When lower profits force companies to trim staff and expenses, those responsible for the bottom line often argue that development is a luxury struggling companies just can’t afford. But learning leaders know when the stakes are high and staff numbers are low, investing in people is more important than ever. Equally important is making sure the investment delivers immediate and lasting results.
Recognizing that his group at environmental and engineering services firm S&ME was facing more projects requiring increasingly creative utilization of talent and resources, Keith Brown, vice president and branch manager, was receptive to the idea of putting his overworked team through a one-day team-building experience.
In that day, Brown’s group would learn to identify barriers to organizational success, gain insights into more creative teamwork solutions, and develop new paths for continuous improvement through systems process re-engineering — all via a format that would make the learning fun, memorable and immediately transferable to the workplace.
The format, a hands-on, experiential business simulation called Paper Planes Inc., has participants act out the roles in a production team for a plane manufacturer that has been awarded the opportunity to sell as many paper planes as it can produce to exacting quality and design specifications.
Despite his own high hopes for the day, Brown said he knew his people had low expectations.
“I was not expecting to learn much and was prepared for a long, boring day,” said S&ME environmental scientist Michelle Logut. “I quickly realized how wrong I was, as the Paper Planes simulation instantly became a sink or swim experience. I didn’t exactly drown or make it to the shoreline, but I definitely learned a lot in the process.”
“The learning potential of the simulation was evident right away,” said Brown, who said he was also surprised by the intensity and speed of the experience. “When our team was presented with tight deadlines, specific job descriptions and clients who change specs in mid-production, everyone became compelled to quickly communicate more in order to identify and implement better ways of doing things.”
According to the simulation’s creator, Chris Musselwhite, president and CEO of Discovery Learning, effective experiential learning simulations create realistic working conditions and provide a safe environment for people to try creative but risky solutions.
“When people get to experience the result of their decisions, they learn quickly what works and what doesn’t, and they remember it,” Musselwhite said. “Riding a bicycle requires learning both what it feels like to fall off and what it feels like to balance successfully. The experience provides the learning opportunity, but it’s in the doing that the learning occurs.”
Brown agrees. “Classroom training is useful for information transfer, but you can’t teach creativity and innovation with a PowerPoint,” he said. “Some things can only be learned by doing. The simulation provided the same learning opportunity as on-the-job training but in less time and with less risk — both of which are critical in engineering where missed deadlines can cost millions and mistakes can put lives in danger.”
In a time of small budgets and long workweeks, Brown said he can’t think of any other way his group could have learned so much in such a short time.
“Since we were all jumping in headfirst into an unknown entity, the simulation experience got everyone into that receptive, energized and innovative mindset that a long and productive brainstorming session can create — only much, much quicker.”
Brown said he would definitely invest in a similar learning experience in the future. “Since what we learned was intangible, it’s hard to provide metrics showing the benefit of this experience. However, I believe that everything we do is better because of cooperation, collaboration and creativity that were all reignited in each member of our team during this shared learning experience.”
Tracy C.F. Brown is a freelance writer who has written about leadership and organizational development since 1994. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.