the other side of the hill
All the business of life, is to endeavor to find
out what you don't know by what you do;
that's what I called 'guessing what was at
the other side of the hill.'
Field Marshall Lord Wellington
Lost in translation
Once the preserve of military leaders the wargame is
becoming tool for their corporate counterparts.
However, there is a danger that what is an effective
tool for planning military operations loses something
of its value in the translation from battlefield to
boardroom. Like the Sun Tzu quoting businessmen of
the 1990’s, the 21 Century advocates of wargaming
are sometimes guilty of promising too much from the
process or, worse, failing to exploit its full potential.
In shedding its camouflage for pinstripes, the
wargame is no longer a tool for testing and refining
plans against a single adversary. In it’s 21 century
commercial guise the wargame is expected to deliver
better decisions against an array of competing
adversaries of which Porter lined up only the first five.
Wargaming is not a black art. There are no secret
formulae and no manuals filled with secret military
processes. Like most military systems the
foundations of wargaming are solidly practical. It has
survived as a tool for military planners and leaders by
virtue of its simplicity, wide utility and ease of
application. In a profession that remains accepting of,
but not wholly reliant upon technology, wargaming is a
military tool that can be done in a dark tent, in the
middle of nowhere using lines scratched in the sand
and a selection of rocks gathered up from the feet of
At its most basic level the purpose of the wargame,
within a military context, is to pit an emerging plan
against the most likely or most dangerous enemy
course of action. Whilst the environment and context
are important factors, it is essentially a game of chess
‘Well-designed war games,
with a plan
though not a panacea, can be
powerful learning experiences
that allows managers to make
Playing War Games to Win
Whilst many CEOs may dream about doing so, the
aim of business is not to destroy the competition. In a
commercial context the adversarial pitting of one plan
against an opponent’s has limited value.
In an increasing dynamic and uncertain marketplace,
the commercial leader seeks a glimpse of future
success, to paraphrase Lord Wellington; they want to
see what’s over the hill. In the quest for better
decisions the wargame has found a place in the
corporate strategist’s armoury.
Ways, ends and means
Although much of what passes for commercial
wargaming bears only a passing resemblance to its
military cousin the flexibility inherent in the basic
process is precisely why it has survived the transition
and is becoming so widely employed.
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There is no argument that the process works, but
rather like trying to use a wood to get out of a bunker
during golf, it’s not wargaming per se that delivers
better decisions, but rather the right type of wargame.
What’s the question?
Framing the right question is critical to choosing the
right style of wargaming; or whether its wargaming
you need in the first place.
There is a point along a continuum of uncertainty
when the value of wargaming decreases and the
value of horizon scanning increases.
Wargaming sits in the grey area between planning
against tolerable uncertainty and the opposite end of
the spectrum – ‘let’s try and get a handle on what sort
of environment we might have to plan for’.
When the decision maker reaches the point at which
they cannot create credible plans and/or behaviours
for the ‘opponents’ for the wargame, they have
reached a point where the value of the wargame itself
review the planning process itself; are you using a
system that enables you to produce a decent plan in
the first place? If you are content that you possess a
workable methodology then inject a sensible number
of assumptions to strengthen the plan.
‘.. wargames can help decision
makers achieve success and
avoid the pain of failure’.
There are two important issues when
using assumptions. The first is to
Uncertainty operates in two
temper the natural desire to assume
areas. The first is the
every challenge away – four to six key
General (Retd) Anthony Zinni
uncertainty continuum on the
Quoted in Wargaming for Leaders
assumptions are required. The second
previous page – the uncertainty
By Herman, Frost & Kurz
issue is to make the assumptions
about the obstacles to success
acceptable: they must be valid, agreed,
faced by your plan. The second dimension of
credible and constantly visible. Assumptions must be
uncertainty surrounds your plan itself. All too often
on show, literally, because if anything that occurs
commercial wargaming is being applied not to test a
subsequently that questions their validity then the plan
plan against an uncertain environment, but to attempt
itself has to be reviewed. The advantage, however, is
to determine what sort of plan should be developed in
that if the right assumptions are framed correctly they
the first place.
can save time if they aren’t exposed as being invalid
during subsequent planning or wargaming.
When faced by uncertainty about both the plan and
the environment the value of the plan decreases
And so, to war …
dramatically. Managing uncertainty on one axis
Having determined that there is a sufficient degree of
(primarily the future environment) is the purpose of
confidence in the plan (with or without the benefit of
wargaming – asking it to produce ‘better decisions’
making assumptions to support it) and there is a
when uncertainty persists on two axes is asking a little
correspondingly low degree of confidence in the future
environment, the wargame can be developed.
