The Organization Simulation


The  organizational simulation borrows from the work of Barry Oshry, and mirrors many of the design elements and dynamics of the power workshops that he originally developed.  An excellent summary and overview of Oshry's work is in his book, Seeing Systems, published by Berrett-Koehler.  More information about the workshops is available at Power + Systems, the training and consulting group that Oshry founded.  Phone is 617-437-1640).

This simulation is a condensed version of Oshry's workshop intended specifically for use in college or university courses taught by instructors with skill and experience in the use of involving experiential activities.  It incorporates in a brief format a variety of organizational dynamics, particularly around structure and power. The simulation creates a three-tier firm whose business is producing slogans. There is also a client group that wants to buy slogans. The question is whether they can make a deal, and the vendor can produce and deliver the product. In the 60 to 75 minutes that the simulation runs (depending on the schedule you choose), it tends to come down to the wire: some groups succeed, others don't. A successful transaction is more likely with 75 minutes than with 60.  The simulation is very flexible in terms of group size, and robust with respect to experience levels and kinds of participants -- undergraduates, graduate and EMBA students all tend to find it involving and memorable. 

We have created materials for three different versions of the simulation.  The simulation materials are copyrighted, but instructors in college and university courses are granted automatic permission to use the materials and to make copies for their students, on condition that all copies carry the copyright notice and author credits.  For uses outside university courses, contact Power and Systems at (617) 437-1640. 

Click on the one you want to find sample handouts for that version:

    1.  Private sector

    2.  Education

    3.  Public sector

The three are identical except that the identity of the client group  (NMBL, NEBL, or PABL) and the content of the slogans align (loosely) to the audience.  Instructors in higher education courses are free to download the handouts and modify them to suit their circumstances, but we ask that you retain the credit line on the first page of the instructions.  (Note: the dashed lines in each set of instructions indicate page breaks.  Each file also includes a sample of how we format the rosters, and group labels that can be used as signage to mark different groups' spaces.)

This site provides an overview of the simulation, some guidelines for running it, and samples of the handouts needed to run it. This site does not provide in-depth discussions of the conceptual and pedagogical rationale for doing such a simulation, but, naturally, it is important to know why you want to do one before doing it. We discuss only in broad terms strategies for running and debriefing such an experience. We recommend these simulations only to instructors  with experience in doing experiential activities. The information and instructions are provided as is, and we make no guarantee about results.

The simulation is a modification of an earlier power simulation that we developed in the 1970s.  That one is described in the following article (where you can also find an account by Dr. Mariann  "Sam" Jelinek of her experience as a simulation participant during the 1979 Organizational Behavior Teaching Conference):

Bolman, L. G. and Deal, T. E. "A Simple But Powerful Power Simulation." Exchange: the Organizational Behavior Teaching Journal, 1979, 4, 38-42. (Click here for a that paper.)

    The simulations were originally developed to fit a course that met for 90 minutes twice a week with a large student group (approximately 75-100 individuals), but can be run for much smaller groups (six is the smallest we know of). The number and size of groups can be adjusted to fit the number of participants.

Guidelines for Setup

1. Cash. Note that the compensation for members of the client group is paid separately -- namely out of your pocket. This makes it a non-zero sum game. If the client succeeds in buying enough slogans, you may owe a significant amount of money (on rare occasions we have seen it reach a range between $50 and $100). On the other hand, if they don't have a successful transaction --  an exchange of slogans for cash -- before the simulation ends, all the cash reverts to you, and you will have to decide what to do with it.   You could take a loved one to dinner, maybe, but we usually let the group decide how to use it.

2. Team location. The simulation instructions also includes signs to label each group. The top group, ideally, has a private space and the sign can be on the door.  In a class context, you could give the top group the classroom, and put everyone else out in the corridor if you don't have anything else available . (The simulation can be run almost anywhere, but we always look for ways to give the top group's space a touch of class.) A few chairs somewhere is all that's needed for the middle group, and even the chairs are not essential.

