Archive for the ‘Executive Education’ Category

Play games, learn more

A revolution is quietly impacting the way organizations educate students and workers. Gamification is increasingly being integrated into curriculums and courses. Incorporating game play produces a better educational experience by adding realism, fostering competition and delivering quicker progress feedback.   The value for the organization and worker is compelling:  improved problem solving and collaboration skills, higher learner engagement and greater knowledge retention.  Organizations should consider how best to leverage Gamification methods into their most important training regimes.

Gamification programs blend the principles of video game play, social networking, data analytics and behavioural psychology into a formidable platform for inciting change and engagement. Organizational training and education is a natural place to include gaming.  The teaching/learning process is often dull, data starved and overly mechanical, which depresses student engagement and makes the linking of training results to business value difficult.   Gamification accelerates learning by  leveraging the power of digital technology and intrinsic motivators such as: providing instantaneous feedback (mastery), egging on the competition (social interaction), and rewarding even tiny steps of progress (recognition).

“The basic structure of video games — having to master one level before moving to another, repeating an action numerous times, and receiving feedback in the form of results about what works and what doesn’t — mirrors how skills are developed in real life,” says David Maddocks, president of WorkSmart Education.  “The added benefit for the workplace of using games is that employees practice in a safe situation and not on live customers.”

Incorporating gaming principles has helped companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Nike and Samsung foster richer consumer-brand interactions, improve operational productivity and drive higher levels of employee engagement over the past few years. Corporate training is not far behind on the curve  Few companies have done more to incorporate Gamification into learning than SAP, one of the world’s largest software firms.

It is not easy for a sales rep to keep up to date on the ever-changing mobile offerings and technical considerations of a large, dynamic company like SAP (and then effectively leverage this knowledge in front of clients). That’s where the Roadwarrior game comes in. This game instructs sales reps through a simulated customer meeting on how to respond to the buyer’s question and what information to provide. Providing information on the customer and their needs helps the sales rep design a unique technical and business solution. By properly preparing for meetings and correctly answering clients’ questions, sales reps can move up a ladder, unlocking levels and earning points and badges on a leaderboard.

Once all customer meetings in one level have been completed, the user proceeds to the next level with new customers and requirements. This allows sales reps to gather cross-technology knowledge and to practice multi-level selling. Players can also challenge other players to uncover the best answers for difficult question. Training engagement is enhanced by the use of intrinsic motivators such as team and peer-based competition, regular socializing that foster an esprit de corps and the growing confidence that comes from handling increasingly difficult client questions and situations.

New hire orientation

Rocketeer is an ingenious idea tool to convey important corporate information.  Developed in 2011, this little flash game  welcomes SAP employees when they visit their corporate landing page.  By controlling the speed and angle of the rocket, users can navigate the rocket past obstacles, which are nothing more than signs showing key SAP factoids and news. The further you can fly the rocket without hitting any of the signs, the more you learn about SAP. Rocketeer generates more engagement and information retention than merely reading off a long list of facts.

Closer to home

Some Canadian organizations are already using gamification techniques to improve their educational experience and learning outcomes.  The York School, a leading independent school in Toronto (disclosure:  my child attends the school), is integrating game playing in the teaching of Math and Science.  According to Justin Medved, head of Learning, Innovation & Technology, “These tools give teachers unprecedented insight into the learning process while at the same time engaging students in a fun and familiar way.  The data collected through game playing is allowing us to tailor our teaching to respond to individual student needs in a way previously not possible.”   At the other end of the learning spectrum is the Canadian Military. The National Post reported that they are using popular video games like Call of Duty and specialized video simulations to enhance ordinary training. In addition to creating customizable, ‘real world’ environments, games have the important benefit of being able to train more soldiers at lower cost — and much lower risk of accidents.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

 

Retaining employee expertise

 

It’s an organizational fact of life that talented and experienced people will move on — whether through headcount reductions, promotions or leaving for a better job. The knowledge that departs is often vital to a firm’s capabilities and a key source of best practices. This flight often ends up weakening the company, increasing costs and boosting risks.  To preempt this outcome, leaders should develop talent plans for key employees that capture organizational history, best practices and customer insights.

