“Practice Makes Perfect!” – Project Management Simulations

Practice, practice, practice…that’s the key to success!”  How many times have you heard that phrase?  I know a lot of people who think nothing of putting in hour after hour of practice to get better at their personal passions such as golf, horseback riding or tennis.  But when I ask them if they apply the same drive for improvement into their professional life via the concept of “practice,” they look dumbfounded!  Look, if you want to get better any anything, personally or professionally, you have to gain experience. Real improvement requires you to face a wide variety of scenarios and learn from making various decisions.  What better way to fast-track the acquisition of that experience than practice?  And for project management professionals specifically, “practice” typically involves a concept known as simulation.

Simulations involve putting people into a realistic, simulated environment that allows them to experience complex situations or best practices, while creating deeper understanding of available choices, analyzing potential risks and/or benefits, and learning from expected results versus (un)intended consequences. Simulation-based learning has shown to be the most effective, long-term method for learning any new skill.  Supporting this theory, the National Training Laboratory (NTL) Institute for Applied Behavioral Science published a study of their findings regarding learning retention rates. They found that students retain on average:


National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences, “The Learning Triangle: Retention Rates from Different Ways of Learning,” Bethel, Maine, 2005.

The purpose of simulation-based learning for the project management professional is to impart to learners the necessary competencies (i.e. knowledge, skills, and attitudes) needed to improve their project management performance and delivery results.  It challenges participants with the types of situations and problems that arise in real world projects.  One of the primary advantages of this approach is that the simulation provides a safe environment for learners to confront typical project problems, select a solution, make mistakes and analyze results.  Additionally, they gain insight (in real time) into the longer-term consequences of decisions they make. Through the simulation, participants learn how to track the evolution of key project parameters: scope, costs, schedule and quality, as well as human dynamics that project managers must face in leading teams and managing the expectations of stakeholders.  Further learning opportunities exist via simulation for key skills such as:

  • Determining the scope, goal and objectives of a project
  • Estimating costs and the impact of change on budgets
  • Breaking down work, planning tasks and allocating resources
  • Hands-on usage of different project management tools and templates
  • Learning to monitor and control the pace and progress of a project
  • Helping project teams make decisions under stress
  • Reacting professionally and appropriately in typical project management “crisis” situations

However, possibly the largest benefit that simulations bring is that they promote close team collaboration and communication.  Simulations provide significant impact to all organizational teams whether they are project-based, process-based or technical.  They are typically conducted in a group setting via classroom-based scenario “games” which portray projects in various stages and facing specific issues, risks, challenges and/or barriers to successful project delivery.  The simulation allows participants to work together as a project team to practice collaboration, communication and problem solving around the various obstacles presented in the scenario.  Constructive feedback, self-awareness and group discussions then help the team discover how their decisions resulted in certain results, as well as learning about alternative options and approaches they may not have considered.

In some process improvement focused simulations, players are guided through the same situational scenario numerous times, but different approaches or methodologies are deployed in each successive round.  For example, current organizational processes are applied in the first simulation, then industry best practice processes are used and finally, innovative new approaches are tested.  These repetitive scenarios allow the teams to learn the pros and cons of each approach as they relate to common problem sets.  Simulations are essentially “live-fire” feedback sessions where the participants capture lessons learned as the impact and result of each potential decision is made.

“Amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” – Percy C. Buck

Beyond project management methodology or process training, the concept of simulation is completely applicable to scenarios generated from actual projects as well.  When projects encounter thorny issues or risks, simulations can be leveraged to test certain risk mitigation options or issue resolution approaches.  Simulations can also be used to provide the project team with better understanding of product usage or business process outcomes.

To help set up these practice sessions, a number of consultancy-based and online project simulations are now available in the marketplace that facilitate the design, execution and data gathering from project management-related simulation exercises.  These offerings range from project management skill building to realistic training environments for emergency scenarios.  Just conduct a web search for ‘project management simulation’ and you’ll receive a number of good options.

As project management practitioners, we all want to improve our skills and bring greater success to our projects.  While the concept of practice is nothing new to the sports world, it is still a relatively rare event in the business world.  The realities of the work day and schedule commitments often prevent taking time out to practice our professional skills.  But if we are to truly improve ourselves, our projects and our organizations, that is precisely what we need to do!  Simulations and other organizational practice-based activities provide just that opportunity.  Make the time for it today!

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