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Decision Rehearsals (Wargaming)

Note: as I’ve been asked about non-military terminology in some circles I’ve started to call this “rehearsal” and “simulation.” You should use terminology that is appropriate for your organization. 

Often when we make a decision we do so trying to consider what might happen in the future due to that decision. However, once that decision is made and the result comes to pass we don’t have an opportunity to try again. Or to consider counter-factual cases. The reason is because time goes in one direction (aka everything is technically a “one way door”).

Strategy rehearsal is a way to try out a series of decisions to see how they might work out under different circumstances. It is by no means predictive but it is able to provide possibilities of the future to glean something before it comes to pass. 

The technique, originally referred to as wargaming, comes from a RAND paper in 1957 by Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann. This paper about War Gaming talks about how they will put together groups of people to consider what might happen if a certain action is taken. Then there are people that will adjudicate what would happen next. From there they are able to explore the shape of possible futures. 

The first strategy rehearsal I’ve found was also in 1957 as used by the American Management Association Top Management Decision Simulation. They used mainframe computers (through punch cards) to simulate various aspects of a business and moved it forward in time. 

While wargaming as practiced in the military has opposing sides (usually blue and red) I’ve found this isn’t necessary to get help understanding your strategy. In most cases, your business or project doesn’t have a direct competitor. The biggest threat is your customer not caring or the landscape you are trying to survive on becoming so inhabitable your burn rate won’t allow you to survive. 

This is different from decision-forcing cases (DFCs) which help people learn from historical situations in a way that allows them to “play through” the situation. Strategic rehearsals are usually future looking.

I’ve also used strategic rehearsal to help decision makers get better at dealing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future. It helps build visceral experiences without having to wait for the future to happen. 

Ways to wargame

More traditional wargames can take weeks to prepare for and days to play out. I’ve found that you can explore the future with a pretty short time to plan with a pickup group of people.

The core mechanic of a rehearsal is a cycle of understanding a situation and taking an action as the situation unfolds. This is very similar to the way that OODA or other loops are used in regular decision making.

The key aspects of a rehearsal is that you will “play” with incomplete knowledge, perceived randomness, and urgency. These ingredients end up making a game one that helps people think through the possible repercussions of their efforts. 

The first step of any game is setting up the board. I’ve often used Wardley Mapping as a good map of the current situation. You can also use journey maps, rich pictures, and other techniques to hold state. 

Then you cycle through an event-contextualization-update cycle:

  1. Event - some event that will alter the state of the world that the players will need to react to. More on this later. 
  2. Contextualization - considering the map and how it may impact our current state. I usually consider how our current strategy would guide us (or not) in decision making. A hypothetical strategy could also be considered to see how it fares. 
  3. Update - take actions to update the board or map to adjust (or not since deferment is a possible action).

Then you can repeat this cycle as long as it is helpful. Each step should consider a few months of time to allow for enough change to be realistic. I’ve usually found you can set up the map and do 3-4 turns within a 90 minute session.

There are other modifications or additions you can make to the rehearsals, if they are helpful:

  • Limit time or resources - adjust what people can do based on their attention or ability to focus on particular aspects of their work. I’ve done this by providing only a certain number of tokens that they can invest on particular areas of their maps.
  • Adjudicators - if you’d like to enforce capabilities or likelihoods of an action being successful you can have a “white team” that will accept or modify the actions that the team is doing. 
  • Rewind and play again - to see how different reactions could work you can play through the game with the same events a few times and make different choices. 

If there are other modifications you make I’d love to hear them!

Interesting (and random) events

I’ve used both random and specific events for the rehearsals. The benefit of using something very specific could help people not as used to dealing with ambiguity. But I’ve found some of the most interesting gameplay comes out of highly confusing situations. 

These events can come from news stories impacting your industry, regulatory changes on the horizon, signals you find, or simply possible futures you are worried about. In a recent game, I made a few events that were related to some of the organization's biggest fears to see how people might react. They can drive the point home of how reactive we are being rather than strategic when we have to deal with our fears.

In addition you can start to use more generalized business patterns. For example, you can use a Wardley Maps Strategy Cycle Spreadsheet which has various evolutionary characteristics, climatic patterns, doctrine, and gameplay. Using a random number generator you can effectively turn any list into a deck of cards to pull a single item out of.

You can go even more conceptual like Oblique Strategies which are really provocations of what might happen. By interpreting what this might mean to your product at each step you consider both what events could happen and how you might react to them. I’ve used product tarot readings as another conceptual way to reframe things.

When choosing events you don’t have to limit yourself to one. The real world is often complex and offering more than one event can help push people to deal with this fact. I’ve generally started with one per round and built up to two or three afterwards. 

As you can see events can be across the gamut of highly specific to confusing to help people better deal with the possible futures they can come across. 

Collecting the information

I believe that the maps and gameplay created are less important to preserve for the future. What is more important is the ability for people to learn to work together and how they understand each other’s mindsets better. 

This is often a concern by people when doing a lot of workshops. “What about all of the post-it notes?” they will ask. We can log each step and capture the state of the map for each turn. 

The bigger issue will be how you go back to those cases. This is probably as tricky as building a functional decision log for a team.

Reflection is an important aspect of rehearsal

Playing the game itself is valuable but without considering what happened to be able to learn from it you may only get half of the benefit. 

What was most valuable from the times I’ve done this is people realizing that the strategy that is written down on paper isn’t really the one they put into practice. More often than not they are simply reactive to the events in a way that doesn’t align with that strategy.

In addition to considering how your agreed strategy works in these games, I like to consider how a “bizzaro” strategy or one that is a reasonable opposite of the strategy would apply. It will help get at the assumptions we have about what is or what could be our strategy. This is inspired by Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy’s aversion to “fluff.” I’ve found that this strategic fluff is easily detected if the opposite isn’t a valid strategy as well.

When to rehearse

I’ve found that rehearsing is a great activity to do when you are considering how you might update your strategy or roadmap. It also provides a great way for different people to learn how they might react in different situations.

We have also done this type of exercise when all of the team get together to consider our strategic future.  It is an ideal activity to do as a group to continuously hone people’s abilities alongside product critiques, lean coffees, lunch n’ learns, etc. 

No matter when you do the rehearsal you will find it helps align people and consider how the world may be in the future.