War games spark better-informed decisions
Game concepts are useful tools for planning programs
- By Judith Welles
- Jul 01, 2009
War games are not just for children and generals. The authors of a new book, “Wargaming for Leaders: Strategic Decision Making from the Battlefield to the Boardroom,” demonstrate how the concepts can apply to vexing business problems.
Authored by Booz Allen Hamilton's Mark Herman, Mark Frost and Robert Kurz, the book includes lessons useful to organizations of any size. The “war” of war gaming is not always literal; many games simulate other kinds of strategic and tactical puzzles.
In war games, participants take on roles that demonstrate the problems and conflicts inherent in planning a program. A war game can take as little as two or three days and have only two or three moves, with each move simulating a certain period of time. In some games, a move represents a few days or weeks; in others, it might cover years.
After the terrorist attacks in 2001, three health care industry stakeholders and three government agencies — the Health and Human Services and Defense departments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — held a two-day war game to improve the country’s preparedness for an act of bioterrorism.
According to the authors, the game depicted a disease-based attack on two U.S. cities with no relevant vaccine available. However, the disease was assumed treatable with the immediate use of antibiotics. The teams had to determine objectives, immediate steps, impediments, risks and economic consequences.
Organizers also asked the participants to describe what they needed from one another and how they would communicate those needs to the organizations able to fulfill them.
The first attempt at the game foundered on indecision. “The problem was institutional caution — no one wanted to make a bad choice that might make matters worse,” the authors wrote.
Organizers restarted the game, and as the disease’s spread became apparent, the teams began to take action. The lessons of the war game include the following:
- Aggressive treatment can limit the spread of disease.
- All sectors must coordinate to address a national problem.
- The private sector needs to have a single point of contact with the government, which is difficult now because of multiple programs, policies and statutes.
- It might be necessary to suspend legal, regulatory and procedural restrictions to meet immediate needs.
The lessons learned from war gaming are not limited to those generated during the simulated scenario. The points above resemble the steps government officials have taken in addressing the recent economic crisis and the H1N1 flu outbreak.
The book provides the military example of planning for the war in Iraq and business examples of war gaming on energy issues. There is also a war game to explore how to prevent threats to port security.
The government often must act under incredible pressures with incomplete information. War games show that failing to act in such situations can turn a crisis into a catastrophe.
Judith Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md.