gradual shift of those with too much confidence and readiness to speak learning they could be wrong, and the growing appreciation of quieter members of the team whose warnings had been proven right (well, sometimes).

Once again the twin drivers of competitive teams and dynamic simulations created a rich learning environment. Teams had to make a number of detailed decisions each round and then face the consequences. It was a great opportunity to learn that no one is perfect in business, that there is more to be gained from being open to others, willing to make a decision, being supportive, and not dwelling on the past.

So many businesses I know could strengthen their leadership teams by going through such a shared experience. It strongly made the case for dynamic learning (including simulation and feedback).

Have you experienced the power of Business Games?

So I have returned from my experience in Milton Keynes as a big fan of such a well-designed business game. I am pleased to have new associates with years of experience in delivering such a rich learning experience.

What about you? Does your team need to strengthen both its commerciality and its collaboration?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.