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  • Alison Seddon

Playing With Reality

Updated: Apr 29, 2019

Working with metaphor

A while ago I was working on a complex business simulation for a large business. The sim was really challenging. It had every element imaginable: a history of the fictional business, detailed financial figures illustrating the business performance over the last five years, press articles, extracts from employer engagement surveys, emails from various people in and outside the business, and characters played in real time by professional business actors.

The participants were tasked with outlining a strategic approach to solve the challenges faced by this fictional business, which was a mirror of their own.

During the first hour or two of the sim, cries of 'It's not real!' and 'I wouldn't behave like this in real life!' would be heard from the participants. For those of you who have worked with this type of learning tool then this could sound familiar.

It can be easy to assume when we hear these complaints that there is an issue with the simulation. Perhaps it requires rewriting to make it MORE real, so that the participants can find it a useful learning experience?

Clearly not all simulations are created equal, and I have been involved with some that lack sophistication. But this wasn't the case here. The simulation had been exhaustively researched, written and re-written in close collaboration with the business over several months. It was one of the most carefully constructed business simulations I had ever worked with. The idea that it wasn't true to life just didn't wash. I would find myself thinking, in some exasperation 'Look, it IS real- or at least, it is real enough!'

It was only after a somewhat Alice Through The Looking Glass moment some weeks later that I really got to the heart of the issue.

I say Alice Through The Looking Glass because, rather than grappling with a business simulation that mirrored real life, I was grappling with my own real life situation that mirrored the experience of being in a business simulation:

I had no idea what was going to happen next. I couldn't lead in my preferred style. I didn't feel I had the right skills to navigate my way through. I didn't have all the information I wanted. It felt like there was a lot at stake. Whatever I did would be visible to others.

As I was reflecting on the awfulness of the situation I suddenly thought, 'If a sim is like life, what if life is like a sim? What would that free me up to do?'

And then I realised in this real life situation I could do what I was always facilitating others to do within a sim: stay curious, try new things, accept the uncertainty and reflect on my leadership. Maybe if I did that I might enjoy the experience more, and develop and learn.

Initially I pushed back, and said to myself, sitting on my sofa with a cup of tea- 'But this is REAL! How can I let go, this has an impact on me and my family and the people I love. This is risky!'

I acknowledged the irony of that with a wry smile. Here I was pushing back against a learning and development opportunity provided by life, a mirror image of how the delegates I work with push back on the learning and development opportunity provided by a sim. I put my defenses to one side and continued with my thought experiment. As you might expect, by giving myself permission to view the situation in a more detached way, I could access my creativity, my energy increased and I felt more confident and purposeful.

But isn't there a paradox here? I freed up my thinking by imagining my situation was less real, but the group said they couldn't free up their thinking because the simulation wasn't real enough.

It's not really paradoxical. Both are examples of how working with metaphor can free us up, as long as we are feeling secure.

Let's go back to the business simulation.

The business we were working in had a fairly judgmental culture, with a historical 'command and control' leadership style, and staff were under a lot of pressure to deliver within tight time and budget constraints.

The sim, designed as it was to challenge the command and control leadership style within the real business, didn't give the group a strong steer on how to complete the simulation tasks. Fear of failure was strong, because of the culture of judgement. No surprise that, for the first half of the sim, the group would push back against the process.

Although the participants protested that the sim wasn't real enough, in fact they were defending themselves against an experience that felt TOO real: too risky, too exposing, too close to home. Once they were able to trust that the learning environment was safe and secure (unlike their working environment) they could let go of their anxieties and engage in the metaphor of the business simulation.

The same was true of myself. In the middle of the night, turning my domestic issue over and over in my mind, I felt lost and insecure. My light-bulb 'as if' moment came when I was sitting on my sofa at home after a good night's sleep, with a pot of tea by my side and notebook at the ready, safe and secure enough to engage with my own metaphor.

In the case of the sim it's not tea and a notebook that creates safety. Clear and thoughtful facilitation is key. There are a few things to bear in mind that are really important when facilitating a business simulation where participants are invited to immerse themselves in the world of the simulation.

Confidentiality must be assured.The boundary between the activities within the fiction of the sim and the learning activities outside the sim must be crystal clear. For example, a clear distinction must be made when the participant moves from having a conversation with a business actor playing a fictional character from the fictional business, to a facilitated conversation with the business actor giving feedback out of character.The purpose of the sim as a learning experience must be articulated and demonstrated by the facilitators and the business actors at all times.

With the right facilitation, learning through metaphor can be engaging, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. As facilitators and business actors it is vital that we create a safe and contained space for those participating in a business simulation, so that they can embrace the challenge of experimenting with new thinking and new behaviours. 

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