Many kinds of knowledge are at risk of disappearing with key employee turnover.  This expertise could be around key business relationships, customer insights, or having an implicit understanding of how the organization really operates or how a product has been designed.  Information risk is especially acute under times of business distress or when circumstances (e.g., a merger) overwhelm deliberate thinking.  Outside of risk mitigation, documenting and sharing expertise in a timely fashion is a great way of driving continuous improvement and minimizing costs.

Two of our previous client engagements illustrate the hazards of not retaining wisdom:

Product firm outsources key activities

This company decided to outsource an important business process, making the operational team redundant.  Despite a long implementation period, little attention was paid to retaining the team’s institutional knowledge. This was a fateful omission.  The firm no longer had the expertise to effectively manage the outsourcer, resulting in higher costs and reduced operational performance.  Furthermore, the lack of know-how prevented the company from exploiting new innovations that could have improved consumer satisfaction.

IT company is acquired

A rapidly growing software firm was purchased by a large IT services company.  As buyers are apt to do, they quickly brought in their own teams and processes, and rationalized many of the functions including sales and product development.  This process was handled clumsily.  Incoming managers spent too little time understanding the informal works practices used to get their jobs done.  Moreover, they did little to preempt expertise gaps through knowledge transfer or retaining key people as consultants.  These omissions created significant problems around client retention, customer service and software upgrades.

In both cases, outcomes would have been better if these companies codified and managed their expertise, had timely knowledge transfer and archived important historical information in accessible places. The reality for many organizations, unfortunately, is the opposite.  The proficiency of a small team or even a single person can be a challenge to re-accumulate when needed.  Vital know-how (especially implicit knowledge that is never written down) is often spread over many people or buried in IT silos. In fact, losing implicit data may represent the biggest danger because managers may not even know it existed in the first place.

How can firms avoid these pitfalls?

First, recognize this issue is not about better severance packages or employee engagement.  Key people will leave; you just have to manage the risk, and work on better documenting and sharing their expertise.  Catherine McIntyre, SVP Strategy and Development at LoyaltyOne, believes capturing institutional knowledge is crucial.   “My experience at LoyaltyOne and P&G shows it’s essential to do and it definitely pays out in many ways. Like most leadership tasks, it takes planning and showing we truly supported the work by participating in some meaningful way.”

This can be achieved by exploring three key questions:

Which employees have risks, opportunities?

Who are your experts in the key roles?  Usually, they will be long serving employees who manage customer relationships or design products.  These people may not always be high in the organization or be the ones with the most seniority.

What do we need to learn from them?

What are best practices, indispensable skills or work habits needed for important tasks?  You will often need to go deep to understand the “art” of the job.  In key accounts, for example, who are the decision makers, barriers and influencers?  Or, what “pitch” seems to work best?

How will we get this knowledge, in a sensible way?

High performance companies bake information sharing into every employee’s job description and performance plans. We also recommend regular team and department debriefs, as well as 1:1 mentoring with those workers most likely to graduate to key roles.  McIntyre takes a comprehensive approach to talent management. “I’ve used a variety of approaches, appropriate for the type of knowledge to be captured and the existing culture. This included special functional training as groups of people were promoted into new levels, job shadowing for those being groomed for next roles, and case study competitions to encourage documenting the most current knowledge.” Companies looking to be more strategic in their approach may want to develop apprentice programs, encourage more inter-department job mobility and look to create internships with key suppliers, especially outsourcers.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

 

Filling middle manager skills gaps

Much has been written about our country’s pervasive skills gap:  the gulf between the existing and growing need for skilled and technical labour and our economy’s chronically high unemployment. Less advertised but equally as important is the skills gap within a major segment of our workforce — middle managers.  For many growth-focused firms this middle manager gap is a barrier to higher productivity, increased innovation, and faster execution.   Companies that can address these shortfalls with new educational approaches and tactics can dramatically improve their chances of long-term success.

