Why You Need to Stress Test Your Strategies (and Tactics)


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

As a leader, how often do you think through the different ways that your plans could go wrong, how your strategy and business model could be disrupted, what a shock to your operations would look like, how you might be outmaneuvered by existing competitors?

Our guest today says that while many teams and organizations engage in scenario planning, they aren’t doing it in a disciplined or thorough enough way that pushes them to think beyond their current realities. He thinks more companies should borrow from the military and engage in corporate wargaming.

Arjan Singh is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University who teaches popular classes on war games there and at other universities. As a consultant, he’s also helped hundreds of companies use this process to de-risk their strategies and find new ways to innovate. And, he has advice on how individuals can do the same to advance in their careers. His new book is Competitive Success: Building Winning Strategies with Corporate War Games. Arjan, glad to be talking with you today.

ARJAN SINGH: Alison, thank you for having me.

ALISON BEARD: Now, I do want to be sensitive about this term war games because, as we know, many people in the world from Ukraine to Israel and Palestine are dealing with actual war right now. But, explain for us why you use it and what exactly it means.

ARJAN SINGH: War games are essentially dress rehearsals for companies to really test and stress test their strategies before they deploy them into the marketplace. Wargaming is very popular in the military. It crossed over into the business world about 40, 50 years ago. The terminology has stuck on since then. It is also referred to as competitive simulations.

Most of the applications of wargaming in the business environment build on the concepts from the military so there’s a lot of similarities. Obviously, the topics are very, very different. It follows a very similar structure in terms of understanding your key competitive landscape, your environment, who the key players are, what typical situations may emerge as you’re getting into the battlefield. So very similar in the military world, and it crosses over into the business world very, very seamlessly.

ALISON BEARD: And how does it differ from traditional scenario planning?

ARJAN SINGH: So traditional scenario planning, the notion there is really around thinking through different outcomes that may happen in a competitive environment. You hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst, and you work out strategies built on these alternative worlds that are there.

Wargaming takes scenarios to another element. So it’s not just about what’s possible in the future, but then the wargaming adds layers on in terms of the likely actions of key competitors and stakeholders in the marketplace. And then, the actions that a company should take in response to that, as well. So, it really drives home the actionability and moving it beyond an intellectual exercise to really pragmatic next steps for organizations to really bring them to life.

ALISON BEARD: So, give me an example of a war game exercise that you might give your students.

ARJAN SINGH: So, the one that we’re running currently at SMU is The Battle for Mobility. And so, the whole notion there and the central theme there is around, “Who’s going to control mobility in the future?” And so, we’ve got six different teams that are represented there. We’ve got a few traditional automakers like GM, Volkswagen, Toyota. We have next-generation providers like Tesla. We’ve got Uber, as well as Waymo, represented there. And, the whole notion there is around, “Who’s going to win in this battle, the battle for mobility? What will mobility look like in the future? And what if the world evolves to a situation where there’s nonownership of cars, technologies, AI? How would that affect how people commute and use transportation in the future?”

ALISON BEARD: So, that idea of “the battle for” is maybe how companies or teams should be thinking about it, the battle for this particular market or this group of consumers?

ARJAN SINGH: Yeah. Exactly. It’s really around the battles. But also, around defining what that battle is and how do you define your industry and the battle place and who you’re competing against?

So, I’ll give you an example. When we went into the COVID situation, everyone was at home and got familiar with online collaboration toolkits. And when we got back into the post pandemic world, business travel came back with a big force. And so when you look at traditional competitors, you could see the airlines are competing with other airlines and other transportation providers.

But then in this new reality, there were a lot of other competition. So it was American Airlines, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, the virtual world versus the actual necessity to be able to go travel. And so, definition is really, really important in terms of what that competitive set looks like. Companies that define it too narrowly can end up in situations where they may be blindsided by new competitors coming in. And so, that definition’s really, really important in terms of what that battle will be.

ALISON BEARD: What are the major types of games or scenarios that you teach your students and you use with clients?

ARJAN SINGH: So when you look at wargaming, it really fits into three different levels. There’s strategic war games, which is really anchored around long-term strategy, looking at how core macroeconomic trends are changing the competitive environment. And they’re essentially answering the question, “What will the game be in the future?” That tends to be much more senior level executives that can get involved in strategic games.

The next level down is operational games. And when you’ve got a defined space, you’ve got defined competitors. And it’s really thinking through where to play, “What areas does a company need to be competing in?”

And then you get down into the executional type of games, which are the tactical games. So, these tend to be much shorter term. This tends to be focused in on selling and usually has a one to two year time horizon. The core question there is really around, “How to win, how do we sell more product in the marketplace, how do we message against our competition, and how do we ultimately end up winning in that space?”

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And then, how do you come up with the specific scenarios?