    If possible, give each bottom team (Team A, Team B, etc.) a separate table to work around, and put a team sign on the table. (Make additional signs if you have more teams than we've provided for.)  Alternatively, just give each team a designated spot in a room or a hallway, and put signs up on the wall to designate each group's location. Bottom teams that are physically close are somewhat more likely to influence one another -- unite, form a union, note how the team next door is treated by its middle manager, etc. If the teams are farther apart, all that is less likely. Teams often follow different paths.  Some become good soldiers, working hard on the task as they understand it.  Other bottom teams become creative  free spirits, or cranks and complainers.  Some try to go right to work even if they aren't sure what to do, while others insist on knowing about pay and benefits first. 

    Ideally, the client group has a comfortable space somewhat removed from the vendor spaces, so that there is a bit of travel time (a minute or two) to get from one to the other.  If the clients are physically close to the factory floor, they are more likely to wander in and begin to interact directly with the workers, which sometimes speeds things along, and other times just adds to the chaos.   

3. Allocating individuals to teams. If your class has ongoing study or task teams, one way to allocate people to simulation groups is to put the first person on each group's roster in the Top Group, the second person in the middle group, the last person in the client group, and whoever is left in the Bottom Group. You can adjust both the size and number of work teams in the bottom group, depending on the number of participants. The number of work teams normally aligns with the number of middle managers (one manager for each team), though it is also possible to assign more than one middle manager to a work team.  Work teams can be as small as 2, and as large as 10-12 if you are working with a very large group.  This ensures that every level of the simulation has a mix of people from different teams. We always prepare a roster in advance as per the models attached.   If you create your roster in advance, as we normally do, one or more individuals may be absent, but that happens in real organizations as well, and we do not try to fix such problems.  If, for example, a team finds itself with no middle manager, that's a problem for the participants to deal with.

4. Distributing simulation instructions. Everyone in MRC (or ERC in the education version) gets the MRC/ERC instructions at the beginning of the simulation; members of the client group get only their own instructions. We usually distribute copies of the other group's instructions during the debrief after the simulation. Three versions of the organization simulation are included here: one for private sector managers, one for public administrators and one for education.

Guidlines for Running the Simulations

Either simulation can be run in 60 to 75 minutes. Before starting the simulation, warn participants that they must be prepared to stop when the closing bell rings, even though they might find that very difficult when the time comes.

1. Describe the learning goals, and encourage people to be self-reflective. We often use Ron Heifetz's metaphor of " going to the balcony" and tell people that part of the challenge is to be on the dance floor (where they can get involved in the flow) and, at the same time, get to the balcony where they can get a better sense of the big picture. We encourage people to experiment and look for opportunities to make a positive difference, regardless of the role in which they find themselves. We often quote Barry Oshry: "Leadership is not position. Leadership is the ability to recognize and use the potential of whatever position we're in."

2. Pass an envelope or box around and tell everyone to put their money in. (You'll get better results if you warned people a day or two in advance that they'll need to have the right change. If worse comes to worse, we let people use IOUs, but we prefer not to.)  

3. Give everyone a copy of the one-page handout, " Organization Simulation." Tell them how long the simulation will run and remind them that it's over when it's over -- they have to stop, even if they're in the middle of something crucial. Alert them if you plan a time-out and describe how that will work. Note your role as anthropologist, and that you will not be able to answer any questions about instructions, etc. If anything is unclear, they'll have to figure it out among themselves.

4. Distribute a copy of the roster. (In our sample roster, you will note that we use font size and presentation of names to dramatize the differences in visibility and status between executives, middle managers and workers. But the client group is placed innocuously at the bottom of the page This is a bit of misdirection, since the client is in a very powerful position in the simulation.)

5. Give the client group copies of their instructions and send them off to their space. Tell them you will inform them when the simulation officially begins. (Or just tell them it will begin in exactly 3 minutes.)

6. Distribute copies of the vendor (MRC or ERC) instructions to the members of the firm. Give them about 2 minutes to read, and then announce that the simulation has officially begun.

7. Divide up the money: 2/3 for the client group, the rest for the top group, and give each its resources.  (We don't announce announce how the money was distributed.  That is one more things for people to learn in the course of the simulation.  This is often a key piece of information, because MRC management will only know about the client group's bank balance if the clients tell them.)  Pull out your yellow pad, and wander through the simulation, keeping notes and trying to get a sense of the whole.