Low-level skills shortages are not the only human-capital issue plaguing employers.  Skills deficiencies among middle managers — those white-collar, knowledge workers — is a significant and hidden drag on organizational performance. While hard, economic data on this problem is difficult to find, anecdotal feedback from dozens of firms is worrisome.   The knowledge gap ranges from basic skills to advanced thinking.  If workers are under the age of 40, there is a good chance they  lack essential writing, presentation and quantitative skills (e.g., basic statistics, finance).  Beyond these core skills, many middle managers have difficulty with important activities like synthesizing disparate pieces of information, undertaking financial modelling or structuring a business case.  Moreover, talent deficiencies are not limited to analytics or communicating.  Project execution and collaboration competencies are also in short supply.

The scale and needs of the middle manager layer amplifies cost and compromises outputs (productivity and thinking).  Because middle managers are numerous and expensive, their skills deficiencies will have a large and negative impact on financial and operational performance. Moreover, talent shortfalls hinder middle managers from problem solving, fostering innovation, and leading change, three critical ingredients for dynamic and globally oriented enterprises.

This issue is expected to get worse.  “The pressure on middle managers to perform is only going to increase due to population demographics,” according to David Maddocks, president of WorkSmart Education, a provider of eLearning programs to banks.  “Organizations are facing a huge loss in institutional knowledge with baby boomers retiring, and there are fewer entry-level employees coming into the workforce.  This means the talent pool will shrink, forcing labour costs higher.”  Furthermore, the talent gulf may not be easy to close.  The kinds of skills needed by employers have changed from incremental new ones that can easily be learned on the job to those that require advanced technical and “soft” skills (in problem solving, communication, teamwork, and leadership, etc.) which cannot easily be learned in a workplace.

In the short-term, filling the gap will remain the responsibility of employers.  Sending more people for MBAs won’t solve this problem, so what can companies do?

Understand the problem

Leadership needs to grasp what and where the talent gaps are, and why they occur.  In large companies, this is an onerous task.  The analytical process should be focused towards more manageable lines of business, divisions or departments.  Talent assessments should be holistic if possible, based on existing performance appraisal processes, benchmarking and online tests.

Address strategically

Training can no longer be approached in an ad hoc fashion driven by employee desires.  Firms need to prioritize education according to business needs and make ongoing skill development a part of career building.  These initiatives should focus on offering workers career pathways, not just skills for the initial job. This life cycle approach can begin with running internships or cooperative degree programs for university or college grads.  This “try before we buy” approach allows many employers to assess the skills, work ethic, and attitudes of prospective workers and to give them training tailored to a firm’s specific needs.  Furthermore, companies can optimize their talent-management strategies by tweaking their hiring practices (to focus more on capabilities) and through better retention strategies that minimize turnover of the most skilled managers.

Rethink education

Organizations need no longer rely on vanilla, push-based training methods.  New and improved educational programs combine cutting-edge content, experiential learning tools and ongoing measurement.  Online and classroom education can be integrated with opportunities to apply new concepts and skills in actual or simulated work settings — an approach proven to be the way adults learn best.  “What gets measured gets done, and its no different with education” says Maddocks, “Companies must make education a priority by holding each layer of management responsible for its connection to the business and successful implementation. As well, each layer has to get better at coaching the layer below it for results.”

Finally, expert and holistic knowledge is now a mouse-click away.  A variety of third-party educational providers assemble the expertise of leading schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton to develop online courses as well as web-based certificate programs.  And, our firm mines consulting learnings from dozens of companies to create unique, cross-discipline programs in strategic thinking, change management and ‘executing with excellence.’

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.


Game Theory powers decision making

As a decision making tool, Game Theory is rapidly moving beyond the realm of economics and psychology into the boardroom.  GT is a branch of mathematics that increasingly is helping managers, regulators and lawyers predict how organizations and people will act in certain situations based on what they perceive to be in their best interest.

Up until recently, government, academia and think tanks have used these methodologies to help forecast the actions and reactions of various countries, organizations and leaders around particular issues such as: when will Iran develop a nuclear weapon or how will certain countries negotiate trade deals.    Not surprisingly, managers discovered that GT has practical uses and delivers compelling value in many high risk/high payoff business situations such as:  how to counter a competitive entry; what price should be submitted in a closed auction; how to negotiate with a union; how to negotiate a M&A transaction or; what is the likely competitive response to a price cut. 

