When a client reaches out to us to discuss the creation of a Business Acumen leadership development course, they typically begin by stressing that they would like to help their leaders understand “the Big Picture.” As the design process unfolds, we discuss their overarching corporate goals and how the target population impacts those goals. This sets the priorities for the course, considerations such as: how much time to spend on revenue recognition and accounts receivable; whether to include investment analysis; and how closely to examine the competitive performance in key markets.
But after these important discussions, we switch gears. Most of our time as designers and facilitators is spent thinking about the Small Picture, because we know that this is precisely where the learning happens.
Early in my line management career, I attended a number of finance courses for non-financial managers. Although they were informative, they seldom influenced my behavior — and within months I forgot much of it. It wasn’t until I attended a course with a business simulation that the light really came on. I had the opportunity to practice making a wide range of business decisions and to trace their individual impact on the business performance. The financial-concept tumblers clicked into place as I decided how much inventory to purchase and how to finance it. I finally understood the small picture.
In the real world, a team spends little time discussing the obviously poor outcome choices for a decision, because they naturally rule them out early. In order to get to the small picture in our simulations and course designs, we consciously avoid poor decision choices. The easy decisions with a clear right answer do not help leaders understand the complexity of a system. We look for those business decisions that inherently include difficult trade-offs: At the end of a quarter, how can I support meeting the corporate revenue targets when I am concerned quality might be compromised? How much of my precious time can I use to develop my leaders, and how can I afford not to? How do I manage the scope creep that accompanies a major development project? How do I support speedy decision-making in an environment with limited data?
These individual choices have multiple impacts that are complex and sometimes challenging for leaders to articulate. As we formulate the course and, later, teach it, we spend a great deal of time identifying and quantifying the impacts of those individual decisions. We debrief those choices intentionally, exploring the impact on revenue, client satisfaction, team morale, turnover, cost, technical capability, quality, stakeholder dynamics and cash flow.
Yet, as complex as our simulation algorithms are, they are usually simplifications of the real world. I know we have successfully arrived at that magic small-picture understanding when our simulation debriefs become a forum for our participants to share additional examples, often with different or nuanced impacts. These discussions are critical for creating a course that truly addresses our client’s needs.
Over time, my clients have taught me that only by breaking down the details of the small picture can I help them understand the impact they have on the Big Picture. It is always an exciting moment in a classroom when participants suddenly grasp the dynamics at the detail level so that it brings the whole system to life for them. Business Acumen is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, figuring out how the details connect is what brings the picture into focus.
Laurel Tyler is an expert facilitator with Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen, and strategy execution.