In today’s fast-paced business environment, there is a growing need for leaders and emerging leaders who are adept at change and capable of innovating. To outpace competitors, businesses must assemble and train high performance teams comprised of people who can seek new ideas, systematically test them and put new practices into place.

At the same time, there is a need to more rapidly and effectively train mid-level professionals in 21st century skills for their expanding roles. These encompass a range of competencies such as open-mindedness, reasoning, judgment, decision-making, leadership and interpersonal effectiveness. Many of these essential business skills are learned on the job through experience, feedback and practice.

Yet, in the very organizations that need these skillsets the most – complex, dynamic organizations – learning is often interrupted because the results of employee actions are unseen or obscured by intervening factors like process delays, change, overlapping initiatives and the fog of abundant-yet-unsorted data. As a result, learning by experience can be slow or impossible.

In a rapidly changing digital economy, how can current and future leaders develop and expand their capacity for these business-critical skills if they are not easily acquired on the job? How can they learn to successfully manage change, innovate, and apply systems thinking?

One solution is to engage them in a business simulation experience designed as a practice field for skill building and a catalyst for change. A business simulation is a simplified model of reality that can replicate common workplace challenges and eliminate extraneous “noise.” Time and space are compressed so participants can try out ideas, test solutions, and receive immediate feedback, accelerating their ability to identify leadership behaviors and more readily put them into practice.

Friday Night at the ER, for example, is a business simulation used to build skills around systems thinking, distributed leadership, effective communication, and other essential leadership competencies.

It is a scenario-based tabletop simulation that challenges teams to manage a fictitious hospital during a simulated 24-hour period that takes one actual hour. Because the hospital setting is familiar to people in all industries, it works well as a universal learning tool.

Guided by a trained facilitator, participants in teams of four each play the role of a hospital department manager. They must oversee patient flow and staffing, uneven workloads, unexpected events and limited resources all while trying to provide quality care at a reasonable cost. Players perform distinct functions, but come to realize that they depend on each other. They discover that quality and cost problems can only be solved when they collaborate and share responsibility for performance beyond their own departments, when they are open to new ideas, and use data for decision making.

The learning process unfolds in four distinct stages. First, it engages learners in a hands-on exercise that feels real, activating both their emotional and thinking processes. They are motivated by performance indicators and exhibit behaviors that can be examined later for success or failure. A guided discussion then follows the interactive game experience, which gives rise to facilitation and idea-sharing. This second stage helps transition participants from the practice field to their actual workplaces by addressing questions such as “What felt like reality?” and “What worked well in the simulation?”

At this point, the facilitator distills the lessons learned into a memorable set of guidelines, usually focused on three essential behaviors for applying systems thinking and putting other improvement disciplines into place. These are collaboration, innovation and data-driven decision making. The final stage moves participants to create concrete ways to put their learning into practice on the job.

The entire simulation experience, including the game play and facilitated debrief ranges from three to four hours.

Simulation is no longer limited to technical skills, and can be a dynamic way for businesses to train their current and emerging leaders in the 21st century skills not easily learned on the job, but critically important in today’s rapidly changing economy. By providing a practice field for learners to replicate common workplace challenges, test new practices and ideas, and receive immediate feedback, organizations can accelerate the learning process and pave the way to organizational success.

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