Each business “game” contains common elements.   A modeler frames the strategic question, identifies the key players (e.g., competitors, regulators, customers), and estimates their possible options.  In consultation with management, numerical values are placed on the potential positive and negative payoffs of each option.  A computer or mathematical model is then used to determine the best course of action by simulating the interplay of various decisions, the impact of random and planned influences, and the financial results of these decisions.  The consequence of multiple simulations is the prediction of an event and the choice of the ideal strategy for the firm. 

GT is now moving into mainstream business.   The Economist magazine recently highlighted a number of examples in which these tools are being used.  In one noteworthy case, GT was used to assist a consortium of bidders in the 2006 online auction of radio-spectrum licenses run by the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S.. Two bidders, Comcast and Time Warner, ended up paying approximately a third less than their competitors for equivalent spectrum, saving them almost $1.2B.  GT has also been used to help decide which television shows to run;  to ascertain the optimal wholesale pricing for services like electricity and water, and to uncover the best strategies to sway juries and outfox prosecutors.  Interestingly, GT was credited with helping locate Osama bin Laden’s hideout  in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 

All these deployments share some common features.  They utilize custom and sophisticated software programs; they leverage advanced mathematical methodologies and they are pricey, starting from $50K and easily hitting hundreds of thousands dollars.   No doubt, many managers and Boards facing high stakes, strategic questions will look to a bespoke GT solution as an important decision making aid.

However, one doesn’t always need a Ferrari to take them to the corner store. Most GT executions have been expensive, time-consuming exercises.  After making a significant investment in the tool, managers may be tempted to over rely on the model (i.e. the sunk cost effect) at the expense of other valid decision analysis tools.  Furthermore, the high cost and time needed for many exercises makes GT impractical for most important, though not mission critical, decisions faced on a regular basis.  Finally, the value and accuracy of GT become less reliable when non-monetary (i.e. more subjective to calculate) payoffs are critical to the decision. 

We believe GT can be used by the average company in more circumstances than just game-changing decisions.  In order to increase application scope and appeal to more firms, we developed a new product that retains the essence of GT but also reduces the cost, speed and management burden of running simulations.  This express solution keeps the core of GT – the mathematical logic, strategic choices and influences, and management assessments of financial payoffs – while dispensing with the luxuries of a custom software build.  Our GT product is still software-based, but relies on standard Excel modeling. 

This approach has been successful in anticipating competitive reactions to a new product launch and in deciding which channel partners to engage with.  Outside of the cost and time advantages, our solution is also flexible enough to enable managers to more quickly model more scenarios based on new information availability, changing assumptions and multiple impacts of non-financial payoffs.  Finally, the entire modeling experience has proven to be a richly rewarding management education experience.

When it comes to decision analysis, there is no magic bullet.  GT is a powerful complement, and not a replacement, to traditional and innovative decision making strategies such as business war gaming.  Like other management tools, GT’s effectiveness will depend on the skill on which it is used, the expectations around its predictive value as well as the ability of managers to recognize and compensate for inherent biases and incorrect assumptions.   As more case studies are publicized, look for GT to become a standard part of any strategist’s arsenal.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Great innovators: Nature vs Nurture?

These days virtually every company looks to gain competitive advantage by launching innovative products and programs.  In many companies, innovation is more about people than it is about sub-optimal capital, structure or strategy. With this reality, how can managers spark more innovative thinking within their existing human capital pool?

A recent issue of Working Knowledge from the Harvard Business School published an excerpt from an interesting new book. Written by authors Clayton Christenson (of disruptive innovation fame), Jeff Dyer and Hal Gergersen, The Innovator’s DNA argues that innovation skills can be taught, cultivated and embedded into a company’s DNA. 

Conventional wisdom says that innovators are typically right brain individuals with a strong independent streak and flair for out of the box thinking.  For a firm to become more innovative, they need to attract as many of these unique people as possible.  Unfortunately for this line of thinking, a significant amount of academic and medical research on twins confirms that the majority of creativity skills are not simply genetic traits endowed at birth.  Rather, they can be developed and fostered. The research shows that 60-75% of our innovation skills come through learning – first from understanding the skill, then practicing it, and finally from gaining confidence in our creativity capacity.

