Project Management Simulations at the University of Sydney: Embracing Innovative Learning Methods

As a world-leader in project management education, the University of Sydney embraces a range of innovative approaches when it comes to developing students’ project management knowledge and skills, as well as their ability to effectively apply this capability in a range of professional settings. One example of this is the use of team-based project management simulations in the Master of Project Management program, including a 13-week simulation called The Island, and a two-part simulation called Mencken Madness.

Simulations enable the university to provide students with first-hand, relevant and shared project experience – experience which, unlike work-based project experience, has been carefully curated in line with specific learning outcomes and which is facilitated by a seasoned practitioner. The unit lecturer guides students through the simulation, teaching the underpinning project management skills required to successfully manage the project, and supporting students to relate what they experience in the simulation to real, work-based issues and situations that regularly confront project managers in the workplace.

This creates a safe learning environment in which learning from failure is not only fun, but instructive, and develops important habits of self-reflection. Students can acquire, practice and experiment with new concepts, tools, roles and processes, developing their technical project management skills as well as a range of interpersonal ‘soft skills’.

Kestrel Stone, adjunct lecturer and simulation developer, also sees the value of simulations as providing “an ideal platform for experiential, kinaesthetic learning (learning by doing) – an important element in instructional design. Students are motivated and engaged, which drives communication, collaboration and teamwork.”

The Island

Since 2017, students undertaking the unit of study Applied Project Management have been engaged and challenged by a 13-week project management simulation called The Island. The simulation begins in Week 1 of the semester, when the 100-150 students receive a client brief outlining the scenario and project background. They are then introduced to an online gaming platform where, in teams of 4-6, they will collaborate over the 13-week project lifecycle to construct an asset ‘from scratch’ – working to deliver the product on time, within budget, and in line with client expectations.

Deployed to a remote island, with only a pick and an axe, team members work together within the game to build temporary workers’ accommodation (in which their avatars will actually sleep and eat during the project or face virtual burn-out). Teams then build and fit out their workshop; gather raw materials by chopping lumber and mining for rock and ore; negotiate for a suitable plot of land; and construct a fit-for-purpose asset that meets the client brief, such as a guest house, spa, yoga studio, etc (creativity is rewarded). The assets built by separate teams make up a single, integrated facility – a resort – built by the class collectively. Students can see and interact with other students in the game, and potentially help (or hinder) other teams’ projects.

Each team’s asset is built in-game, but project-managed outside the game through the development of key project management documents, such as the Project Charter, Project Management Plan, Status Reports, Issue Log, etc. Tight deadlines, limited resources, and emerging risks and issues emphasise the importance of planning, collaboration, innovation and stakeholder engagement. Project management tools and techniques, such as the Schedule, Risk Register, resource allocation and clearly defined roles and responsibilities, are essential if teams are to deliver the product successfully whilst competing, collaborating and/or trading with other teams. The need to balance the technical work (mining, building, furnishing) and project management work (planning, controlling, reporting), as well as the need for individuals and teams to interact both in and out of the game, serves to replicate the challenges of real life projects and thereby develop competence in project management.

Teams are marked on the quality of their project management documentation, as well as the quality of their final product (the asset built by their team in the game). However, a portion of their final mark also comes from the quality of the overall facility to which each team contributed (the resort as a whole, built by the class collectively). This encourages students to think beyond their individual project and work with other project managers towards realising shared benefits for stakeholders and the sponsoring organisation/s.

Adjunct lecturer, Louise Gardner, has found The Island to be not only an effective way to teach the technical aspects of project management, but also great for student engagement. “Not only did the students achieve the learning outcomes, they were excited and engaged in a way that you just don’t get with traditional lecturing formats. They really enjoyed the novelty of it.”

Mencken Madness

In another unit, Project Process, Planning and Control, facilitated by Kestrel Stone, a two-part project management simulation is conducted, with Part 1 (The Pitch1) delivered at the start of the semester; and Part 2 (Mencken Madness) delivered in the final two weeks of the semester. This two-part simulation is set in the highly stylised, fast-paced world of advertising in 1960s New York – as popularised by the hit TV show Mad Men – where teams ultimately compete as rival advertising agencies to win the “Mencken account”. Along the way, they are challenged by finite resources, strict deadlines, ambiguous quality requirements, limited access to stakeholders, emerging threats and opportunities, and unexpected issues.

With students from diverse technical and cultural backgrounds, this shared project experience enhances the social and collaborative aspects of the course – as well as developing PM capability in a team and group context. The project management tools, techniques, concepts and processes embedded in the simulation are later drawn out for discussion in the plenary debrief at the completion of the simulation. This is also an opportunity to reflect on the range of critical skills that underpin project success.

To enhance the industry relevance of the simulation, a ‘guest judge’ from industry is typically invited to observe and participate in the final stage of the simulation. For example, in 2018, the General Manager of Strategic Project Delivery from a large Australian corporation participated as ‘guest judge’, providing feedback and advice to teams, not only in terms of their demonstrated project management skills, but also in terms of key selection criteria that project leaders look for when recruiting project management talent.

Perhaps the best indication of the effectiveness of project management simulations at the University of Sydney is feedback from the students themselves, one of whom reflected that “simulating the role of the project manager helped us to know what we should do in a project.” Another student commented that “the project simulation…allowed me to develop my understanding and adapt myself to challenges when handling a real-life project.” Another commented that the experience was “interesting and beneficial for me to understand what may happen in the real world.” (Unit of Study Survey, 2016 & 2017)

Encouraged by student feedback, and the demonstrated learning outcomes achieved though simulations, the University of Sydney will continue to embrace such innovative and unconventional learning methods to develop the project management professionals of today and tomorrow.

[1]NB: A modified version of The Pitch was delivered at the PMI Sydney Chapter in July 2017. A short video of this event can be accessed via PMI TV.

University of Sydney