Using simulation games in training project teams


Simulation games are a useful tool for teaching the increasingly complex roles of project leader and project staff.

W.G.N. (Bud) Lush and Piet G. Blanksma

The quality of project leaders is a decisive factor in the success of any project. Simulation games are highly suitable tools for training project leaders in their roles. Moreover, games also allow other staff to train in their roles and interact in a project. In this article we discuss the nature of simulation games and the ways in which they can be applied as teaching methods.

Developments in Project Management

More and more organizations are adopting the project approach in order to solve complex issues. The problems that have led them to apply this method are increasingly:

  • Large-scale—such as the Delta works and the Channel Tunnel
  • Less tangible—resulting, for instance, in policy concepts and new legislation
  • Complex in terms of coverage—involving more and more parties/organizations, such as agreements in the area of town and country planning and the environment
  • Politically sensitive or aimed to generate social support—such as plotting railway lines or drawing up development plans.

As the nature of projects change, so does the role of the project leader. Framing and supervising increasingly composite projects is more complicated and places greater demands on the project leader's professional skills in approaching intricate problems as well as on social skills.

The project leader's role is that of the “spider in its web”: directly surrounded by the principal, capacity managers and project staff, and, at a somewhat greater distance, by sponsors, financiers, suppliers, advisors, users and “victim” (see Figure 1).

Central to any project is the interplay between the client (or commissioning organization) and the project leader, resulting in a practicable project task. This task indicates the direction of the project and the way in which it is to be managed. This “contract” is renewed in every phase of the project. In order to ensure applicability of this contract, its makers first need to tune in to the environment in which it is to be carried out. One particularly important factor is the generation of commitment among staff and their “superiors” involved in the project.

The contract contains a description of the objectives, results, approach, and control instruments involved in the project concerned. However, it is at least equally important for the cast to comply with the rules of the game and the roles, tasks and responsibilities, and qualifications it provides them. The client needs to be sufficiently aware of the client role to be able to perform it with a clear view of the demarcation of tasks and powers between client and project leader. The client's role includes trying to prevent the project leader from getting stuck in private interests or modes of thought and having to check and approve their own decisions; isolating and protecting the project from other managerial levels in the organization; making timely decisions or choices for smooth progress of the project.

The project leader has a crucial role, including ensuring that the principal agrees with the demarcation of the proposed project result and approach; negotiating with future project staff and their superiors (capacity managers) about the deployment of capacity; fixing plans and schedules and other control techniques; gaining the principal's approval (in relation to the partial results achieved); informing, motivating and activating the project staff; establishing team spirit; and managing progress.

Figure 1. Atocrates® Project Team Model

Atocrates® Project Team Model

Figure 2. The Four Problem Quadrants (after Duke) [1]

The Four Problem Quadrants (after Duke) [1]

The other staff members who are direedy involved, such as the capacity managers, also have their own roles. However, throughout the project it is the project leader who plays the key role. The project leader operates as the dynamic leader in the center of the project. The means available for support in this role can be summarized as:

  • Methods and techniques for project-oriented activities (for example, network planning, quality checks, budgetary information, and risk analysis)
  • Style of management, communication, and interaction.

A management game/simulation provides an extremely useful opportunity for the project leader to practice with means and grow familiar with this complex role. In addition, games also allow other staff members to practice their roles and the interaction among themselves. Below we shall provide a definition of management games and discuss the objectives they help to achieve, the ways in which the simulation benefits can be realized, as well as the pros and cons of games as a means of training. We shall then discuss the way in which games are realized, and finally give a brief description of the schematic that underlies the project management game developed by Twijnstra Gudde.

What is a Management Game?

Simulation is understood to refer to the imitation of a system, by havingindividuals simulate the processes in that system in an abstract form and in different, though connected, roles. According to the views of Professor Richard Duke [1], a prominent expert in the field of game development, games are pre-eminently suited for learning how to control the type of problems covered by quadrant number 4 in Figure 2.