If innovators are made and not born, then which attributes are important?  The authors canvassed approximately 5,000 executives to understand the different skills that separate innovators from the average executive.  Their research identified 5 major skill sets (4 behavioural, one cognitive) that can be taught and nourished:

Observing

Innovators spend a lot of time studying the market and technology ecosystem with a focus on customers, products, and competitors.  The observations gleaned in one place often serve as new ideas or ways of doing things in other places.  As an example, many of Steve Job’s ideas for Apple’s innovative Macintosh computer and mouse came from Xerox PARC’s research facility.

Associating

Innovative people are often able to identify, synthesize and recombine disparate ideas or technologies – a cognitive process known as Associating – into something new.  While some see this as a welcome confluence of events, innovative people have a knack of connecting seemingly unrelated factors into new concepts or problem solving.  On a corporate level, well-known innovators such as P&G and 3M incorporate associational strategies into their innovation programs. Our firm helps companies develop Associating skills through specialized facilitation and creativity-enhancing learning.

Questioning

Innovators are passionate and curious people who spend more time than the average person asking and valuing questions.  These questions seek to bring clarity and solve difficult problems by challenging conventional wisdom or key assumptions.   Out of the answers come breakthrough insights, ideas and results. Albert Einstein may be the most famous example of this kind of innovator.

Experimenting

Innovative people thrive on new experiences, experimentation and change.  Very often, their restless nature translates into a impetus for launching pilot programs to test hypotheses and new products.  One of the most prolific inventors of all time, Thomas Edison was a relentless tinkerer who also headed an industrial laboratory and major corporation (Edison General Electric, later GE).

Networking

Innovators understand the power of the network in identifying and catalyzing new thinking and action.  These people expend a lot of effort collaborating with others on existing projects as well as seeking to connect with new people and organizations for inspiration, new ideas and resources. As an example, Steve Jobs was coaxed by a friend to check out a small and eccentric computer graphics company named Industrial Light & Magic.  He ended up buying the firm for $10M and turned it into Pixar, which he eventually took public for $1B.

Inculcating these five talents in whole or in part in people can lead to significant increases in individual and organizational innovation. Akin to a person’s DNA, these discovery skills are necessary building-blocks for firm’s to ramp up innovation capabilities and outcomes.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Nagging employees can improve their performance

Conventional wisdom says that employees disengage when their managers frequently repeat the same messages.  In this line of thinking, people would view repetitive communicating as nagging and tune out.  Worst case, nagging would breed resentment of the manager and create strife. Perhaps this is the case, but do the benefits of redundant communications outweigh its perceived challenges?  New research out of The Harvard Business School explored the impact of persistent communications on message acceptance and effectiveness.

The researchers studied the daily communication patterns of 13 project managers in 6 firms in the IT, health care and telco sectors.  The findings were conclusive:  those managers who are deliberately redundant communicators drive their projects forward more quickly and smoothly than those who are not.  However, there was a caveat. The amount of direct organizational power had a major influence on the frequency and type of communication as well as the pace of team performance.

In many companies, PMs do not possess power over the people and projects they coordinate. Since they lack direct authority, these managers understand that they must work harder at influencing and directing others.  As such, they will attempt to enlist support from team members through more repetitive communications.  For example, they will time first and second messages close together, typically starting with a phone call or face-to-face meeting followed up by an e-mail.  Not surprisingly, higher frequency communications will create a greater sense of individual urgency and quicker follow up, very often leading to higher team performance.

On the other hand, PMs who possess direct power will tend to communicate less frequently, at least initially.  Relying more on their formal authority, these PMs will often delay communicating.  Typically they would only send one e-mail, assuming that one notice is enough to incite an employee to undertake their task.  Because a sense of urgency is not always created, the recipient may not feel a strong impetus to action.  As a result, team performance can suffer in the short term, forcing the PM to re-exert their authority to get the project back on track.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that message clarity mattered less than repetition in boosting team performance. It’s not the message but rather the frequency of the message that matters in driving results. 

