Power Simulation


We developed this simulation in the late 1970s, inspired by the Power Laboratories developed by one of my favorite people, Dr. Barry Oshry.  Our simulation is a condensed version of the Oshry workshop and is intended specifically for use in college and university courses by instructors will skill and experience in conducting experiential activities.  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.

More information about Barry Oshry's work is available in his book, Seeing Systems, and from Power + Systems, the consulting and training group he founded. Phone is 617-437-1640. The simulation is described in the following article, which includes discussion of its purpose, how to use it, and how to debrief it .  Also included is a lively account by Dr. Mariann  "Sam" Jelinek of her experience as a simulation participant in 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 to read the article.)

            The simulation creates creates a highly-stratified three-level society with no stated task other than to learn from the experience.  With nothing else to focus on, people tend to focus on the structural differentiation and the perceptions of inequality.  The simulation tends to be very powerful, and  some form of rebellion by members of the bottom group is common. 

The simulation was 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 has to be adjusted to fit the number of participants.

   The simulation is relatively simple to run.  It requires no materials or props other than a simple set of instructions like those given below.  The only other consideration in setting up the simulation is making best use of available space for groups to meet in.  We try to provide the top group a large and comfortable space with a seating area, the middle group a smaller space (seating is optional), and the bottom group a nondescript space like a hallway (unfurnished is fine).  Group membership can be assigned using some arbitrary indicator of status (for example, age, gender, height, current course grade, etc.).   If you’re working with a larger group that includes on-going teams, another option is to structure to ensure that the intact teams are spread proportionally across top/middle/bottom. 

In running the simulation, we always collect contributions from each participant, typically $5/person, but less for groups in which that might be an unreasonable burden.  We give 2/3 of the money to the top group, and the rest to the middle.  We typically aim for a relatively small top group (usually 6 to 12 people, but it can be less), a somewhat larger middle group, and a large bottom group.   

Our discussion of Power Simulation's younger sibling, Organization Simulation, includes a discussion of running and debriefing, and some of the information there is relevant here as well.

Below are the instructions that we distribute to participants at the beginning of the simulation.  These instructions may be freely used by instructors in college and university courses.  For uses in other contexts, contact Power and Systems (617-437-1640).


The Commonwealth is a temporary mini-society established to promote learning, particularly about topics of power and conflict.

Each participant will be a member of one of three groups which are stratified by size and wealth to mirror arrangements that often occur in organizations and societies.

Customs and traditions have developed that are set out below for the members of each group.

Top Group

1. Members of the top group are viewed as having overall responsibility for promoting the welfare and learning of all participants.

2. In keeping with their responsibilities, the top group is also entrusted with most of the society's financial wealth.

3. It is a custom that the members of the top group are considered invited guests who are always welcome in the spaces of each of the other two groups. Members of the top group may communicate with members of the other groups at any time.

4. It is also a tradition that members of the top group are the guardians and interpreters of the customs and traditions of the Commonwealth. In that capacity, they may change or re-interpret any customs or rules at any time.

Middle Group

1. Historically, the role of the middle group is to assist the top group in promoting learning and to work with members of the bottom group to increase their productivity as learners.

2. Members of the middle group are entrusted with a share of the commonwealth's resources.

3. Historically, members of the middle group have never entered the space of the top group, nor communicated with the top group, unless they have received the invitation or permission of the top group. It is viewed as permissible for members of the middle group to knock on the door of the top group, and request an audience.

4. Members of the middle group have always been free to enter the space of the bottom group and to communicate with members of the bottom group at any time.


Bottom Group

1. Members of the bottom group are expected to perform the basic work of the society: learning about power and conflict.

2. Members of the bottom group remain in their own designated space unless they receive permission from members of the Middle or Top groups to go elsewhere. Bottom group members may knock on the door of the middle group, and request an audience with that group. It would be considered a serious violation of custom for any member of the bottom group to attempt to communicate with the top group, unless first invited to do so by the Top Group.

The Staff

The staff will serve as traveling anthropologists. They are free to move about the Commonwealth to study the process. They will not respond to questions, intervene or participate in the simulation until its conclusion.