As my colleagues and I continuously work towards our goal of developing business performance analytics that enable employees to learn new ways of approaching their daily challenges, we often create new technologies and methodologies for developing skills for business leadership. Our goal has always been to develop new ways of thinking that could be applied to dynamic and complex situations. Along the way, we have been challenged with helping to address many organizations’ most pressing challenges.
Here’s a brief overview of what happened when we were asked to assist with the development of the critical and system-thinking abilities of the government leadership programs of the U.S. Air Force and the Air Command and Staff College.
The U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) prepares field-grade officers around the world, from major to colonel, to command air, space, and cyberspace power in complex multinational operations. The officers’ earlier professional military education experiences focused on tactical and operational skills, but ACSC prepares them to take on increasing strategic decision-making responsibilities including leadership and management training.
Previously, the online version of the ACSC curriculum included heavy volumes of reading material and a multiple-choice exam administered at a controlled testing center. This was an effective way to measure knowledge and comprehension skill levels, but it did not address the specific strategic and critical-thinking goals of the program developed through experiential learning activities.
The Dean of Distance Learning, Dr. Bart Kessler, wanted to raise the bar of performance for his students by delivering more engaging and intellectually challenging leadership development training programs utilizing training simulation software. But he had constraints: 10,000 students with varying biases regarding national security, no defined instructor-to-student ratio, and some students without access to the Internet.
Dr. Kessler came to us, and we created the National Security Decision Making (NSDM) simulation for ACSC. Within the simulation training, students are assigned a role as a national security advisor and have to successfully complete multiple national security-related missions via our training simulation software.
The goal is not to train students to “win”; rather, it is about getting military leaders to stop and think about unintended consequences. To do so, the business simulation engages the following leadership training objectives:
- Tension: Each mission is set in a different global hotspot encompassing both tactical and strategic-level problems. Though the simulation training has 30-plus hours of content, it is only provided to students as they need or request it. World and agency issues are streamed into the various missions to add realism and noise.
- Mental Models: As students are dropped into new missions, they have to rely on their own knowledge and experiences to assess the situation and determine an appropriate course of action. As they identify gaps in their mental models, they can access foundational content. If the training simulation software determines that a student is struggling, then it will direct students to additional content.
- Core Abilities and Value Skills: To complete a mission, students need to analyze information and make recommendations. Students then predict the likelihood that a particular course of action will satisfy national objectives while accounting for the reactions of regional and global stakeholders. Students have the opportunity to influence global security and so begin to think more strategically about how daily decisions affect larger global issues. The students must balance competing agendas, long- and short-term results, and desired outcomes.
- Surface Self-Limiting Beliefs or Behaviors: The simulation training is equipped with a Confidence-Based Assessment (CBA) engine that assesses an individual’s ability to apply particular subject matter effectively. CBAs measure whether a person is overconfident or hesitant in particular areas. In addition, various instructional technology tools are incorporated to provide students with insights into how their belief systems differ from or are similar to other interested parties or stakeholders.
- Self-Generated Insights: Instead of telling participants what to think, the simulation uses experiential learning theory to give students the opportunity to learn how to think by reflecting on their own decisions and actions within each mission. Missions leverage different custom learning designs, such as cause-and-effect, stated objective, and what-if analysis to provide an environment that allows for discovery. Using best practices in leadership development, along with a strong real-world storyline and Socratic and systemic impact feedback, allow participants the opportunity to generate their own insights.
These types of leadership development training programs offer a realistic, immersive format that provides insights that challenge mental models by helping participants learn to think critically, creatively, and systemically about policy making, security decisions, and international relations. This is particularly important, considering the complexity of the global military presence around the world and the speed at which events are unfolding.
Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.