In spite of the differences in communication styles, the study found that both types of PMs delivered on the same deadlines and budget goals with the same frequency regardless of the amount of power.  However, managers who communicated more frequently over different channels got employees to perform at a higher level, and with less mop-up needed later.  While some employee resentment would naturally occur, the performance benefits of persistent communications were clear.

How can managers leverage the power of redundant communications without breeding antagonism?

  • Include and publicize high-frequency communication strategies as part of a standard project management or employee communication process;
  • Utilize advanced and automated collaboration management tools that makes the software the nagger;
  • Make high frequency communication strategies a part of standard employee training and on-boarding.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Fixing Executive Education

There is something wrong with executive education when substantial amounts of spending and effort, particularly in the areas of strategic thinking and change management,  do not appreciably improve the overall level of middle manager performance. Even though I teach executive education (strategy and organizational transformation) at a top business school, I have yet to see definitive research that links high levels of executive education with increased and sustained rates of individual and corporate performance. 

For the foreseeable future, corporate learning will remain a staple of executive efforts to improve productivity and the level of human capital. Enhancing middle management performance makes intuitive sense.  Furthermore, corporate education provides a number of ancillary benefits including enhanced morale and team building.  Yet, what can be done to close the educational gap between intent and performance? 

In my experience, there are many causes for poor executive educational performance.  For example, educators often have insufficient real-world and cross-functional business experience to teach complex subjects like strategy and change.  Secondly, student are rarely taught how to think strategically as opposed to using blunt instruments like benchmarking and SWOT analysis.

Thirdly, most programs rely on traditional lecturing and case studies to transmit information. Although this pedagogy has some advantages, it is not the best approach to imparting knowledge and triggering behavioral change.  Finally, most courses are siloed in terms of content and intent.  However, most managers recognize that problems and opportunities are never limited to one functional area or issue.

Given these challenges, what can firms do to improve educational effectiveness and pay back?

Increase relevance through customization

Many generic subjects like project management can be effectively taught in all organizations.  However, some complex areas such as change management and strategy are best taught by incorporating the company’s competitive challenges as well as organizational considerations into the content. 

Utilize practitioners who can facilitate

Not only do practitioners bring greater credibility to the classroom but they will also be able to convey richer insights and experiences as well as stimulate peer-based learning.

Leverage experiential methods

There is extensive research has shows that experiential teaching methods – simulations, games, and role plays – are superior to any other form of knowledge diffusion.

Teach strategic thinking

Typical strategy courses focuses on the “what” of strategy development and problem solving but little in terms of “how” you would accomplish this.  On the other hand, our programs emphasize learning-by-doing through the use of powerful tools such as problem visualization, making sense of data and business case development.

Follow up

Sobering research says that 90% of everything we learn  is forgotten 72 hours after we are first exposed to it.  Given this, we should not be surprised when individuals do not leverage their learnings in their jobs.  To drive real behavioral changes, corporate education must be an ongoing process and feature regular diagnostic checkpoints.    

Measure the results

Like any other investment, educational effectiveness and payback needs to be periodically measured through the actions of individuals & teams and the outcomes of their projects.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Business Gaming: Simulate to Success

Those who have participated in strategic planning exercises know the trials and tribulations of the process. For example, the outcome often results in poor decisions.  These could arise from management bias or an overtly company-centric view.  Moreover, traditional planning initiatives are typically time-consuming and onerous undertakings.  Finally, the planning effort will often fail to overcome functional silos, resulting in limited information sharing and inadequate compromises.

While a traditional strategic planning process has its merits, there is another way to develop strategy, preempt competition and secure internal alignment:  business gaming. 

War game simulations were first deployed by the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation (a U.S. think tank) in the 1950s.  Their purpose was to simulate the outcome of various military and diplomatic hypotheses.  Businesses recognized the power of this idea, and today, gaming is used extensively in companies that face high risk/high reward decisions.

