Using project simulations to accelerate organizational knowledge, learning and change

Lawrence V. Suda,Vice-President, Management Worlds, Inc.


Our profession's recent interest in knowledge management is neither the result of apathy with previous management doctrines nor the intellectual creation of a few clever individuals. Rather, it is a highly rational and reasonable response to the increased turbulence that has become the beacon of our age. This turbulence—especially discontinuous change—requires new concepts, new ways of thinking and new ways of working. At this point, it is difficult to specify exactly all the new concepts, thinking, and ways of working that, in this new age, are necessary. Nevertheless, it is possible to specify some of the knowledge and skills that will be required and how organizations and individuals can go about learning these new competencies.

Among the endless bits of project and organizational data we see and sense each day, we try to find patterns in a project's and an organization's behavior that help explain what's going on. In this context, a number of leading experts are beginning to posit a somewhat counterintuitive hypothesis; that an organization's or project's complexity requires that we try to gain a holistic and systems view and understand all the interactions more or less at once, rather than by a piece of data at a time. They are also suggesting that this understanding is best facilitated by replicating that experience by simulations rather than the sequential parts of the overall picture. Inasmuch, simulations, among several other knowledge management strategies, are powerful tools we can use to gain an overall perspective, as well as deepen our understanding of all the complex interrelationships of the parts.

Simulations provide powerful contexts for applying both individual and collective learning. Simulations can take advantage of the opportunity to maximize active and enjoyable involvement in the learning process. Participants can generate creative, emotional tension that encourages us to explore, conceptualize, inquire, experiment, and critically analyze while using our multiple senses. Simulations place us in another time and space where we become the agents of our own learning, and shift the classroom to a learning laboratory, while providing a metaphoric structure for analyzing past, present and future circumstances. With the focus on learning rather then teaching, they build upon the collective experiences and knowledge of all the participants, and make the lessons come “alive.” They also provide an opportunity to explore from various new perspectives and encourage new thinking and using new behaviors.

The collapsing of time and space found in well-designed and artfully crafted simulations makes it possible to recognize what is often clouded or seemingly invisible, tacit knowledge. This mode of learning is consistent with the core values of self-determination, teamwork, collaboration inherent in the project management profession. We also know that there is no panacea or “silver bullet” that, alone, can possibly address the complexity and expected chaos of interrelationships in a complex project system. Yet, we are finding that experientially-based, well designed simulations that incorporate the concepts and principles outlined in this paper and presentation have the potential to significantly accelerate the transformational learning of individuals, teams and organizations.

Individual Learning in Virtual Worlds

Traditional education has focused on individual learning, rather than on group or organizational change. Simulations are experiential program and as such formulated on David Kolb's view of learning, and the cyclical model of learning. The basic premise of Kolb's work is that learning is a circular four-step process. Essentially, an effective learner must possess four distinct abilities: The first is the ability to act; the second is the ability to observe and reflect on the experience you have while doing the activity; the third is the ability to conceptualize around the experience; and, the forth is the ability to experiment with new behavior(s) that may have more efficacy than current or old behavior(s). This cyclical process is shown in Exhibit 1. The learning cycle appears as this: action provides the basis for observation and reflection. The observations coalesce into a new approach or behavior and new implications for action are then deduced; the new behavior serves as a guide for further action or experimentation that then creates new experiences.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

In the first stage of learning, there is immersion in the concrete action … just doing it. You move through a simulated experience rather naively while storing up experiences without completely understanding them. In the second step, private experiences are examined through observation and reflection to obtain a whole picture or “Gestalt” of the experience. This image helps us answer and gain insight into key questions: What is going on here? What are my personal experiences with the simulation? When these questions are answered at the end of this step, a metaphor or story emerges. The metaphor can be further broken down to smaller components, facts or observations, but the important thing is the appearance of a total image. In the third step, the movement is into more abstract reasoning and conceptual understanding. From the vast amounts of data, connections are made to the image as patterns emerge from the set of experiences. New ideas, concepts, and theories develop that help explain the experiences. In the forth stage, the new behaviors are tested with the fresh hope for better success. The primary focus is on discovering and selecting a way of examining a behavior in action and on developing an instinctive feeling about what new action to take to improve performance and deciding to test it. At this point, the process begins again at the first step in the learning cycle.

Other researches have expanded Kolb's four-step learning model. Chris Argyris augmented Kolb's model by inserting the notion of "mental models” into Kolb's abstract conceptualization stage. This implies that all individuals need to examine their own mental constructs if they really want to learn. These rules of behavior or “mental models” help us interpret our own reality as well as that of others. They are our view of the world and provide the context for interpreting actions and for determining how each piece of new information relates to a given situation. Mental models also influence how we involve ourselves into any new experience and determine how we interpret those experiences and develop new learning from them.

