View from the Top
By Lorri Freifeld
Companies such as FedEx, The Hartford, and Union Pacific offer some of their leaders the opportunity to climb Mt. Everest. But the trek does not require parkas, ice axes, or karabiners. Nor will participants feel the least bit cold.
They must, however, make life-and-death decisions about who gets how much oxygen, correctly calculate the weather when the weather station is knocked out, and determine what to do when one of the team begins to experience hypothermia.
Welcome to the Leadership and Team Simulation: Everest V2, a simulation co-created by Bryant University (RI) Trustee Professor of Management Michael Roberto, D.B.A. Drawing inspiration from Roberto’s research on the failures of a May 1996 Mt. Everest climb that resulted in the death of five mountaineers, the simulation aims to teach leadership and team dynamics. “I’ve found that when you take executives out of the usual business setting, it’s very compelling for them,” Roberto says. “We wanted something focused on team dynamics and leading teams. We wanted to do something different, so we could measure performance.”
Roberto had written several case studies on the Mt. Everest tragedy and other non-traditional business failures such as the Columbia Shuttle crash and the BP oil spill when Harvard Business Publishing approached him to develop a simulation. It knew his current work and work he had done previously at Harvard. He brought in a Harvard Business School colleague he had worked with, Amy Edmondson. Roberto and his colleagues worked with West Coast software developer Forio Business Simulations on the Web-based simulation, which took one year to develop.
Roberto admits creating this type of simulation was challenging. “It’s one thing when you are doing a strategy or marketing simulation—something that’s quantitative. It’s much more difficult when it revolves around behavior and trying to anticipate behavior.” He notes that typically in business schools, simulations are semester long, where every week, the participant makes business decisions and gets results per quarter. “But you’re not going to get executives to do that,” he notes. “You need something compact that you can do in a few hours.”
As a result, the team built paper-based beta tests first, Roberto says. “We wanted the simulation to be not too hard and not too easy. Faculty members around the world tested it with hundreds of MBA students.”
In the simulation, teams of five have to climb Mt. Everest. They move up from base camp to the summit. One person is designated as the leader, and the other four have specific roles, including: a photographer looking to get pictures from the summit, a physician doing research on high-altitude sickness, an environmentalist looking to clean up the mountain, and a marathoner looking to test his endurance. Each role has a specific goal and objective. The roles can be randomly assigned, or the company can specify ahead of time which learner takes on which role. “The goal for each team is to reach the summit and avoid rescue,” Roberto explains. “But during the simulation, students discover there are many challenges, including: weather; shortages of food, oxygen, and medical supplies; and the health and mental acuity of the climbers. Reaching the summit requires difficult group and individual decisions, and not everyone will succeed.”
The simulation can be done with everyone in the same room, working on a laptop or tablet. Or it can be done virtually, with learners communicating via phone or the text chat function built into the simulation. The platform is Web-based, so there is no downloading. Players just get a user name and password. They have access to pore through the results for some time after the simulation.
“It’s a half-day experience,” Roberto says, “with the simulation taking approximately three to four hours.” There is an introductory video, which includes an interview with climber James Clarke, instructions on how to play, and what to expect from the climb. “At the end, players engage in a debrief on the effectiveness of the leader and the team,” Roberto says. “There are survey questions embedded in the simulation, and participants determine what percentage of the goals were achieved—there is a point system, so they can determine what was achieved personally and overall as a team.” The simulation also can be stopped in the middle to have a mini-debrief, so the team can talk about techniques it might use to improve performance in the second half of the simulation.
At the corporate rate, the simulation license costs $100 to $150 per person. If a company chooses to do it as part of an executive program at the school with Roberto facilitating, the cost is much less, he says.
While the simulation is not customizable for individual companies, it does lead to different dynamics depending on whether a company has an intact team participate or brings together learners from different functions and divisions within the organization. For example, with an intact team, the current leader might automatically assume the leader role, and the other team members might defer to him or her. That might lead to bad decision-making or at least prevent some team members from speaking up and bringing up a key point to consider.
“A little bit of dysfunction is a good thing in this type of simulation,” Roberto says. “That way you have a conversation about why some teams do well and others do not.” He believes it’s helpful to have 20 people—four teams—from one company do the simulation, so there are results they can compare to and benchmark against.
In addition, for reinforcement purposes, the simulation is most successful as part of a leadership development program, Roberto says. “FedEx brings the same group of people together over 12 to 18 months, so they are seeing me and other professionals throughout that time, and they are reminded of the lessons learned from the simulation. The simulation works best if I have the whole day with the team, not just the three to four hours of playing time. I’ll do exercises on playing devil’s advocate and how to break teams into sub-groups, for example. This helps to reinforce the messages learned in the simulation.”
Roberto says there has been “an explosion of simulations now that have become more effective, more realistic, richer, and more enabled by technology. The one rule to remember is: The clearer a simulation is, the more powerful it is.”
To see a video about the Everest V2 simulation, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFOqM1B6nuE