Here’s a Game to Illustrate Strategic Planning

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My wife is working on a Ph.D. in education and recently took a course on strategic planning for academic institutions. Her final project included creating a game to help illustrate the course lessons. What she came up with struck me as applicable to planning in all industries, so I thought I’d share it here.

The fundamental challenge she faced in designing the game was to communicate key concepts about strategic planning. The main message was that strategic planning is about choosing among different strategies to find the one that best matches available resources. That’s pretty abstract, so she made it concrete by presenting game players with a collection of alternative strategies, each on a card of its own. She then created a second set of cards that listed actions available to the players. Each action card showed which strategies the action supported and what resources it required. There were four resources: money, faculty, students, and administrative staff.  To keep things simple, she assumed that total resources were fixed, that each strategy contributed equally to the ultimate goal, and that each action contributed equally to whichever strategies it supported. 

In other words, the components of the game were:

One goal. In the case of my wife’s game, the goal was to achieve a “top ten” ranking for a particular department within a university. (It was a good goal because it was easily understood and measured.)

Four strategies. In my wife’s game, the options were to build up the department, cooperate with other departments at the university, cooperate with other universities, or promote the department to the media and general public.

A dozen actions. Each action supported at least one strategy (scored with 1 or 0) and consumed some quantity of the four resources (scored from 0 to 3 for each resource). Actions were things like “run a conference”, “set up a cross-disciplinary course” and “finance faculty research”.

Four resources, each assigned an available quantity (i.e., budget).

As you can tell from the description, the action cards are the central feature of the game.  Here’s a concrete example, where each row represents one action card:

The fundamental game mechanism was to pick a set of actions.  These were scored by counting how how many supported each strategy and how many resources they consumed.  The resource totals couldn’t exceed the available quantities for each resource.  The table below shows scoring for a set of three actions.

 In this particular example, all three actions support “cooperate with other departments”, while two support “build department” and one each supports “cooperate with other universities” and “promote to public”.  Resource needs were money=8, faculty=6, student=5 and administration= 1.  Someone with these cards could choose “cooperate with other departments” as the best strategy — if the resources permitted.  But if they were limited to 7 points for each resource, they might switch the “fund scholarship” card for the “extracurricular enrichment” card, which uses less money even though it consumes more of the other resources.  That works because, with a budget of 7 for each resource, the player can afford to increase spending in the other categories.

As this example suggests, the goal of the game is to get players to think about the relations among strategies, actions and resources, and in particular how to choose actions that fit with strategies and resources.

Although the basic scoring approach is built into the game, there are many ways my wife could have played it:

– Predefine available resources and let different players draw different action cards.  They would then decide which strategy best fit the available cards and resources. 

– Give different strategy cards to different players and put all action cards face up on the table.  Players then each choose one action card in turn, trying to assemble the best set of actions for their assigned strategy.

– Randomly select the resource levels at the start of the game and let all players use all action cards.  The winner is whoever first finds combination of actions that yields the most points for any strategy without exceeding the resources available.

– Split the class into two teams, gave each team two strategy cards and a set of action cards, and let the winner be whichever team finds the combination of actions that comes closest to using all available resources. (That’s the one she chose.)

Other rules are possible, along with refinements such as making some strategies more valuable than others at reaching the goal and making some actions more effective than others at supporting a given strategy. But my wife had ten minutes to explain, play, score and discuss the game, so the simplifications made sense for her situation.

What I like about this game is that it clearly identifies the elements of the strategic planning process and shows how they’re related. Specifically, it highlights that:

different strategies can reach the same goal. Identifying available strategies and choosing among them is an important part of strategic planning that’s often not clearly recognized.

– different actions can support different strategies. This has two implications: strategies are initially chosen in part based on what actions are available and, later, actions are evaluated based on how well they support the chosen strategy.

– different actions can compete for the same resources. In the short run, the combination of actions must be chosen to maximize the value achieved from the resources available. In the long run, resources are not fixed, so organizations can decide which resources they need to support the actions they need for strategic success.

– different strategies are best suited to different combinations of resources. This is the ultimate message of the game. Actions are just intermediaries to help understand how specific strategies and specific resources are related.

I hope you find this interesting and perhaps even useful. It’s more thought experiment than actual game.  But if you’re inspired to create your own physical version, do send me pictures.

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