Argyris also presented two other concepts to expand on Kolb's model: (1) Single loop learning and (2) Double loop learning. In single loop learning, Argyris explains as learning by making corrections in our behavior without examining our original mental map. While in double loop learning, cognitive acts taken by individuals with the examination of their mental maps. In double loop learning, an error in reasoning or acting between the response of the simulated “real world” and a person's mental map causes an examination of old maps and to new ways of thinking and behaving.

Argyris's concepts suggest two important points. First, that simulations and experiential training facilitates double loop learning, and, second, simulations help people examine their own mental models and this, in turn, provides important information for the organization changes they are making.

However, explicit in this research is the fact that traditional educational methods have limitations for organizations making transformational changes. This is because individual learning does not necessarily create organizational learning and change. Even when individuals learn and make significant personal changes, this learning alone may not produce organizational changes, and in most cases individual learning is hard to transfer back to the workplace because of the rigid organizational rules and practices. A paradox exists in that organization's learn only when individuals learn, but organizational learning is much more than just a collection of individual members learning. This suggests that for organizations to learn as a whole and change, they must learn as organizations. For the project management profession to have an impact on the organization we need to move beyond our current mindset to something that more effectively incorporates a model for organizational learning and change.

Organizational Learning In Serious Play

Organizational learning is in many ways similar to individual learning. In both, there must be action and reflection of that experience, the examination of current and old mental model errors and then further experimentation. However, organizational learning and reflection are more complex and dynamic than individual learning.

Kim presents an approach of: discovering … unearthing … examining individual shared mental maps as the basic first step for learning at the organizational level. These shared mental models create an organizational view of the world. Individuals have their models stored in habits, routines and mindsets, whereas organization models are stored in the organization's memory through cultural norms, values, policies, rules, and procedures. For these collective mental models to be of value, the shared mental model must be tested publicly. In this manner, the organization creates a double loop learning model through shared experiences with that model. The collective experiences can lead to the organization developing new values, norms, policies, and procedures. Exhibit 2 presents the organization learning model. Each step is similar to the Kolb experiential learning cycle, but each step in the model represents an organizational learning level. Public Observation and Reflection is the process of collective review and involves the collaborative process of organizational members sharing common experiences while suspending final judgment. The important point is that members talk about their experiences, the context, and their responses to the mental models. Shared Meaning is the process of coming to a common understanding, refining the beliefs, values and the updating the shared mental model. Joint Planning involves the team in collaborative design of the new actions and the testing of those actions. Coordinated Action has members involved openly and honestly discussing their common experiences. All these steps are open and public.

There are two necessary requirements that direct and drive the process: (1) Dialogue and (2) Consensus. Dialogue is the process of collaborative reflection and is the process by which organizational members create shared meaning. Consensus is the process of reaching convergent thinking through discussion, advocacy, and inquiry. It is the means by which people gain agreement, make decisions, and take action. Using these two techniques in each step of the model promotes the beginning of organization learning.

How Project Simulations Can Help: The Reality of the Virtual

A good project simulation provides a powerful and positive context for applying both individual and collective learning principles. Participants are transported virtual learning space and immersed into a real life-like project where they have the opportunity to maximize active and enjoyable involvement in the learning process. These virtual project spaces generate an appropriate level of creative, emotional tension and encourage the learners to explore, conceptualize, inquire, and experiment while they critically analyze all project variables simultaneously. Organized into teams of project leaders, participants become an agent of their own learning, shifting the traditional classroom into a “project learning laboratory.” With the focus on learning rather than on teaching, participants build new knowledge and skills, and test out new behaviors and perspectives.

A good project management simulation creates an environment of open exploration of the tough issues and differences without the repercussions that might result by confronting those issues directly at work. Simulations provide safe learning conditions, allowing participants to venture into new territory, take risks, confront the unknown, while providing for the discovery of new possibilities for action and uncover common ground, and project dynamics. They allow us to bring in different experiences, personal styles, and mind maps to explore on a “practice field for collective experimentation and decision testing.”