The basic model of the wargame is the same,
regardless of the scale or purpose and comprises five
Facilitator(s). There is a requirement to keep things
honest, coordinate and control in any wargame
regardless of scale or complexity.
Blue Team. The Blue Team is the focus of the game
– it is their plan that is being tested, developed or
refined and/or their members being tested, assessed
too much. In such situations some stability in one of
the axis has to be established first.
When considerable uncertainty exists about the future
environment some form of horizon scan can provide
some clarity. Even without a full-scale horizon
scanning session, a facilitated meeting to consider the
future, with a form of confidence check is a useful
exercise before returning to the option of the
Uncertainty over the robustness or quality of the plan
requires a different approach. In these circumstances
where nothing more than ‘reasonable doubt’ exists
over the future environment and it is the quality,
direction or strategy itself which is giving cause for
concern then there are two options available. Firstly,
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Red Team. The Red Team inject anything that
creates an obstacle to Blue Team success. Militarily
the Red Team represent the enemy, the weather and
risks such as equipment failure. Within a commercial
context they may represent ant combination of
potential obstacles to success: competitors, exchange
rates or rising sea levels.
Blue Plan. Wargaming value is optimized when the
Blue Team enter into the fray bearing a plan, strategy
or vision. They cannot participate by improvising.
Whilst there will always be a need to adapt, they have
to be deviating from something.
Red Plan(s). There must be a guiding strategy,
bounded risks and or behaviors to influence the Red
Team. Like the Blue Team, the Red Team require a
plan and/or guidance.
Controlled Time. More than anything else, it is the
imposition of a time-driven framework that defines
wargaming. Each disciplined step or turn can be
minutes or months in duration but it is time that
imposes the framework over
the game and enables
outcomes of value to be
What are the rules?
Wargaming should impose a
disciplined approach on what
would otherwise be a loose
discussion about the validity of
a particular plan or strategy.
The discipline is imposed by
using a turn-based and timeconstrained methodology to
test the Blue Team plan
against a range of potential
obstacles to its success.
The simple cyclical model to the right is an example of
the process and can be used for low-level games with
turns lasting minutes (for example to test a crisis
response) or for sessions with a longer duration. This
model rewards the team deemed to have the initiative
derived from being the prime mover. This reward
manifests itself as an opportunity to react to the
opponents move – all within the predetermined
timeframe of the turn.
The turn length covers the three steps: action,
counteraction and reaction – with all activity having to
be completed within the agreed duration be it minutes,
hours or months.
The value of the reward for the team with
the initiative (which can be either team to
start and could change during the course
of the session) will obviously be diluted
the longer the turn duration gets and
could be dispensed with for strategiclevel wargames.
Who is on my team?
Within the turn cycle a referee resolves
the results of interactions between the
plans, strategies and actions of the two
teams. The referee needs to understand
the rules but more importantly, should be
an individual with sufficient experience
and credibility to allow their decisions to
be final. Ideally the referee should be
drawn from the organization participating rather than
an external source.
The composition of the Blue and Red teams will be
driven by the purpose of the wargame and its scale.
Clear rules and a division of responsibility between
the referee (internal) and facilitator (probably external)
should enable relatively large groups of people to
participate. Maximizing the number of participants
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brings considerable benefits to an organization in
terms of team building, building mutual understanding
and developing leadership
The Blue Team should comprise
those accountable for the
success of the plan or strategy
being tested or developed. This
‘front bench’ can be supported
by whoever is required to
provide the specialist advice
required. The key drivers in
determining participation will be
the scale of the wargame and
the duration of the timeframe of
The Red Team could be a small number of individuals
representing an array of potential obstacles:
competitors, customers, media, legislative input
anything that will influence the result.
The value of the wargame is largely driven by the
quality of the Red Team input. Whilst the Blue Team
are doing their ‘day jobs’ the Red Team will be
required to make credible assumptions about areas
that they are less familiar with. Consequently the size
of the Red Team may be relatively large and take time
For example, in developing a wargame to test a
marketing strategy, the Red Team may become a Red
Group with smaller teams representing a number of
competitors, another group representing
customers another yet may be created to
inject regulatory changes or financial
Invest in creating a credible and
competent Red Team to maximize the
return from wargaming.
Did we win?
For many first time players in a wargame
the tendency to ‘beat the other team’
becomes the overriding aim, not to
mention the cause of heated arguments
and the occasional playground complaint
of ‘but it’s not fair…’
The purpose of the wargame is to test,
refine or validate the Blue Team plan and when
necessary the players must be reminded of this. For
their part, the Blue Team must make credible
decisions based on the information they have
available and be true to their strategy or plan. The
responsibility of the Red Team members is to remain
‘in character’ and inject credible and appropriate
response according to their own plan and/or data.