It’s only a simulation, it’s only a simulation…

I recently developed and led an engineering leadership training for O’Reilly in San Jose at their Velocity conference. I chose to use an experiential learning style, an engineering simulation, to create lessons for these tech leaders.

But I didn’t anticipate that I’d learn something about management, and something about myself.

In the simulation, teams were given engineering exercises and limited time to complete them. I played the part of Manager, giving assignments, practicing MBWA (Management By Walking Around), and being helpful to the teams. I really was trying to be helpful, because the exercise was challenging and there were many questions. Questions about the materials that were allowed, what tools could they use, and how they could communicate with each other.

Each team was given 45m to complete the assignment and were instructed to work in secret, shielding they work from the other team. This was my first time doing this particular simulation, and I was nervous about running it. I was concerned about failing and looking like an idiot in front of everyone. I was also worried about getting a bad review from O’Reilly.

I started to get questions that I didn’t know the answer to, or I wasn’t sure how they would impact the simulation. Some were obvious, like “Can I go talk to the other team?” “No, you must work in secret.”

Others less obvious, such as “Can we use tool X?” Or “Can we have 15 more minutes to complete this?”

In some of these cases I found myself rushing off, yelling over my shoulder, “Use your best judgment.” or “It doesn’t matter, just get it done because time is almost up.”

The simulation finished, and we debriefed together. As I was walking back to the room, someone approached me and asked, “Marcus, I’ve got to know if you’re really like this, or you’re playing the role of clueless boss.”

Stunned, I stopped in my tracks. In a flash, I realized that I was acting like a clueless boss. But that wasn’t a part of the simulation script.

Instead, the simulation was having an affect on me.

Maslow strikes again

I realized afterward that my role as the busy manager who couldn’t answer every question but had pressure to deliver on a deadline had shaped my behavior. When people asked too many questions, I shut them down. When they asked hard contextual questions, I sidestepped them. When folks asked for exceptions to work more effectively, I spouted useless platitudes such as “use your best judgment, but always respect the company rules.”


I was too busy, stressed and anxious to think about them. While leading the simulation I was primarily concerned about my safety and success. In that context, safety and success meant finishing Phase 1 so that Phase 2 could be started on at a certain time. There weren’t any real negative outcomes to missing that time, but my mind invented some anyhow.

I was living out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

If I didn’t feel safe, or secure, or respected then I was primarily trying to meet those needs. It was only during times of more security that I could see and address the needs of others.

”Why did you let them change?”

In one particular situation, Team A had asked for an exception to the Rule of Secrecy, so they could collaborate with Team B for ten minutes. In fact, they wanted it so much that they broke the rule and snuck into the other room (until I caught them and kicked them out!)

Later, Team B asked for an exception to a time limit, which I granted as long as they were willing to use part of their lunchtime to get the work done. They agreed, and I forgot about it.

During the group debrief session, one member of Team A pointedly asked me, “Why did you play favorites and let them break the rules? Why did you like them better?” When I asked why she felt that way, she elaborated. “When we asked for an exception, we were denied, but when they did you allowed it. That wasn’t fair.”

In her mind, my denying Team A’s request, and granting Team B’s request was because I was playing favorites.

I explained that Team A’s request would have violated the structure of the simulation for everyone, but Team B’s request benefited both teams in a particular way.

She quickly understood and said she would have made the same decision, but that wasn’t the end of the conversation.

“But why didn’t you explain it during the game? Were you simulating a clueless boss?”

I hadn’t been simulating it. It as all too real.

I’d allowed stress, insecurity and time pressure to turn me into a real clueless boss during a simulation. It shocked me how fast it had happened, and how blind I had been to it. I was surprised (but shouldn’t have been) at how strongly Team A felt about the unfair decision, and how quickly they decided it must be because I didn’t like them.

In the absence of context or facts, our brains tell us all kinds of untrue stories.

It happens in a flash

In a flash, technical managers and leaders can turn from a self-actualized, empathic boss into a clueless jerk. You probably won’t see it coming, and may not know when you’re doing it, yet your team recognizes it immediately.

But with time, intention and training you can develop new habits of thought and actions. In my case, I was lucky enough to create an environment where people could talk openly about what they felt in the simulation. In fact, that’s one of the benefits of a simulation. Since it’s not “real life” and there wasn’t anything at stake, we can open up and learn from the experience.

Thankfully, the group felt it was safe enough to give feedback that I could use to learn something about myself.

Does your team feel the same?