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Five misconceptions about business simulations

When you hear the term “business simulation," what comes to mind? Images of MBA case studies, computer-based games, maybe even memories of prior simulation experiences? You may be surprised to find that business simulations and their impact on your organization can be far more than you imagine. 


Common misconceptions:

  1. Simulations focus either on “soft” behavior or “hard” business skills, but not both.
  2. Simulations and gamification are one and the same.
  3. If you’ve seen one business simulation, you’ve seen them all.
  4. Communication is not addressed in business simulations.
  5. There is one right answer in any given simulation.

If any one of the above struck you as true, welcome to the club. These beliefs are actually rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what a simulation is.  


A well-designed simulation marries the content (what is taught) to the methodology (the simulation) so seamlessly that it’s hard to discern one from the other. As a methodology, simulations are unlimited. Some simulation experiences intentionally limit their focus to develop very specific skills. However, a whole-system business simulation that is well balanced offers a more robust and relevant experience than these misconceptions would allow. 


Truths About Business Simulations

1. Misconception: Simulations focus either on “soft” behavior or “hard” business skills, but not both.

Truth: Great business simulations can incorporate both behavioral and business skills as critical learning components

People are rarely able to focus on only one issue (such as communication) without other concerns (such as financial performance) influencing their behavior. The higher up in an organization one goes, the truer this becomes. Balanced simulations account for the interplay of demands, frustrations and pressures on participants’ abilities to make and execute important business decisions. Blending hard and soft skill development enhances simulation learning, making lessons more personal and immediately applicable.


 2. Misconception: Simulations and gamification are one and the same.

Truth: Simulations are better suited to integrating complex skills than gamification

Gamification and simulations are both methodologies, but differ in what and how they teach. Gamification is well suited to simple skill acquisition, using competition and rewards to incentivize players to practice a specific action. “Gamification is helpful for scenarios where leaders have to continually update workforce knowledge ….” on safety policies, product specifications, customer service … and other information employees need to be reminded of regularly.”1


Simulations promote far more complex behaviors by creating an environment similar to participants’ professional world and applying strategic pressures. This allows them to see causality and business results from a distance many may not achieve in their own work settings.

The element of competition, common to both gamification and simulations, makes these experiences fun and engaging. Yet the “winning” in a simulation, unlike in a game, is in more than being victorious: it is in learning lessons that will inform everyday decision making and pursuits of operational success.


3. Misconception: If you’ve seen one business simulation, you’ve seen them all.

Truth: Each simulation is a unique and dynamic experience

There is a common assumption that if people have previously completed a simulation, they will not benefit from another. Yet, just as one’s learning needs are dynamic, so too are simulation experiences. Variations to simulation format and content are unlimited. Simulations that incorporate a facilitation element can also be vastly different based on this component as well.

Expert facilitators connect business decisions made in the program with results, creating poignant experiences even for practiced participants. Skilled facilitators lead participants in meaningful reflection of decisions and learning points. Done well, this reflection can lead to "ah ha" moments that become the catalyst for behavioral change.


4. Misconception: Communication is not addressed in business simulations.

Truth: Communication should be regarded as a driver, rather than a bi-product, of business simulation results

Simulations have long been regarded as compelling platforms for collaboration and communication within simulation teams. An impactful simulation will further highlight and enhance these skills through explicitly practicing communication (e.g. roleplaying challenging conversations, composing company-wide messages, etc.) so that business leaders are better prepared for effective communication back in their actual work settings.


How business leaders communicate with their employees affects performance, engagement, talent retention, and ultimately the bottom line. In truly powerful business simulations, decisions about strategic communication techniques and delivery play a significant role in the program and in its final results.


5. Misconception: There is one right answer in any given simulation.

Truth: There are multiple “right answers” in business simulations

Simulations are intrinsically built to promote best practice behaviors, yet this does not mean narrowing the training to one acceptable path to success. A good business simulation will teach participants that there are often multiple right answers to the demands they face. Simulations teach this by creating a “learning lab” environment in which individuals can think creatively and take risks without jeopardizing their company’s financial performance. An experience that relies on only one right answer misses this critical opportunity.


Many of the misconceptions listed above have led companies to overlook the value of simulations as a training tool. In fact, the common thread running through each of these assumptions is the idea that simulations are limited in some way. In reality, there is no limit to what participants can learn from simulations that are done well, and no limit to the benefit organizations can see by incorporating them. 


 What Really Happens in a Business Simulation?


Ashley Perry is a Consulting Associate at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.


1 KARL KAPP's GAMIFICATION: Separating Fact From Fiction. Chief Learning Officer. March, 2014.