Projects should also be categorized in this quadrant. There is no single correct solution to these cognitively highly complex problems with their numerous variables and hidden relationships. Games are therefore a good medium for developing the knowledge and skills required in a project environment.

The experiences gained by participants in a soundly balanced game contribute to improving their insight into complex current and future processes. Simulation games are dynamic and interactive; the participants’ actions cause the situation to change continuously, enabling the players to try out new strategies, tactics, attitudes, and views for each different situation in a safe environment. In simulation games, the participants learn to grasp a particular course of events through direct experience. They understand the various interests and angles and their consequences. In this way, participants develop an integrated overall vision of their work and of reality This personal vision may serve as a stimulus to reinforce their contribution to the organization both now and in the future.


In general, analysis of management games reveals two central objectives: the integration of functional (management) areas and the acquisition of teamwork skills.

The former is based on the need for staff to comprehend the connection between secondary decisions concerning production, staff, marketing, finances, etc., and to be able to formulate an overall strategy. In the specific context of project management games, the key issues are secondary decisions concerning activities laid down in a phased plan, and the control of capacity deployment and execution periods, costs and revenues, quality control, the allocation of powers and responsibilities and documentation management.

As for teamwork, simulation games offer the opportunity for staff to practice with various styles of cooperation, and with casting and group dynamics in general.

Management games may also serve as a means to:

Team learning is an exercise in cooperation

Team learning is an exercise in cooperation.

  • Visualize knowledge, insight, attitudes and skills already present in the organization
  • Present new expertise
  • Practice skills
  • Influence attitudes
  • Experiment with forms of communication and cooperation
  • Increase motivation for adopting new working methods and encourage confidence in them
  • “Break the ice,” or as a recreational facility.

Simulation Benefits

Learning means changing behavior in such a way that the new behavior is more effective in the view of the person concerned. Moreover, this behavior should contribute to the objectives that the organization is striving toward. The criteria for effectiveness are determined by both the individual and the organizational context. This means that learning takes place on the cutting face of organizational change and individual development. Project-oriented methods are particularly effective in providing renewed challenges to the individual and the (temporary project) organization.

Kolb's classic learning cycle [2], shown in Figure 3, is a model for the way in which individuals and organizations learn.

Experience is gained by doing (concrete experience). This phase is followed by contemplation and analysis (reflective observation) of this experience. Conceptualization makes the experience comprehensible and applicable to future situations which, as a result, are treated differently based on the experiences already processed (active experimentation). Then the cycle is repeated. Through frequent repetition of this cycle, ingrained behavior is changed and new behavior is practiced.

Comparison with conventional teaching methods provides a good illustration of the educational benefits offered by simulation games. There is no difference between the two methods in terms of the acquisition of knowledge. For acquiring insight into abstract concepts, however, simulation games are more effective. For learning new role behavior and making roles mutually consistent, simulation games are the preferred method.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Games

The use of games has many advantages:

  • Enables staff to experiment with future scenarios safely
  • Emphasizes the importance of learning by experience
  • Encourages participants to mobilize their own personal expertise
  • Makes long-term problems surveyable
  • Is pre-eminently suitable for revealing connections within a complex of variables
  • Can provide immediate feedback on effects.

Figure 3. Learning Model Developed by Kolb [2]

Learning Model Developed by Kolb [2]
Simulation gadgets draw parallels from their real-life counterparts

Simulation gadgets draw parallels from their real-life counterparts.

However, the use of games as a tool also involves a number of disadvantages:

  • Games and development are costly.
  • Knowledge and skill improvement are usually not immediately visible.
  • In competitive games, exaggerated emphasis on winning can be detrimental to learning.
  • The term “game” may call up negative associations: “it's only a game.”
  • The simulation benefits are highly dependent on the input of the participants and on the knowledge and skill of the games master.

