The interactivity of simulated learning environments calls for a new array of course facilitation skills.
We all know that the most powerful and lasting learning comes from the discovery associated with our direct experiences - when we act and then experience the consequences of our actions. It is what Peter Senge has dubbed, "the learning horizon."
The dilemma, however, is that ambiguous problems and complex situations typically have very long learning horizons, requiring the passage of months or even years before the consequences of previous actions and decisions can be experienced.
Simulations accelerate learning associated with the analysis of complex problems, and equally important, the managerial and interpersonal behaviors required to act (lead or perform) successfully in a complex environment.
As a result, when facilitated effectively, a simulation creates an interactive learning experience that delivers significant knowledge and real behavior change.
Preparing for a simulation
A successful simulation experience begins with a thorough understanding of the group and the learning objectives, and the group's understanding of the intended learning. This information is critical to the entire process, which starts with simulation selection.
Selecting a simulation
Your responsibility as a facilitator is to fully consider the participants, the learning objectives, and how the learning will be assimilated into work processes. A key factor to consider is your skill and experience level, which must be matched to the complexity of the simulation.
Unlike the structured and predictable traditional training classroom, simulations play out differently with every group, making skilled facilitation essential. If the simulation is being used as part of a team development or organizational change process, it can be helpful to pair it with an appropriate self-assessment instrument. These instruments provide more opportunity for introspection and enhanced self-awareness, and should be considered during the selection process.
Know the participants. You should know the group's makeup, form, and function, as well as their previous experience with simulations. Simulations can be used to do an initial assessment of a group's developmental needs, but it is important for the participants to understand this intention.
Know the simulation. Be the expert on the simulation, and fully utilize the facilitator guide. Plan deployment to achieve the learning objectives in the allotted time, and walk through it.
Avoid simulations with one right answer. Simulations with one right answer are not realistic. They shift the focus more to the ability to analyze data. The best simulations present a problem-solving scenario that offers the opportunity to analyze, decide, perform, experience consequences, and then make adjustments. Complex problems rarely have one right answer. The ability to build support for a solution may be as important as the solution itself.
Make a checklist. Order materials; check supplies; and confirm number of participants, equipment, and shipments. If computers are involved, test the software on each device.
Plan the facility. Room setup is complex with many simulations, and every simulation has different space requirements and configuration options, so check your facilitator guide for room setup options, space needs, and other details before booking the facility. Make sure that the person setting up the room understands your needs.
Plan the timeline. Allow sufficient time for reading materials considering learners' different reading speeds. In daylong simulations, have the participants manage their time, including breaks, and provide the option of a working lunch.
Invite the participants. No one likes to feel hijacked from their day, particularly senior executives. Considering the organization's cultural norms, avoid this perception with a personalized invitation informing them of the purpose of the session, its duration, logistics, and expected outcomes.
Coach the leader. When an intact group's leader will be a participant in the simulation, provide coaching on how he should participate. A group may look to its leader to answer questions during the simulation or to share his experience first during the debrief. In both instances, doing so can significantly influence subsequent contributions from the group and should be discouraged.
Coach the leader to listen carefully and wait until others have weighed in before he does. This helps to ensure that others will honestly share their ideas and perceptions without being influenced. If the leader chooses to be an observer during the simulation, this role should continue through the debrief. The organization and the leaders should be made aware that having the leader observe can be a potential obstacle to full participation by the group, as they may feel that they are being assessed.
Coordinate schedules and facilitation styles. When group size necessitates running concurrent simulations, provide each group with a similar experience through the coordination of schedules and facilitation styles. Generally, it is best to have separate debriefs for each group, but if time allows, a large group debrief may be added. This allows everyone to benefit from each other's experiences and insight, which may be relative to the organization as a whole.
Delivering the simulation
At the beginning of the simulation session, as facilitator, you should communicate why participants have been asked to participate in the learning experience and the expected outcomes, but keep it short and get into the simulation as quickly as possible.
Establish ground rules. It's important to establish ground rules for what behavior is expected during the simulation. Have participants add to the list, and invite them to sanction a confidentiality agreement to enable open, honest dialogue among the group.
Communicate the difference between simulations and role play. Participants who may be familiar with role playing need to be encouraged to participate in the simulated experience as they would in the real world, as opposed to "acting" as they think someone in such a role would.
Observe, observe, observe. Throughout the simulation, the facilitator's primary role is to observe behavior throughout the simulation and take notes for questions in the debrief process. Do not judge any behavior. Just observe, and note the influence the behavior has on the group, individual participants, or the simulation. The smallest observations can be valuable to the debrief process.
Keep a straight face. Avoid conveying verbal and nonverbal cues. When grappling with complex problems, participants will look to you as the facilitator for reactions as they make decisions and take action.
