Monday, March 7, 2011

Culture Wars

We wanted to bring to our readers attention an article from the McKinsey Quarterly (March 2011) that highlights the ability of management simulators to be powerful business tools.  The context is the use of such “war games” in assisting management teams to accomplish their business goals; but we would allow that their utility extends to other challenges such as managing safety culture.

“Well-designed war games, though not a panacea, can be powerful learning experiences that allow managers to make better decisions.”

“...the company designed a game to answer the more strategic question: how can we win market share given the budget pressures on the Department of Defense and the moves of competitors? The game tested levers such as pricing, contracting, operational improvements, and partnerships.  The outcome wasn’t a tactical playbook—a list of things to execute and monitor—but rather strategic guidance on the industry’s direction, the most promising types of moves, the company’s competitive strengths and weaknesses, and where to focus further analysis.” (p. 3)  We have often used the term “levers” to bring attention to the need for managers to understand when and how to take actions to bring about a desired safety culture result.  Levers connote control and, as with any control system, control must be based on an understanding of the system’s dynamics.  Importantly the above quote distinguishes the outcome of the simulated experience is not a “playbook”, but “guidance” (we would add a deeper understanding and developed skills) that can be applied in the real world.

Interestingly the article mentions the use of games to facilitate or achieve organizational alignment around a strategic decision.  This treads very close to our contention that using a safety culture simulator offers a powerful environment within which managers can interact including developing common mental models and understanding of culture dynamics.  As noted in the article, “This shared experience...has continued to stimulate discussions across the company…” (p. 4)  What could be more valuable for reinforcing safety culture than informed and broad based discussion within the organization?  As Horn says, “It’s often beneficial, however, to repeat a game for the sake of organizational alignment ... usually, the wider group of employees who will implement the decision. Most people learn better by doing, and when they have shared experiences, they are more likely to embrace change.”

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