Creating a Simulation Game

The Twijnstra Gudde method for developing games consists of seven phases. We shall illustrate them on the basis of the project management game.

A project management game is developed by a project group comprised of consultants with ample project management experience, consultants who frequently provide advice and training during the implementation of the project management approach in organizations, and consultants specializing in the field of games development. Along with the project group, there is a review group that tests intermediate results. This group is made up of senior consultants who have a comprehensive view of the field and are able to assess the commercial potential of a game. Finally there is the principal who decides on the means to be put into development and who sanctions the continuation of the project.

Here is a general outline of each of the seven phases.

Phase 1: Drawing up a functional requirement package. In this phase, the primary and secondary objectives are described. The point is to find answers to, among other things, the following questions: What do we wish to convey with the game? What effect should it have? Which company processes is the game about? Which target groups should it be suitable for? What are the time limits?

Phase 2: Collecting processes and mechanisms. In this phase, all relevant data are collected on the process, company or organization to be simulated. The (constituent) processes, the actors involved and the roles they are to play, are analyzed. It is important to accurately show the distinction between the actual and the desired course of events.

Phase 3: Making an overall plan. The data collected in Phase 2 are now “fit together.” An attempt is made to bring all the elements, processes, relationships, etc., together in a comprehensive plan. This so-called schematic is the heart of the game, the result of the vision on how the processes run or should run. The schematic is the basic model, the foundation on which the game is constructed. The schematic for the project management game is shown in Figure 4.

Phase 4: Drawing up the technical requirement package. The technical aspects are determined using the schematic. The game designer is now concerned with the question of how each of the elements, processes, etc., can be given shape through games and simulations.

Phase 5: Designing a prototype. In this phase, a prototype of the simulation game is made. Different preliminary versions are developed to arrive at a definitive prototype. Intensity, and especially creativity, should characterize the teamwork between the game designer and experts in the relevant fields. Preliminary designs of the gadgets used in the game must be developed at this stage.

Phase 6: Testing the prototype. The prototype is now tested a number of times by the relevant target group.

Phase 7: Fine-tuning and making the game ready for use. The results of the prototype tests are incorporated into the definitive version of the game. A final, high-quality version of all gadgets and paraphernalia is produced by the drawing office and an industrial designer.

The general outline presented in the schematic (Figure 4) indicates three major fields of interaction:

  • Plan development (planning and scheduling), covering execution period and capacity, investment and return, quality requirements and testing, information and documentation, tasks, authority, and responsibilities.
  • Primary work to be done in order to achieve the desired results. The type of phasing and the professional skills required depend on the nature of the project.
  • Control and management to initiate processes, monitor them continuously and redirect activities if necessary.

Figure 4. Schematic for the Project Management Game


In addition, the schematic presents the various roles and their interplay as described at the beginning of this article.

During the game, participants will have every opportunity to acquire a thorough grasp of the interchange between the strict and the soft sides of project management.

The strict side refers to sound phasing of the approach so as to make it fit the problem to be addressed; instruments to realize planning, observation and steering of progress, and contractual documents stating agreements.

The soft side refers to efforts to generate the lasting commitment of all parties involved and the lasting motivation of staff, to gain acceptance as a manager and to acquire influence within the project as well as in its immediate environment.

In this way, games provide excellent opportunities to practice dynamic leadership and experiment with it, in an environment where risks are acceptable, and on a scale that allows concentrated collective learning. img


1. Duke, Richard D. 1989. Using Problem Scenarios in Simulation Games. North American Simulation and Gaming Association Conference.

2. Kolb, David. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Inglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

W.G.N. (Bud) Lush, Ph. D., is chairman of product research and development at A[email protected], an international education and research center for the advancement of project/program management, science and technology, based in Toronto and Boston.

Piet G. Blanksma is a management consuiting partner with Twijnstra Gudde NV, which specializes in management consultancy, information technology and telematic, facilities planning and property consultancy, and interim management.

PM Network • January 1995



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