Saturday, September 09, 2006

Serious Play

[Editor's note: I first published this article in my newsletter "As Chance Would Have It" back in 2000. Leafing through old correspondence the other day, I rediscovered it, enjoyed it a second time, and thought I would share it with you here. I may have a few other gems to republish.]

**I first learned of Michael Schrage's work from a recent email from Harvard Busines School Press pointing to an article written by him, How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate: A User's Guide (  The subject of the article was something that is obviously very important to me - simulation and modeling - but with a twist: the social and political implications of modeling, their pitfalls, and suggestions to avoid such pitfalls.  Immediately, I forwarded the article on to several colleagues who are likewise professionally interested in the matter, too.  The November edition of Business2.0 also highlighted another article by Michael on the same subject.  I contacted Michael and asked him to contribute to the SEA!UG after a few email exchanges.  Although most users' groups tend to focus mainly on technical issues surrounding the use of an application, I strongly believe, given the type of application that A! is and the purpose for which it was intended, that ethical and behavioral issues related to modeling should just as well be taken into account by our users' group.  Michael has accomplished this in the few articles he has written that I've read, and I'm sure that he has even more so achieved his goal in his now published book,  Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, October 1999).  I encourage you to read his other articles (the one in Business2.0 and a companion piece at as well as read his book.  If in fact you decide to order his book from HBSP, send me an email.  With no further adieu,  let me introduce you to Michael Schrage.**

I appreciate Rob's invitation to contribute to his e*newsletter.  My book - Serious Play from the Harvard Busines School Press - explores the world of modeling and simulation from a slightly different perspective.  While I'm fascinated by how models and simulations behave, I'm even more intrigued by how people behave around models and simulations.  Better understanding the relationships between model-behavior and human behavior is, I think, the greatest opportunity for dramatically improving the quality of both.

Serious Play looks at the ethology, economics  and culture of model-building and model deployment in organizations. Several of its findings may seem counter-intuitive but many organizations have found them quite useful. Perhaps the most important observation is that, in the real world,  models are less about "Better Understanding the Problem" than "Better Understanding Ourselves." In practice, models are used as media to ascertain the trade-offs that the organization is - or is not - prepared to make in order to better manage the problem. I was stunned by how frequently models, simulations and prototypes were tweaked to skew politically/organizationally/culturally-driven - as opposed to data-driven - trade-offs. Models and simulations have become the dominant media for exploring trade-offs between rival choices AND rival people.

Influential models and simulations  are thus inherently social media; people seriously play with them Social media inherently fall prey to organizational, political and cultural influences. As the saying goes, "Figures don't lie but liars figure."  Rather than accuse modelers of lying, let's just say that some 'simulations' would be better described as 'spinulations.' There is a very thin line between overly optimistic/overly pessimistic scenarios and propaganda.

Further complicating this difficult state of affairs is that models are inherently simplifications of reality. That begs the possibility that what the model leaves out can be every bit as important as what the model puts in. Unfortunately, what's left out is often minimized or marginalized.  That's human nature. I now strongly believe in some sort of 'affirmative action' plan that requires modelers and the users of their wares to budget at least some portion of discussion time to what's been excluded from the model, why and the risk factors associated with those exclusions.

As the marginal computational costs of sophisticated modeling continue to fall, I think we have moved to a time where model-management shifts from the challenge of managing scarcity to coping with abundance. We now have to make sure we aren't passing the point of diminshing returns in our modeling & simulation initiatives, That means - yes - we have to model how we model and simulate how we simulate. That's going to be the best way of getting the most bang for our modeling buck. I think we're going to see more and more effective modelers rigorously and tuthlessly audit their development processes. I'll even bet we see some organizations videotape sessions between clients and modelbuilders - much as marketers videotape customer focus groups - to see what kinds of interactions are healthiest and work  vs. those toxic interactions that destroy authentic design and assessment.

In sum, I believe that technological prowess and organizational imperatives are combining to create a New Golden Age for Modeling if individuals and institutions have the honesty and courage to respect that human behavior still matters more than model behavior.

Michael Schrage

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