DIY Simulation-Based Learning Experiences: Steps to Success

by Julie Winkle Giulioni | Posted | Learning

DIY Simulation-Based Learning Experiences: Steps to Success

When you hear the word "simulation," do you think "expensive," "hard-to-do" and "no way is THAT happening"? Then you might be surprised to hear that there's more than one way to approach simulation learning experiences and that you can, in fact, do it yourself (DIY) with your fellow learning leaders at your organization.

Although simulations have long been considered a powerful tool for building awareness, enhancing team dynamics and developing new skills, many L&D professionals steer clear of them. The assumption is that crafting simulations themselves is complicated, costly and time prohibitive. And yet, with the right framework and approach, creating an effective simulation is not only doable – it can yield memorable learning experiences that achieve very specific results.

"Simulation" is a broad learning genre that encompasses a wide variety of activities. On the sophisticated end of the continuum, there are computer-based exercises that replicate performance conditions and allow participants to rehearse actions, try out techniques, fail, and receive feedback – all with only virtual implications. For example, flight simulators allow pilots to acquire and apply complex skills under a range of conditions.

But did you know that computer-based simulations are not reserved exclusively for technical skills? They also lend themselves to soft skills such as leadership, allowing participants to make decisions as key points within a challenging interaction, and then see the implications of their choices – and choose again as necessary. These sorts of simulations do tend to be pricey and can require some lead time.

But simulations don't have to rely solely upon desktop computers to be effective. The rest of the continuum offers tremendous opportunities for DIY-style activities that create immersive opportunities for learning in real life. And here are some key strategies that my business partner, Karen Voloshin, and I have identified based upon developing hundreds of simulations for clients over the years.

Organize and design around a learning objective

One of the most common reasons simulations fail is that they aren't based upon clearly articulated outcomes. Too frequently, learning designers decide upon a simulation because it will add energy, create interest or be a signature activity... and then they go to work building a fun game.

Given today's time-starved workers and the need to make every contract hour count, most organizations can't afford to conduct learning activities for activity's sake alone. There must be a clear and compelling objective. As Stephen Covey famously penned, we must "start with the end in mind."

So, begin with a clear-eyed view of what you are trying to accomplish. Do you want to:

  • Evoke emotions?
  • Facilitate insights?
  • Illuminate key content points?
  • Build awareness?
  • Allow for the application of skills/behavior?
  • Create receptivity to learning through recognition of challenges?

Clearly articulating what the outcomes will be is the first step toward creating a simulation that will drive results.

Consider structural dimensions in your learning simulation

Once the objective is set, then it's time to determine how you'll create a simulation that achieves it. While several design considerations exist, there are four structural dimensions that can help frame and advance your thinking toward a meaningful structure.

diy learning simulations chart julie winkle giulioni

1. Awareness level

The first structural dimension, awareness level, refers to the extent to which participants knowingly step into the simulation. In most cases, the activity is introduced and participants make the choice to join in. But, in other cases, participants may be drawn in without their knowledge. For instance, a workshop on change management could begin with the facilitator asking participants to help rearrange the room or change seats. Without being aware of it, the facilitator would simulate a change and participants would have a personal experience of it to reflect upon and use as fodder for learning.

2. Nature of the activity

A second consideration involves the fundamental nature of the activity. Some simulations are hands-on. They involve highly tactical activities such as creating something or building a structure in space with materials – either packaged (like Legos or Tinkertoys) or simple materials (like cards, tape, pipe cleaners). Alternately, participants may be invited into a more cerebral or cognitive experience based upon puzzles, analysis, and decision-making based upon two-dimensional information supplied.

3. Context

The next set of decisions relate to the context within which the activity is set. Simulations can parallel real life. For example, engineers can learn about collaboration by designing a production line and jointly constructing a familiar item. This would represent near transference. By contrast, far transference activities are set completely outside of the normal constructs of a participant's "day job." The setting or activities require a suspension of reality. An example might be helping call center employees learn customer focus skills via far transference by developing a product for extraterrestrial beings.

4. Roles

And finally, the learning associated with many simulations rests upon participants adopting or demonstrating certain behaviors. This can happen in a variety of ways – both organically and contrived. For instance, the power of one's leadership style becomes crystal clear when participants experience negative leadership behaviors within the context of a group activity. These negative behaviors can be engineered or induced through such factors as competition, time pressure, or changing/unpredictable conditions, which naturally bring out something less-than-the-best in people. Alternatively, participants can be secretly assigned pre-constructed or prescribed roles designed to bring bad behavior into the experience.

Find a learning simulation frame: 3 options to get you started

Once these sorts of design dimensions have been determined, the next step is to find a "frame" or general structure for the simulation. Luckily, there is no shortage of these! Here are just a few to get your creative juices flowing:

The puzzle frame – People love puzzles. And group puzzle solving can be the backdrop for any number of interpersonal and team-related skills and dynamics to evolve. You can create your own or take advantage of any number of boxed "escape room" activities. Introduce additional dynamics such as assigned (disruptive) roles or change the rule of engagement midway to simulate real life and stimulate powerful insights.

The physical challenge frame – You don't need sophisticated ropes courses or trust falls to produce memorable outcomes. A simple challenge involving physical movement and group cooperation can do the same thing. Consider the classic "blindfolded customer" activity in which one participant gives verbal commands to help another blindfolded participant navigate from Point A to Point B to focus on skills like empathy, communication, feedback and support. Or you can create a competition among teams to cross a defined space according to certain rules or restrictions to highlight the role of teamwork.

The construction frame – Building anything can be an energizing enhancement to training. It can also be a foil. As participants engage in an engrossing task, their natural tendencies and reactions come to the forefront, offering opportunities for significant in-the-moment insights. Choose a whimsical or fantastic mission (I recently worked with clients to develop activities centered around building pizza delivery drones and planetary exploration vehicles). Create roles and rules to introduce the designed behaviors, and away you go!

Your DIY dos and don'ts of simulation development

When it comes to simulation development, there aren't a lot of rules. But there are some guidelines that may support your success.

diy learning simulations dos and donts table julie winkle giulioni

So if you're facing a lean budget and short lead time, don't take simulations off your learning strategy menu. They are a fun and effective learning strategy for participants – and for the L&D professionals who develop and implement them.

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Cover of the book

The Definitive Handbook for Creating Exceptional Experiences at Work

Arm yourself with 101 effective talent experience strategies from industry experts.


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