Typically, an external consultant will work with management to design the game and create a market fact base. Different cross-functional teams are chosen to represent key competitors and stakeholder groups.  With the assistance of the consultant, these teams role play hypothesis-driven scenarios under real-life conditions which could include environmental or regulatory changes.  The scenarios represent important strategic decisions facing the firm such as whether to launch a product, make a price change or execute a M&A transaction

Business gaming is a powerful complement to all strategic planning approaches.  By their design, simulations bring reality directly into the planning process by incorporating competitive moves and by accounting for the human element in decision-making (e.g. fear,  hubris)  Our experience has shown that business simulations can deliver many benefits: 

Generates better decisions – Potential decisions are torture-tested against competitive moves.  Key assumptions and analytics are more easily challenged.  More creative strategic solutions often emerge.

Improves internal alignment – All participants will develop a much better understanding of the challenges and opportunities. As well, participants will align quicker around implementation strategies and resource allocations. 

Enhances learning and team-building – Business gaming is fun as it appeals to management’s competitive instincts.  Moreover, the level of strategic thinking and data sharing across the organization is usually enhanced. 

The following are some of the games we have run:

Should we raise our price? 

This medium-size software provider was worried about maintaining competitiveness against key rivals and lower-cost open-source tools following a price increase.  We role played the actions of key competitors, a strategic client and the open-source community in a simulation that ran over 1.5 days.  After experiencing a harsher than expected competitive and customer response, the company decided against a list price increase – but in favour of higher integration and support pricing.

How robust is the current plan?

A large financial institution was enjoying market leadership and high margins.  However, senior management was concerned that the existing strategic plan was overly conservative and paid insufficient attention to potential threats from new entrants. We undertook a 2 day game, simulating new product entry from current competitors as well as from disruptive players from outside the industry.  The game highlighted a number of product, service and operational vulnerabilities which the firm moved to quickly to address.

Do we acquire a larger rival?

This small but ambitious firm debated the impact of acquiring a larger competitor, which would immediately vault the firm into a global player.  However, the transaction would also bring considerable attention to bear on the company from large competitors as well as from important suppliers. Our firm role-played potential competitive and supplier responses to the transaction as well as the effect on the company’s tight culture and operational scalability.  The firm decided the opportunity out-weighed the risks and proceeded with the deal.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Improving Corporate Learning and Development ROI

It’s never been tougher to build human capital in large, complex organizations.  Often, the greatest upside (and challenge) is with the vital middle management strata who posses the numbers, base skills and authority to significantly improve business performance.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, these folks are expected to be more strategic, adaptable and innovative while trying to cope with rapid change, tighter budgets and increasing regulation.  The optimal way for the firm to build competencies is through management training. Farsighted leaders get this.  Andrall E. Pearson (past president, PepsiCo) echoed this sentiment when he said, “To improve a company fast, develop people fast.”  

However, in most companies there is a pervasive gap between training goals, program delivery and business impact.  Few are satisfied with this status quo.  Corporate buyers are unhappy about spending billions of dollars annually on programs that don’t improve performance, enhance morale and deliver measureable results.  Similarly, thousands of participants’ will sit for days in boring classes that lack relevancy to their day-to-day jobs, business challenges and organizational life.

There are many reasons for this situation.  The vast majority of training programs in areas like strategic thinking and change management are too generic in nature to have a signficant short term impact.    Secondly, for all of their teaching expertise most instructors are educators first and foremost, possessing little real-world business experience.  Finally, most management training programs utilize a traditional lecture-based pedagogy emphasizing rote learning and memorization.  Although effective in some cases, lecturing is less successful in imparting knowledge and skills for complex topics that require a people-centered approach, a holistic organizational view and adaptive & creative thinking.

How do your bridge the gap between intent and results?  Our firm has created a unique training model that tailors the content and pedagogy to the client and participant need in a measurable way.  For example:

Customize the curriculum around solving key business issues

For most training programs, teaching generic principles is not enough to help firm’s solve their problems and engage their employees.  The content needs to be tailored around the company’s pressing business issues plus the specific needs of each participant. As one CEO told me, “…we have an aversion against vanilla approaches that don’t apply to our unique challenges and circumstances.”  Moreover, customizing the content enables the firm to better track program impact through actual business results.