A good project management simulation is very engaging. They are unique in that the activity of participation and immersion in a simulation contains its own motivation and outcomes, and the learning involved is not just a means to some external end such as passing a multiple-choice test. Simulations provide the learner with the opportunity to operate from various viewpoints, and participants are not solely dependent on a teacher. Participants reason for themselves, test out different assumptions and useful project management practices, make decisions on their own, and receive prompt and accurate feedback that challenges their reasoning. Good interactive simulations focus less on the teacher and more on the learning that occurs among participants and create real-time understanding of existing project dynamics in a stimulating and results-oriented way. When all the members of a large organization go through the same experience they create their own movement toward more effective projects and project management approaches. A simulation's experiential format evokes current organizational and project issues in a way that is particularly intense. This intensity supports and encourages reflection on what is happening. Simulated projects management experiences give organization members a safe environment where members can talk about project and the enterprise's real problems and issues. They work together to understand the similarities and differences in three areas: (1) the way the project dynamics work during the workshop, (2) the way they work on a day to day basis, and (3) how they want them to work in the future. They work together to arrive at their shared mental models, and reach consensus on a plan for achieving the kind of organizational performance that they experienced during the program.

One final note on the how simulations can be helpful in organizational learning and change. Any experiential learning method aimed at organizational change is most effective when combined with an overall organizational change program. An isolated simulation event is unlikely to transform an organization. Even setting up this unrealistic expectation is likely to cause more harm than good. It is best to think of it as one method that can be folded into the organization's larger change effort.

The Challenge of Simulation Design: Reality Bytes

Good simulations allow for different learning styles and present the learner with an intellectual challenge. They also utilize the participant's prior work experiences and many different perspectives. The development of good simulations takes a great deal of work. In our experience at developing many different computerized versions, including two project management simulations and customized versions of these models, it involves four critical abilities: (1) Understanding of the essence and nature of the process being modeled, and the primary and secondary participants needs; (2) Detailed understanding (or access to subject matter specialists) of the system dynamics from a practitioners point of view (including the “science of surprise”); (3) Technical programming skills; and (4) Learning design elements and how the model will be used in the classroom.

The first ability requires a clear understanding of the structural elements and project dynamics (i.e., time, cost and scope integration, customer changes, morale factors, etc.) and other major influences of project success. A designer must understand enough of the core essence to build a credible model. They must know how to represent the most important dynamics in a way that makes sense to others who have not designed the model. They must know how the dynamics could change under different conditions, and have insight into how the participants will understand the dynamics as a result of using the simulation. Another challenging aspect is the ability to design robust simulations that create relatively consistent conditions and results, while at the same time building in enough flexibility to accommodate the uniqueness of the group of learners and the dynamics they create in the classroom. In other words, providing the structure that produces predictably consistent learning. This is especially true for open-ended simulations, in which a wide range of possible outcomes is built into the design. The designer must be able to balance the robustness of the model while supporting the participants need to discover valuable lessons on their own.

Good simulations should have enough details. Translating an often complex system of relationships and a confused bunch or parts into an intelligible working model that provides a clear sense of the cause and effect relationships at work, is the second ability and is positively a design challenge unlike any other form of classroom training. Good simulation designers know how to create a classroom experience that reflects a real life scenario with the right amount detail. Too much detail can hinder the learning process and interfere with the learning objectives; too little detail can also prevent participants from understanding and learning how seemingly small events can create big problems. A clear and clever understanding of how events, patterns and structural elements emerge and evolve over each simulation time frame as a result of participant interactions and decisions are what create great simulations. As they play out the project simulation, participants need to see and feel the “big picture” of managing a complex situation. The connections and contradictions in project strategy, planning and implementation should be detected by practicing systems thinking within these highly realistic environments.

A good simulation designer of complex organizational and project systems has to contend with a vast array of counterintuitive behaviors. In our experience, the majority of complex behaviors are attributed to some combination of the following five sources: (1) Paradoxes/Self-reference, (2) Instability, (3) Non-computability, (4) Connectivity, and (5) Emergence.

Paradoxes. Paradoxes arise from the false assumptions about how a system behaves or how we believe it should behave. Many project situations involve paradoxes—those conflicting choices or conditions, each desirable in theory but seemingly impossible to reconcile in practice. For the simulation designer, a clear understanding of such phenomena is paramount in building in the appropriate level of reality.

Instability. Everyday work is generally full of many small disturbances. Project systems are very sensitive to small problems that sometimes go undetected. For example, we may get extremely busy and forget to return an important phone message, or miscommunicate our intention about a task completion date. These small events may create big problems later in the project. For the designer, the many small events that may impact the project's outcome needs to be incorporated into the simulation so that the model appears real, and like everyday life.

Non-computability. For the designer, it is unfortunate that all behaviors are not rule-based. Sometimes key variables cannot be represented mathematically. As such, the simulation designer is confronted with making “close approximations” with the knowledge that we may never see the real thing in the computer.

Connectivity. What makes a project simulation real life-like are the connections and interactions among the individual components with the total system, as well as the effects these linkages have on the behavior of the components. For example, what is the relationship between team member performance, morale and project performance? For the designer, how does this get represented in the simulation?