ARJAN SINGH: So, scenarios is an area which… It’s been very well documented and written about in the business world. There’s different ways of looking at scenarios. Scenarios can be very simple. So, it could be as simple as having the group that’s in a war game brainstorm a set of key things that may affect the environment. And then, voting on it and prioritizing which ones they would like to address. At its most simple form, it’s a very quick exercise. It can take a few minutes.

The criteria for looking at scenarios is really around impactful situations. So, things that will have an effect on a competitor environment and really thinking of it from an impact perspective, not likelihood, because you really want to play out the scenarios that will be the most impactful.

ALISON BEARD: So when you’re selling this proposition of wargaming to your students and to clients, what specific opportunities do you point to that this will yield versus other types of strategic planning? And then, what specific problems or risks do you see it helping companies overcome?

ARJAN SINGH: Yeah. The opportunity part of wargaming is really around helping companies avoid blind spots. This tends to happen a lot with incumbent players that have large market shares. The attitude tends to be, “This is how the industry is. We’re experienced in this space and we know it well, hence our success. And, we expect this to continue.” There’s a lot of business school examples and case studies of how that’s led to the downfall of a lot of companies, including a lot of iconic names that are there. So, it helps-

ALISON BEARD: Kodak, Blockbuster, all of those.

ARJAN SINGH: Exactly. And so, this is a forum for having these conversations. And, it’s particularly important when the conversations are going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to challenge the status quo. It’s going to make an organization think differently.

And that’s one of the real benefits that are there because in a war game, you have different companies that are represented. You break up the group into these different groups and tell them, “Think through it like that company. Think about, ‘What does winning mean for this organization, and how are you going to attack our organization? And, what are you thinking?’”

You start getting really deep into that thought process, and it generates a lot of insights. Doing this analysis inside out, really getting into the heads of the competition and looking at the marketplace from their vantage point, is immensely valuable.

ALISON BEARD: Why do you think that a lot of organizations struggle to engage in that kind of in-depth thinking about different potential futures and where their assumptions might be wrong?

ARJAN SINGH: A lot of times, it’s just a function of resources and time. You know? Because businesses are busy. They’re busy in terms of executing. There’s always things to do. And, a lot of times I get pushback when companies talk about doing war games and they say, “Oh, can we do this in two hours?” And the answer is, “Well, you could, but it’s probably not going to be very good. To do a well-thought-out game, you need between a day to day and a half.

And so, then there’s logistics around getting people together, especially if you’re doing a strategic game and there’s senior management involved. Their calendars are very guarded and hard to get onto, let alone asking for eight to 12 hours of their time for this. So, time and resources tends to be part of it. And, the other part is cultural. Some organizations are not comfortable having their assumptions challenged. There’s a lot of structure hierarchy that comes into play. And if you’re questioning some of the senior people and their thinking, it’s not taken the right way. So, culturally it can be an issue, as well.

ALISON BEARD: What information do participants need or should they be given before they start?

ARJAN SINGH: So generally for a game, you should have a briefing document that’s got enough background for everyone to be knowledgeable in an area. And one of the key distinctions is, for companies that are in a particular area and they’re doing a game with that space that they know really well, so your pre-briefing documents tends to be a lot lighter because it’s an area that people are familiar with.

For areas that companies are looking to get into or build knowledge very quickly, games actually have a great way of doing that very, very quickly. And in those instances, the briefing documents would be a lot more comprehensive.

Generally speaking, the briefings are based on market information, competitive intelligence that you might have. And then, really deep diving into the companies and not only the cores of obvious metrics, but really delving deeper into previous battles, what they’ve done in previous instances, other lessons from history that can be applied here.

ALISON BEARD: And so, then what happens in the actual game?

ARJAN SINGH: So, the game is a series of plenary sessions followed by breakout rooms, where the teams work together. So in a typical game, you’d start with an introduction. You would give perspective in terms of the topic, the core issue that you’re trying to solve, what actions you’re expecting to come out of it. You may present a little part of the briefing document so that everyone is at the same level of knowledge.

And then, you go through a series of exercises. And, the first round you would typically say, “Okay. For the company that you represent, build a strategy to win in the marketplace and think through various levers that you’re going to use. But also, really think about, ‘What does winning mean for you? Shat does winning mean for your organization?’”

Because in a marketplace, even though you may have direct competitors, each company usually has a different definition of winning. And so, it’s really to understand what that thought process is, winning, and then the course of those strategic themes that they’re going to come after.

You can also put in specific asks around, “How would you attack your organization? How do you view the organization, and what are the specific things that you’re going to do to take away market share or sales or other metrics that you might be looking at?” And then from that point onwards, the teams will prepare their presentations, they’ll come back, they’ll present. There’ll be panel of judges, potentially, that will give feedback. And the teams will generally go back, they’ll revise their strategies based on feedback, based on how the competition’s going to be attacking that. And then, you start going through a series of exercises that delve deeper and deeper and deeper into that whole topic area.

