Often we are asked why an organisation should wargame. After all, isn’t it time consuming, requires manpower and possibly hampers ongoing operations?! Moreover, why game if there already is a strategy in place and plans are made? It’s all going swimmingly well or it is all going pear shaped, isn’t it? What would wargaming do for us?
Sure, serious leaders periodically reflect on the future of their organisations and critical decisions they’ve made. Most organisations have - and seek to follow - a strategy. Some even have developed contingency plans! But lets be honest, most organisations follow their spreadsheets and do not look further then 1-2 years. Even worse, some companies that don’t like what they see on the spreadsheet just fire the person who ran the spreadsheet.
We all know that often strategies are based on assumptions and wishful (group) thinking. They are ill-prepared for market disruptions (think Carillion in the UK) and intruders, as well as technological and human innovations. This is especially true in industries and institutions that have become more ‘dormant’ over the past few years. Think energy, financials and healthcare.
Furthermore, these strategies are unable to withstand coordinated strategic attacks from competitors, such as market entries and PR scandals. Add the the Twitchforkers of the Twitter mob and it becomes clearer how many threats exists out there to derail your great plans and overturn your fool proof strategy.
Wargaming, in our experience, enables decision-makers to develop resilient strategies with durable contingency plans in order to capitalise on disruptions, innovations and withstand strategic attacks. Time and time again, the wargaming approach improves decision-making by providing new understanding and insights through rigorous adversarial play. Wargaming tests and uncovers assumptions and preconceived ideas in a safe and risk free environment. It is a trialed and tested military operational art that has, in the past decennia, slowly entered both private and public sectors. That said, wargaming is far from being a standard instrument in the decision-maker’s toolbox. For example; with a few exceptions, it is not taught at universities or part of leadership courses. In many places where a form of it is taught, it is assumption led.
So why are not more organisations doing this? Over the past years, we have come across many arguments and reasons. Here are a few of the the most recurring. Enjoy.
#1 Its added value is unclear or too ambivalent
Ok, granted often wargaming is described at a too abstract level or it’s added value for the decision-makers is unclear. So here’s our quick and dirty attempt to describe its added value:
“wargaming will help you improve your decision-making and to reduce risk in executing your strategy. By experimenting in a safe risk-free adversarial environment, decision-makers have the chance to develop and improve current strategies, business practices and plans. Wargames expose (hidden) assumptions, flawed concepts and unforeseen opportunities. The outcomes of wargames can be immediately used to improve operations”
Saving money (making more money), streamlining operations, testing the robustness of strategies and plans, improving staff performance. There’s your added value, right there.
#2 It’s too time/labour/cost expensive
Yes, wargaming takes time. Of course, it requires labour and will cost a buck or two. That said, the outcomes of the wargaming should be aimed at attaining strategic objectives more effectively whilst improving efficiency and reducing operational costs. As a rule of thumb, the costs of a wargame should positively affect the organisation at a ratio of 5 to 1. Each dollar, euro or bitcoin invested in a wargame should be earned back fivefold. How? By applying the lessons and insights that the wargame has provided to the actual operation. Proper wargaming exposes opportunities and risks that subsequently should either be capitalised on or mitigated in the operation.
#3 It’s too unpredictable, it exposes leaders’ flaws and uncertainties
Due to its adversarial nature, wargaming can be unpredictable which could expose leaders to situations for which they are not prepared. However, this is one of the things wargaming should do. As assumptions are tested and strategic options are scrutinised, leaders will define and refine their thinking and prepare them for similar challenges in their daily decision-making (real life). So yes, wargaming exposes leaders. That should not be seen as a negative, rather it is an opportunity for an organisation and its leadership to improve and evolve. Moreover, when an organisation’s leadership is unwilling to test their strategic thinking in a setting such as a wargame, it is a sign that the quality of the decision-making is stagnating.
#4 Playing wargames is perceived as childish
Yes, there is a stigma to wargaming. It is often perceived as childish or nerdish. We have addressed this issue extensively in our blog about wargaming (link to earlier blog). Yes there are play elements to a wargame. After all, a wargame presents a simulated environment in which possible real world events happen. Yes, the interaction that occurs in this simulated environment is play. However, that does not make it childish. Especially, as it improves efficiency and leads to achieving real world objectives. Wargaming is a very serious, and sometimes fun, business.
When a wargame is perceived as a childish activity. The organising party has failed to convey its added value prior to the wargame.
#5 It is not a replicable activity
This is true to a certain extent. A wargame will always be different and it outcomes will differ. This is mostly due to the interaction between the participants. However, a game can be replayed with the same information and topics with different players. If done enough times, the game’s outcomes will showcase various trends to which a level of predictability can be accounted. If in the game 8 out of 10 times a certain event or behaviour is observed, it is something you will have to be prepared for. For example, the US Navy might have been caught by surprise at Pearl Harbour in 1941, but thanks to extensive Wargaming at the US Naval War College in the late 1930s, the Americans had their subsequent Pacific Campaign against the Japanese already worked out to about 85% accuracy (they didn’t predict kamikaze attacks, but these made little difference to the outcome). Wargaming works.
#6 Anything a wargame can show me, a workshop, training, a planning session or a BOGSAT can do equally well
Sure a workshop, training or a typical BOGSAT (bunch of guys/girls sitting around the table) will give you insights that a game could also provide you. However, due to its adversarial nature and its play elements, wargaming will give you outcomes and insights that a workshop, a brainstorm or training session simply cannot. Guided immersion, interaction and record keeping will enable the participants to experience their strategy or plan to the fullest in a safe environment. Careful observation, data gathering and record keeping will enable the participants to implement the games findings in everyday business practice.
Great topics to wargames for within an organisation.
There are certain topics that are excellent for wargaming within organisation. Here we list just a few:
Strategy execution: achieving your organisation’s objectives in the market place. Or, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’
Market entry: how to deal with newcomers to your market or how to enter a new market. Or, ‘We’ll send the boys round’.
Market disruption: exploring how new technologies, regulations, security issues, innovations affect the market and your organisation’s ability to operate. Or, ‘Our stuff is the best.........isn’t it?’ Or, ‘Nah, everything is fine, it will all work out, it’s a just a dip in the market, a flash in the pan, and irregularity, market readjustment........Oooops!’. Oh my, how on earth did that happen!?
Security risks: testing the organisation’s resiliency and physical security agains a malicious adversary. Or, ‘have you send that highly sensitive information out on email yet?’
Business intelligence: understanding the modus operandi of your organisation’s competitors. Or, ‘Yeah, definitely. Our stuff is way better than their stuff..........isn’t it?’
Achieving your organisational change strategy: test your change plan in a safe setting and find solutions to unforeseen challenges, for example: workforce strikes, outsourcing problems, regulatory issues. Or, 'Our personnel will easily adopt the new way of working as brilliantly thought out by our HR staff in head office... won't they?"
So, give it a try. Organise and enjoy a simple wargame within your organisation. It surely is a great learning exercise. And do it with people. Stop staring at screens.