Emergence. The elements of surprise generating mechanisms are dependent on connectivity. The way interactions among the system components generate the unexpected events. It also includes any properties not present in any of the individual subsystems but manifested in the total system when all interactions are connected, allowing good simulations to take on a life of their own. For the designer, it is not simply a matter on whether there is some kind of interaction between the components, but also on the specific nature of that interaction so that a living model is developed.

The third factor is technical programming skills. As obvious as it may appear, a good simulation is free of software bugs, and useable in a classroom situation. It must be well designed for functionality and ease of use or participant learning can be disrupted.

The forth factor is the learning design of the overall workshop. Simulations are part of an overall program and, as such, should not dominate the workshop design. In the past, early, awkward simulations usually dominated the learning design. Now, they serve as powerfully integrated aides to learning. Integration means how the learning content, concepts, useful and best practices are introduced throughout the workshop experience. We have found that presenting traditional lectures, discussion time, videos, small team exercises, personal style instruments (such as Myers-Briggs Inventory, or a robust 360 Project Leadership instrument) and role plays when appropriate adds a great deal of value to the workshop. The simulation is used as a vehicle to practice and apply skills, knowledge, and mental models. Simulations create the possibility of dynamic team member interactions over the course of the exercise. Although computerized simulations cannot simulate the normal interpersonal relationships … they can do something of ever-greater value in letting the participants experience those interpersonal relations inherent in having to reconcile differences. By immersing a group of individuals into a simulated lifelike context for a specific time period, it's possible to focus not only on teaching the “hard” project management skills, but also the “soft” interpersonal and teamwork skills. In this way, you can integrate learning about complex team and people interactions with training about complex project interactions right in the classroom … just like they have to do on the job.

The Facilitator

Capable facilitators can create organizational learning out of the simplest of exercises. Great facilitators with great simulations can even do much better. The effective simulation facilitator has to wear many hats to be great. They must be a teacher … as well as a learner; a concert master … as well as a designer; a tour guide … an actor … as well as a role player; a content expert … as well as an explorer. Leading complex simulation exercises requires a higher order of skills than most other types of teaching or facilitation. A good facilitator must understand the inner working dynamics of the simulation and its many nuances, project management knowledge and content, the context of the simulation, and team dynamics. In addition, there are the required standup presentation skills, good communication skills, listening skills, questioning skills as well as good computer and technical skills.

Facilitating simulation based individual and organizational learning is not a free-form activity. It requires deliberate and well-conceived elements and following a well-planned framework to produce predictable learning outcomes. To accomplish this affect, the simulation facilitator needs to have a clear understanding of the learning objectives, the participants, and the simulation parameters and the ability to manage the creative tension in the group. For even the most seasoned facilitator, managing group tensions often involves managing difficult situations that may arise in the classroom that challenges the facilitators abilities, instincts, and intuitions and requires a great deal of self-confidence and trust in the discovery learning process. It requires being a teacher and learner, and both at the same time.


This paper proposes a new purpose for viewing simulations as not only a learning tool for individuals but also as a powerful vehicle in supporting organizational learning. The conceptual framework presented suggests that simulations can contribute to organizational change in several specific ways:

1. Simulations can help individuals learn best and useful project management practices and learn new skills behaviors and values.

2. Good simulations and properly designed workshop formats can provide participants with an experience of how to manage projects successfully.

3. Good simulations provide participants with a condensed experience of the dynamics of projects within their organizations and the sources of serious problems.

4. A project simulation workshop conducted with in tack teams can result in the development of new and better approaches for planning, executing and teamwork.

5. Acting, experiencing, sharing mental models, reflecting, and joint planning can help transform the classroom experience into organization action.

6. Through the simulation experience and metaphorical learning and discovery process, participants can learn to take responsibility for learning how to learn on their own and carry the lessons of continuous learning back to the job.

7. Simulations create a framework for both dialogue and inquiry, which are key elements for organizational learning, and assist in viewing problems from different angles. This better enables participants to both think about and dialogue with others about complex and difficult issues.

The challenge of navigating within these turbulent times calls for faster knowledge transfer that captures full understanding of the dynamic relationships within our environment. This equates to a generalized “systems” view as well as practical knowledge about how to manage in these turbulent times. Improving organizational learning requires more than one person moving in the right direction. All organizational members have to be able to move nimbly. They can accomplish this by: sharing different multiple perspectives on given problems; really learning to listen to each other with complete understanding; asking powerful questions of each other to gain better insights; and, by gaining a genuine understanding of the necessary steps for collective movement in a well defined direction. We have found that well designed project simulations that incorporate the concepts and principles outlined in this paper have the potential to significantly accelerate individual and organizational enlightenment and learning.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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