One of the few consistent trends in the past few years has been uncertainty. It’s difficult to predict and plan for the future, whether reacting to shifting markets to global conflicts and pandemic regulations that change depending on your postal code.
When leading in uncertain times, it can be helpful to look at other industries, organizations or entities that operate effectively. The military can often be a source of inspiration. Despite being in the unusual “business” of identifying and killing enemies, most militaries are complex organizations that must excel in everything from organizational behavior to logistics and strategic planning.
A frequently-used technique for assessing readiness and any potential capability gaps is wargaming.
What is wargaming and how can it be applied to business?
As the name implies, wargaming involves creating a real-life scenario and “playing” it through, with different players competing to “win” the game. These games can vary significantly in scope and complexity, from simulations of a single team of soldiers attempting to complete an objective to simulations of multiple countries fighting a sustained conflict.
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While tools like scenario planning should be familiar to most leaders, wargaming adds the dimension of an intelligent enemy and dynamism that traditional scenario planning lacks. Where a scenario planning exercise might be focused on a single event and planning a response, wargaming starts with a singular event. It then requires teams with opposing interests to respond to the event and each other’s actions.
This aspect of wargaming may seem obvious for scenarios that involve a competing company, but it can be applied far more broadly. Your opposing team might be a regulatory entity or government body, a gang of cybercriminals or even a malevolent force of nature that hits your company with a series of disasters. Using an opposing force in this manner will quickly identify areas where your response plans lack depth or become unwieldy early in response to a complex incident.
Everyone’s a winner even when they fail
Humans naturally tend to avoid contests with a low probability of winning, and perhaps that explains an aversion to wargaming at many organizations. The term itself may be uncomfortable, but consider that the goal of a wargame is to “fail” at the game so that you can win during a real-life scenario.
For example, wargaming cyberattacks on your company may quickly identify critical holes in your defenses and response plans. While your cyber team may be abjectly humiliated in a wargame, you’ve now identified potential weaknesses and demonstrated how they could be exploited and simulated the results of those exploits, all without a single bit of lost data or front-page news story. This information can bolster your defenses, reallocate resources and demonstrate the importance of investing in cyber defenses and response planning.
Ultimately, would you rather lose a simulation, where the stakes might be some public humiliation within your team, or lose a real-life scenario where far more is at stake? Furthermore, by “losing” a wargame, you often dramatically and directly demonstrate the need for additional planning, funding and focus on your area, a far greater victory than any “reputational damage” you might receive internally.
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Wargaming need not be a wildly complex effort, and your organization can start small. Consider a challenging project or complex initiative, and try wargaming the launch with your “blue team” playing the role of the implementation team, and “red team” playing the role of an unruly user base or concocting potentially challenging environmental conditions.
There is no initial need for consultants, complex scenario planning, or multi-day efforts. Your initial foray into wargaming can be conducted over lunch with a half-dozen team members and evolve if you find the practice useful. You may even find that some of your team members relish the chance to play a “red team” role and are highly effective at developing potential scenarios and outcomes that might impact your organization. These people can not only serve as frequent red team members but may also be able to help with future strategy and innovation efforts based on their ability to identify potential future events.
You may find that these smaller exercises create demand for more complex scenarios. Like militaries that use multi-week events spanning global teams, your scenarios might evolve into larger affairs that test everything from your systems and processes to your communications methods and tools to your overarching strategy.