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GAMIFICATION OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT TRAINING

GAMIFICATION IS A SERIOUS BUSINESS. GAMIFIED SIMULATIONS ARE UPLIFTING PROJECT MANAGEMENT CAPABILITY AND MATURITY BY ENABLING PARTICIPANTS TO EXPERIENCE A PROJECT IN A CONTROLLED MICROCOSM.

Right now, across industry, app-based games are dripfeeding new concepts to workers in the nooks and crannies of their busy day jobs. Events like ‘failfest’ are de-fanging failure and encouraging growth mindsets by enabling lessons learned to be shared in a format more akin to an open-mic-night. And gamified simulations are revolutionising the way we teach project management.

We all know what bad training looks like: endless PowerPoint slides filled with walls of tiny text, process diagrams, documentation lists, and enough input-output charts to put anyone to sleep. For years, research has told us that this type of training leads to 5-10% knowledge retention by learners. Pointless.

Training isn’t just about content curation, it’s as much about finding a delivery mechanism that makes that content memorable and useable. The 70-20-10 learning framework reflects this. This well-established learning framework suggests that:

1. 10% of competence comes from formal training (presentations, readings, workshops);

2. 20% comes from social learning; and

3. 70% comes from on-the-job application. 

A 4-hour gamified simulation aligned to industry standard project management. (Source: Elemental Projects)

But too often organisations offer project personnel the 10% formal training (if that), then jump straight to the 70% on-the-job application, and wonder why project managers struggle and fail. Then they punish the project teams for poor performance, inadvertently driving a culture of risk-avoidance as a means of failure-avoidance.

Gamified simulations are a way of bridging the gap between theory based training and work-based application – in other words, providing that missing 20%. Gamified simulations enable a layered learning process where new skills can be first understood theoretically, then applied in a safe yet relevant simulation, before being deployed in the workplace.

They allow team members to get a real sense of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and develop the trust needed to turn a group of professionals into a cohesive, high-performing team. They’re also about accessing deeper levels of understanding and self-reflection, because, according to Karl Kapp in the Gamification of Learning and Construction, “underneath the surface is the idea of engagement, story, autonomy, and meaning.” 

When set against absurd backdrops, these gamified simulations become a shared metaphor for work-based projects – psychologically distancing the learner from the hubbub and technical detail of their projects and enabling critical interpersonal and leadership skills to develop in an engaging and psychologically safe space. Indeed, we are evolved to learn like this, through play and experimentation.

A CASE STUDY: THE BATTLE

Imagine a room full of 180 engineers organised into three armies. Each army is led by a General (project sponsor) and consists of 12 teams led by Captains (project managers). Each team is responsible for the construction of a war machine – a catapult, hydrapault, or trebuchet – to be built on-time, on-budget, and on-specification.

Set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic future, teams compete for resources and information as they progress through the phases of the project lifecycle, developing key project management documentation, signed-off by their General, to unlock funds, engage contractors, and secure components (some of which are hanging from the ceiling and require a drone to retrieve).

As pressure mounts, and teams pull together and/or fall into storming, they’re hit with unexpected issues, deploying contingency budgets to overcome challenges and solve problems. Finally, triumphantly, successful teams complete their war machine in time to follow their General into a final, epic battle. The process has taken four hours, but participants are energised, sweaty, and high on teamwork and success.

In the Post Implementation Review, team members, Captains, and Generals reflect on the simulation – what it feels like to balance competing constraints of time, cost and quality; the experience of a diverse team forming-storming-norming- and performing; and their own emotional responses as they interacted with others to haggle over parts or collaborate for the greater good.

The Battle – a 4-hour gamified project management simulation for 180 staff from Sydney Water and delivery partners.
 (Source: Elemental Projects)

WHAT’S HAPPENING UNDER THE SURFACE

The amazing thing is how genuine and authentic people’s behaviours are, the moment things get competitive. Gamifying a learning experience like this is about creating a psychologically safe environment in which people can be themselves, but also step out of their comfort zone and try something new, be someone new.

They’re able to experiment with new ways of working, thinking and leading, without the sting of workplace failure or the realworld consequences of getting things wrong. In fact, when the learning environment is gamified and participants feel psychologically safe, failure is fun and funny.

And failure is important. It’s where insights and wisdom lie. It’s how we learn and develop a growth mindset. If people are afraid to experiment because they’re afraid to fail, then they can’t innovate or continually improve – which is what leaders should really be afraid of.

Neurologically, when learning is fun, our brains are flooded with rewarding chemicals. As dopamine and serotonin surge through the brains of joyful learners, new neural pathways are laid down, and redundant ones are examined and discarded. Learners gain the competence and confidence to think and behave differently. This is supported by research from Games, Motivation and Learning: a Research and Practice Model in Simulation & Gaming, which shows that when learning is fun, learners retain new knowledge for longer and are more likely to apply new skills in the workplace.

GAMIFICATION IN THE CONTEXT OF INDUSTRY 4.0

Gamified learning is already here, with demonstrable, measurable results in terms of developing Gen Xs, Gen Ys, and Millennials. But who and what comes next? As we lean into Industry 4.0, how will Gen Zs learn? What skills and mindsets will project leaders need to succeed in a data-enabled, AI-supported, machine-dependent world? And how do we foster their development?

Let’s assume the bulk of project management will be automated (scheduling, estimating, forecasting). And let’s assume the bulk of project leadership can’t be. People will need to collaborate, innovate, and negotiate in an increasingly diverse, distributed, specialised, and fluid workforce.

Systems thinking, communication, and emotional intelligence will (and arguably already have) become core capabilities to succeed in this emerging landscape. It may not be post-apocalyptic, but future project leaders are definitely going to need more than PowerPoint.