Utilize experiential learning methods to catalyze breakthrough thinking and change behavior

Given its common sense and elegance, it is hard to argue against teaching proven theory like Porter’s 5 forces strategy model.  However, we use theory only to provide a framework for further exploration.  To catalyze new learning and activate this knowledge on an ongoing basis, we leverage experiential learning methods such as simulations, games and case studies.  These tools are ideal for teaching complex content as well as facilitating soft skills development like critical thinking, problem solving and communicating.

Use experts who can teach as opposed to expert teachers

Unfortunately, trainers possess a credibility deficit with some managers.  To see this, recall the old adage “those who can’t do, teach”.  Given this bias, we draw on accomplished business practitioners – with a passion for education – to serve as facilitators as well as provide ongoing coaching. Not only do operators bring valuable market experience to the enterprise but they are also more attuned to the everyday people and cultural issues facing the participants.

To be clear, traditional teaching strategies remain effective for transmitting rote skills to lower to mid-level employees.  However, when companies need training schemes to elevate their managers in areas like change management, innovation and strategy and then measure the impact of these programs, a new educational paradigm is needed.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Teaching Strategy to Managers

Strategy education is big business.  A cottage industry of training programs and thought leadership is devoted to improving management’s strategic thinking, and for good reason.  A lack of strategic talent within management has become a significant organizational issue that negatively impacts competitiveness, increases employee turnover and hampers morale. This deficit has many causes including extensive downsizing and restructuring, a reduced emphasis on training & mentoring and the accelerated pace of business which limits strategic deliberations. 

My assertion is not that firms don’t have talented strategists or the right tools.  The typical Fortune 500 firm has a number of them.  However, many of these individuals are often in non-strategic roles, are under resourced or are too busy to undertake proper strategy development. As well, available strategic competencies are regularly underutilized due to a shortage of relevant data and tools as well as the lack of a regular strategic planning framework.  Going forward, many factors such as organizational flux, headcount limitations and recruiting challenges will bedevil efforts of cultivating and unleashing strategic talent. Organizations will not prosper unless they have enough managers who can think and act strategically. 

The presence of a strategy skills gap impacts my consulting work directly.  My clients will often require strategy knowledge transfer to their managers in the statement of work. Why?    The executive sponsors will acknowledge that their teams are hampered by strategy skill gaps that prevent them from identifying, analyzing and exploiting business opportunities.

Much of my thinking has been influenced by how the Military teaches strategy to its officers.  Corporations in dynamic, high risk and complex environments can learn much from the way the Military cultivates strategic competencies including continuous learning, situational adaptation and breakthrough innovation.  One monograph in particular, Professor Colin Gray’s Schools for Strategy: Teaching Strategy for 21st Century Conflict (published in the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute), could be helpful for those looking for a first class overview on strategy education in the Military. 

As such, I regularly facilitate and coach senior & middle managers in ‘applied strategy learning’ that encompass areas such as analysis, strategy development and planning. My general approach is to deliver strategy education that is one part proven strategy theory (business, sports and military) and one part “best in class” tools, simulations and sector knowledge, all customized for their real life business challenges.  

My applied strategy learning methodology follows 8 key maxims, which I summarize below-

1.  Education is not a one-off event.   Managers must be encouraged and incentivized to use their new skills and knowledge within their day-to-day jobs;  

2.  The use of time-tested business theory is essential to thinking ‘strategically;’

3.  Although theory is important, strategy development is ultimately a practical exercise and should be tailored to the realities of the organization and market;

4.  To be considered relevant and credible by the student, strategy education should not be left to over-intellectualized educators or those separated from the “trenches;” 

5.  Strategy education that does not emphasize the centrality of the customer and the impact of competition will probably be inadequate;

6.  Strategy education that ignores the importance of internal considerations such as culture and resource limitations will be ineffectual;

7.  A skeptical, though not cynical, mindset of the participants is crucial to imparting wisdom and understanding the value and usage of tools;

8.  Strategy is vital but not the sine non qua of leadership.  Other management responsibilities such as execution and leadership are just as important. 

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.