Know when to intervene. Good simulations provide very engaging problems and can feel very real. The facilitator needs to be alert to sudden changes in behavior and emerging conflict. If necessary, discreetly pull the participant aside and give her a reality check by asking if she is okay or why she appears angry or withdrawn.
Debriefing the simulation
The debrief is the most critical part of the simulation experience. Here, participants step back from the experience, reflect, and start to understand the significance that the course has for their lives and work. The instructor's manual for the simulation can be invaluable in planning the debrief.
Provide sufficient time. Nothing is more important than having sufficient time for the debrief.
Provide optimal room setup. Unless the manual specifies otherwise, the best setup for an effective debrief is a tight horseshoe with you sitting at the opening. The intimacy created naturally facilitates communication and participation, and makes it easy for everyone to be heard and seen, which is important since body language can often be very significant.
Coach the leader. Coach leaders to listen carefully and to wait until others have weighed in before doing so themselves to keep from influencing the group. If a leader chooses to observe during the simulation, he should only observe during the debrief.
Reframe winning and losing.
If participants feel that they have been unsuccessful in the simulation, they may feel dejected, and as a result, be less receptive to the learning that will take place during the debrief. To avoid this, you should communicate clearly that the success of the experience is not about the outcome of the simulation but about the learning that emerges from the debrief.
Provide time for reflection. This is important to all learners, but especially for introverted personalities who need time to reflect before they can comfortably share. Encourage journaling to capture thoughts and questions.
Ask good questions. An effective facilitator must ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions. Be careful to avoid leading questions that convey judgments or conclusions. For example: "Were you demonstrating a culture of risk aversion when no one challenged Joe's ideas during the redesign?" A more open-ended question is: "No one seemed to challenge Joe's suggestions. Why?"
Manage the naysayers. Occasionally, participants may have trouble extrapolating the simulation problem to their broader environment. They may say that they see no relevance to their actual work setting. Rather than defend the simulation, turn to a flip chart and create two headings: how the simulation is similar to their work, and how it is different. Give the participants time to fill out both lists. Next, acknowledge the differences, and then mark a big "X" through this list.
Keep the focus on the group's learning. Participants and facilitators alike will experience different observations during the simulation. It is important to use the majority of the allotted debrief time to assist the group in the discovery of their learning, not yours as the facilitator. If you choose to draw the group out on a sensitive issue, be sure to allow sufficient time for discussion. It is unwise and unfair to do so if there isn't enough time.
Encourage different perspectives. One of the most valuable parts of the debrief process is the realization that each person experiences people and situations differently. Encourage participants to share their perceptions even if they are different from what others share. If people are agreeing too readily, pose the simple question, "Is anyone willing to share a different perspective?"
Help participants make connections to the workplace. Once drawn into the simulation experience, participants will forget that they are not operating in the "real world." Throughout the debrief, take every opportunity to pose questions and facilitate discussion that will enable participants to draw parallels between their experience and the workplace.
Use creative tools to add value to the debrief. There are many creative tools that can enrich the debrief experience, including
- energy or interest charts that ask each participant to chart his energy or interest levels at different times during the simulation
- relationship maps that create a visual representation of basic work groups (functions) in the simulation and how they perceive their relationships to other work groups in terms of importance, amount of contact, and influence
- graffiti walls on which participants draw symbols to indicate reactions or feelings throughout the simulation
- metaphors that draw comparisons between participants' experiences and team dynamics
- Visual Explorer, through which participants can select pictures to represent the experience.
Exercise good judgment in timing. Each simulation has a prescribed debrief process outlined in the facilitation guide. Try to end a debrief session while there is still some energy in the room, especially if there will be subsequent debriefs for the simulation.
Following up on the simulation
Effectively facilitated simulations provide learning that lasts years beyond the experience. Strategic postsimulation activities are critical to this sustainability, and an effective facilitator will seek out and play a key role in this process.
Some postsimulation activities that keep both the experience and the learning alive include
- taking photos during the simulation and posting them on your company's website
- setting up an interactive learning community group, intranet blog, social networking site, or website
- encouraging participants to share their learning experience with others in the organization
- posting the key concepts learned during the experience on a learning community website.
You need to remain active postsimulation to increase the satisfaction that comes from making a real contribution to a group's ongoing performance.
You should take the time to gain a thorough understanding of the group, their function, and the learning objectives of the organization and the participants because these best practices will help you more effectively facilitate any simulation.
Chris Musselwhite is founder and president of Discovery Learning Inc; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sue Kennedy is principal of SMK Consulting Group; email@example.com.
Nancy Probst is owner of Log Cabin Consulting; firstname.lastname@example.org.