Wargaming Without the War

Crisis planners from all walks of leadership have much to learn from the military's ancient art.

Wargaming is an ancient art dating back thousands of years and thousands conflicts. Some of the earliest known writings on wargames are attributed to Sun Tzu, the Chinese military philosopher who wrote The Art of War 2,500 years ago.

But the practice isn't only for the military anymore. In modern wargaming, specialists are brought together to work through strategy decisions that might deal with a range of potential challenges-from disaster planning to information security-for which potential outcomes can be explored in a risk-free environment. They could involve senior executives at a corporation or government agencies, or a mixed group drawn from the public and private sectors. By playing through realistic scenarios, these leaders can find answers to questions that might not have been on their radars earlier.

Wargames aren't the answer to every problem. Decision-makers often can get sufficient information simply by asking their staff to present the top three courses of action along with the pros and cons.

If a wargame is in order, then it should be designed in consultation with an organization's leaders. It requires two conditions: a clear objective and key groups with competing interests, whether they are at real or imagined odds over strategic plans, data or institutional culture. There must be a general wrestling over strategy.

Here's how a wargame works. Decision-makers are assigned to teams representing a range of interests. The teams are confronted, unprepared, with an unknown scenario. Like the real world, where leaders routinely must make decisions without all the facts, participants have spotty information about events taking place and must communicate with one another to figure out what is happening and establish partnerships.

A wargame is different from a computer simulation or program. As the scenario unfolds, decision-makers can see the crux of their problems and an array of solutions. They begin to understand how their decisions can set off a chain of events. Participants leave with a new perspective on their situation, often markedly different from the one they came in with.

In a 2006 wargame sponsored by the Center for Health Transformation, 100 people were brought together from federal agencies, including the Health and Human Services Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; state and local government; and major companies in critical sectors of the economy.

Designed for three moves to be played over two days, the game involved seven teams from the following sectors: federal government, state and local agencies, health care, financial services and telecommunications, heavy industry, consumer products and services, and transportation and logistics. Each team had a mix of expertise-a health care specialist was on the consumer products and services sector team, for example, while a heavy industry representative was on the federal government team. A control team oversaw the simulation, updating the scenario and injecting additional events and information.

A fictional scenario kicked off the game: It was Nov. 28, 2006, and 12 days earlier a possible outbreak of bird flu had been reported in Hong King with nine cases. A few days later, the World Health Organization confirmed that a new strain of the virus had mutated to a form that was transmitted from person to person. In the United States, seven deaths in two states were traced to the new strain. None of the victims had recently traveled to East Asia, but three had visited Los Angeles. With the flu season off to a big start, hospitals and doctors throughout the country were swamped with patients and worried about the new strain. With deaths in multiple countries, WHO raised its Pandemic Alert System to Level 6, the highest level.

The opening move, targeting the first 30 days of the pandemic, concentrated on containment. Each team was given questions to focus their discussions, including: What is your role in the pandemic response and what are your priorities? What steps are you taking to control the pandemic? How will you ensure continuity of government and essential services?

The fictional situation became grave during the first six months of the pandemic. Move No. 2 dealt with a widespread pandemic in the United States, and in move No. 3, flu cases lessened, but the country was still reeling and trying to prepare for a possible second wave.

Participants quickly learned their preconceptions and initial responses were not always adequate, as the role-playing public let them know and events played out. It became clear that decisive federal guidance and communications would be required throughout the crisis. The nation's health infrastructure would be overwhelmed and real-world planners should think about alternative heath care sites, such as schools or churches, and private companies should place more emphasis on preparedness plans. Participants realized they must be prepared to communicate with multiple constituencies and share difficult messages that can be emotionally challenging. The wargame allowed the players to collaborate, reach conclusions, and learn in an imagined world. Players became more conscious of how their behavior and actions affect outcomes and came away as better decision-makers, and not just in the specific problem they explored.

The pandemic wargame and countless others like it prove that even in today's complex, digital world, bringing people together face-to-face still is the best way to find answers to complicated challenges. In important ways, little has changed since Sun Tzu's time, which could be a good thing.

Mark Herman is a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and has more than 30 years of experience designing wargames on strategic and boardroom topics for the Defense Department and private industry.

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