December 2022 – Did Your Simulation Get the Memos?

Simulations are high-tech learning solutions – but sometimes you need to get off the digital and get on the paper. Jeff Bezos said that replacing PowerPoint presentations at Amazon with “six-page, narratively-structured” printed paper memos was the smartest thing they ever did.

We’ve talked in previous blog posts about adding pen-and-paper exercises to business simulation classes, such as PriSim’s Moments of Truth and Net Present Value activities. We’ve also described our Disruptor Engine in detail through which real-world, unexpected challenges can be added to the simulation experience in the form of paper memos (refer back to that post for a primer on the process).

And now PriSim has gone to the next level of disruption with some of our clients to incorporate not just one or two, but several memo challenges into our simulations (41 for one client) to prompt discussions, motivate critical thinking, and enrich the decision-making process. Maybe we should call it a “memo pad”…

Here’s how we develop and deliver multiple disruptors in PriSim’s business simulation classes.

Start with the Why

To quote (once again) author Simon Sinek, start with the “why”. Punishing teams with too many memos in a business simulation class can backfire if not done right and can create confusion, anxiety, and fist-shaking in the hallways. So “why” even consider a mega-pack of disruptors in the first place? Some “whys” could include:

  • When you want to teach optimal/recommended solutions to specific business problems that can occur in the real world. Business simulations are typically designed to be dynamic, and the potential solutions can be many and fluid. Adding disruptors allows specific scenarios to be presented, some with a defined set of options and responses, that highlight an optimal flow of thinking that an organization wants to be understood and practiced by decision makers.
  • When you want to motivate teams to reassess their simulated company’s strategies in light of an unexpected event so that they can practice for real-world surprises (e.g., pandemic, economic contraction, The Great Resignation, etc.).
  • Whey you want to discuss and compare/contrast team’s decision-making approaches to specific business issues.

Structure Your Memos

Wikipedia describes memos as written messages that are, “…usually brief and are designed to be easily and quickly understood. Memos can thus communicate important information efficiently in order to make dynamic and effective changes.” Good advice, and we recommend that you keep memos to one side of one page, including any options and choices.

PriSim’s memos are written in typical memo-format including “From”, “To”, “Subj”, a description of the scenario, and sometimes a list of 2-5 options that a team can choose from.

  • Memos can be distributed either as printed paper memos or as PDFs:
    • For virtual classes, PDFs obviously work best and participants can print locally if needed.
    • At live classes, we typically print copies of the memos.
  • The number of memos will depend on learning objectives, scenarios, challenges, and the time available in the agenda. We include only one memo in some of our classes; 30-40 memos in others, spreading them throughout competitive years depending on the associated lecture content.
  • The complexity of the wording in the memos will depend on the situation:
    • We recommend first creating a generic template for each scenario that you can easily modify it if a client wants their own specific wording included. Beware of client-specific jargon, or at least know precisely where it is so you can modify the memo for other uses.
    • More-complex memos that include extraneous detail or red herrings can motivate critical thinking and can hone prioritization skills.
    • Simpler memos can quickly guide teams to a desired outcome so that they focus on a set of optimal steps to be taken in a certain situation.

Define the Learning Objectives and Design Your Scenarios, Choices, and Impacts

Each memo should have a specific learning objective, and can be a new challenge/disruption or can build on a prior challenge/disruption. The learning objectives of some of our memos have included managing supplier issues, assessing ethical challenges, and identifying and analyzing new target market opportunities.

The learning objectives should guide the content of the memos and lead to actions and decisions. For example, a new-market scenario could be framed as:

  • Learning Objective: Identify and pursue new target market(s).
  • Scenario: New market opportunities may be available (memo/instructor to provide hints and clues).
  • Scenario Decisions: Verbally engage customers (role played by the instructor) to uncover new market opportunities.
  • Simulation Decisions: Develop products for new markets; advertise; hire staff; invest in capabilities.

Memos can include a set of 2-5 choices that teams select and enter into a dialog box directly within the simulation. The implications of each choice lead to different results and even different branches via which other challenges are conditionally presented to a team. Depending upon a team’s choice in a prior memo, they may then be presented with a follow-up memo.

Memos can also be informational-only with no choices/options, meant instead to inform teams’ decision-making. Teams would not select a choice/option, but would take action directly in the simulation based on the scenario (hiring, adjusting a cost, making an investment, etc.).

The impacts of each memo and teams’ decisions then play out over the next round(s) in several ways that can include:

  • A macro-economic impact (such as all costs going up by a certain percentage).
  • A decrease in costs if a team chose to make a specific investment.
  • The instructor’s assessment of a team’s brief verbal description of their solution to the scenario during the round (e.g., coming up with ideas to cope with a supplier cost increase or a supply-chain delay).

Instructor are Coaches and Actors

Coaching is particularly important when multiple disruptors are presented; teams are likely to ask instructors many questions to clarify and to get additional detail. Some best-practices we recommend are:

  • Instructors should know the memos, scenarios, and challenges inside and out. Get ready for questions that will stretch your thinking!
  • Include a 2nd page following each memo that has coaching notes for the instructors. The notes should detail possible solutions, teaching points, and questions that participants might ask. (This page would not be distributed to participants.)
  • Be prepared to role-play and act as different stakeholders such as a customer, a supplier, an independent insurance agent, etc. depending on a team’s questions.
  • Ask that all teams pose their questions concisely to a specific stakeholder; and instructors should act and respond within that specific role.
  • Be efficient and keep your visits to each team brief; don’t become lost in discussions such that you keep other teams waiting.

Integrate Scenarios and Disruptors with Lecture Content

Memos should be distributed through the competitive rounds to integrate with your lecture content. Lectures can either lead into challenges that will occur in the coming round or can be a debrief/best-practices on challenges that the teams have just encountered in the simulation. Regardless, the instructor should debrief the main point of each memo, either immediately after the round or by the end of the competition.

Simulations are learning tools that motivate critical thinking and provide a digital practice ground for business decision-making. That sounds like a gift to leaders and managers – and sometimes an even better gift when they’re wrapped in paper using memos.