8. Time out.  If time permits, a time-out (or half-time break) of about 10-15 minutes mid-way through is very valuable.  Warn people in advance that there will be a time out, that it will not count as simulation time, and that no simulation business may be conducted during the time out.  During the time-out, bring the groups into one space, and give individuals in each group a few minutes to talk with one another about what they're experiencing. Make it clear that they are not to work on the business of the simulation, but to reflect on what the experience has been like for them. After a few minutes, ask a few volunteers from each group to provide a sentence or two about their experiences. Keep the discussion moving, and hold individuals to a sentence or two rather than long speeches.  The sharing of experience during the time out is usually very revealing. Typically, most participants have very little idea of what's going on elsewhere in the system. The time out often gives people a better understanding of the system-level dynamics, and this, in turn, often affects what happens next in the simulation.

9. Relax and let the simulation go where it willWhile the simulation is running, remember that you are an anthropologist whose only job is to study what's going on and enforce the time boundaries.  You can respond to all questions about the simulation or the rules by stating, "I'm only an anthropologist."  (We would intervene if we thought anyone was at physical or psychological risk, but have never seen it happen.) Even as an observer, it's easy to become invested in the simulation and its outcome, but don't worry about whether the simulation is going right or not. Whatever happens is what is supposed to happen. Every simulation is different, but, in our experience, every run is rich with its own learning possibilities.

10. At the end, the client and vendor are typically in an intense, last-minute effort to complete their business. If so, you will want to be wherever that is. When the time is up, announce calmly but firmly, "The simulation is now over." If anyone tries to exchange money and slogans after that, simply repeat that the simulation is over and any transaction after the bell is invalid. Then tell everyone to gather in the debriefing space.


    Debriefing is essential.  That's when much of the learning occurs.  We often debrief in two phases:  (1) systems dynamics, (2) individual learning.  The first tends to highlight the ways that structure constrains and influences individual action.  The second looks at the converse: how individuals can better understand and respond to whatever they're up against.   

Systems debrief.  We often  start by putting people into their simulation groups (top, middle, etc.), and ask each group to develop a brief "story" of the simulation. The stories are typically very rich and diverse, providing ample material for discussing whatever issues you would like to explore. It is also likely that energy in the room will be high, and that groups will have many reactions to one another's accounts. Your challenge is to keep the discussion moving, while ensuring that important perspective are shared. Your observations as an anthropologist usually enable you to enrich participant accounts by pointing to important events or linkages that no one else may have seen.  Another important role you can perform is to call attention to linkages between the simulation dynamics and concepts that they have been studying in the course.  Parallels to the reading, "Monarchs, Lords and Serfs," are usually easy to develop.

Individual debrief.  We often begin by giving individuals time for personal reflection, and then put them into groups that have representation across the simulation.  We typically put them into their ongoing teams, since we deliberately populate the simulation so as to divide teams across the different simulation roles.  The basic idea is to encourage people to reflect on what they can learn from their experience. Possible questions include: (1) how did I feel when I learned what role I had in the simulation? (2) how well did I play the hand I was dealt? what options did I see? Were there other options I might have considered? (3) What might I have done differently?  (4) Do I see any parallels between my experience in the simulation and elsewhere?  Were my thinking and action in the simulation typical or not of my behavior in other challenging situations?

A caution.  Individuals will sometimes do things that produce significant reactions in some of their peers. We once saw a case in which a pair of individuals from the bottom group stole the top group's treasury. The pair gave each participant his or her money back, but they were branded as "thieves" etc. by a number of participants.  In another run an entrepreneurial bottom group member quit the firm, started his own new venture, and concluded a very profitable deal with the client. He was proud of his achievement, but many of his peers saw him as a disloyal opportunist. In a typical run, particularly if a successful deal was not achieved, there is considerable blaming of Top Management for a variety of errors of commission or omission; it is helpful for the instructor to underscore the difficult challenges that the Top Management group faced.  The instructor needs to protect individuals from unreasonable stigmatization, and remind people that (a) it's a simulation and a learning experience, and (b) experimentation is an important part of how we learn.

You are welcome to alter and modify the simulations and the instructions to suit your purposes and circumstances, as many others have done -- often with notable success. (For example, the instructions to the client group include an atrociously written sentence about the importance of good writing. Lee is very proud of how much bad writing he was able to load into one sentence, but you may not have the same quirky sense of humor he does.) We welcome hearing from you about your experiences, ideas, or suggestions.

Lee Bolman and Terry Deal