And then the games, normally, they conclude at the end with turning it around from the company’s perspective. And the core question there is, “Based on these rounds of wargaming and battles that you’ve gone through, what are the key insights that you’ve generated? Where do you think are the biggest opportunities to your business? Where are the biggest risks that are there? The plan that you have right now, are you prepared for some of these situations?”

And then ultimately, it’s really around driving actions. And, you prioritize: “What are the core things that need to be done right now, proactively? What are the things we have to wait until they start playing out in the marketplace?” And a successful game actually has names of departments or individuals next to each of those action items who are responsible and accountable for moving that forward.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. That’s useful. I think we’ve all had the experience of going to an off-site and brainstorming great ideas, and then just sort of nothing happens after. You talked about the battle for mobility that you did with your students. Can you give us an example of a war game that you’ve done with a client recently?

ARJAN SINGH: So, wargaming tends to be a very common activity in the pharmaceutical biotech space. I don’t think I know of one large pharma biotech that has not done a war game. So, all of them do it. And, part of the reason there is you’re spending over a billion dollars to bring a drug to market. There’s significant skin in the game. And so generally, in the pharmaceutical industry, there tends to be a lot of wargaming as assets are brought to market, end of Phase 3, end of Phase 3, Commit to File, and then once they start launching into the marketplace.

And so, one recent game I’ve done in the pharmaceutical space. And it was a potential blockbuster they’re bringing to market so their expectations are over $5 billion in revenue for the product. And so, the game followed a similar structure to what I defined. We got into details. And when we started getting into scenarios, one of the scenarios that came up in the discussion was around, “What if the FDA doesn’t approve the product?”

And so as you can imagine, there was a lot of opinions in the room around, “Well, that would never happen. We know what we’re doing.” A lot of defensiveness, as well. And we said, “Look, this is what you have to do, is to really prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

And so, they went through the scenario and they looked at, “If the FDA doesn’t approve the product, what will they do?” They came up with a playbook on what to do there. War game was completed. And about less than a year later when their approval date came up from the FDA, the product was not approved.

And so instead of panicking, instead of saying, “Oh, now what do we do?” They went and looked at the output from the war game and said, “Look, we have a playbook here. We know exactly what we need to do. There’s certain signals in the data that we have to reanalyze.” There’s these other things that they had to do. They kind of executed on that and resubmitted it with the FDA. The product was approved afterwards as they’d gone there.

ALISON BEARD: So it seems like part of the goal is to figure out how you might fail before you actually do, or how you’re going to deal with a crazy shock like COVID.

ARJAN SINGH: Exactly. How you might fail before you actually do. The COVID shock was actually an interesting one. We’d done, with the students in 2017, The Battle for the Traveler, which was a game in which we had a couple of airlines, American, Delta, we had the OTAs, Expedia, booking.com. We had TripAdvisor, Marriott, which is a traditional hotel chain. The whole notion is everyone’s trying to control the traveler and everyone’s saying, “Hey, book on our website. You don’t have to go somewhere else.” Airlines now are saying, “We’ll give you loyalty points for not just flying, we’ll give you loyalty for credit card expenditure and dining and other parts, as well.”

And in that game, interestingly in 2017, we actually had the COVID scenario, which was the students had gone through building base case strategies for the companies they represent, how they’re going to win. And, one of the things that came out after round one was every single company that was in the room had one explicit assumption that their strategies were based on, which was, “The travel boom in the United States is likely to continue. And, that’s what we’ve built our strategies on.”

And so the scenario we gave them, we made it very generic just saying that, “Events occurred in the world where it’s going to have an effect of declining demand for travel by up to 95%.” We put a comment in there from a fictional analyst saying that, “The travel boom in the United States, the way that we’ve known it, is dead. Leisure travel’s dead, and business travel is going to take about three years to recover.” So, that was essentially the COVID situation.

And the students’ reactions first was, “Oh, no way. This is never going to happen. It’s silly scenarios.” And we said, “No. Go through it.” And, every single company had to rework their strategy and their playbook based on that one assumption changing, that the market boom’s over. It’s going to be over for the next three years or so.

ALISON BEARD: So, it seems like the output from these sessions is a playbook for a variety of scenarios that then you can put into action and make sure is implemented if those scenarios arise?

ARJAN SINGH: That is, and that’s really the key to driving actionability after a war game. As you’d mentioned, all of us have been to those meetings, which I call interesting, great discussions, a lot of great thought process that’s there. But then, it doesn’t really lead to anything. Right? And actionability, really, from a war game comes from the playbook. And, the playbook’s typically structured around, “What actions should an organization take? What those next steps are. What are the actions to take versus some of the scenarios?”

So if scenario happens, build a playbook in response to that. Understand the key insights that you’ve generated on your competition, what their hot topics might be, what are the areas where they’re vulnerable, where you could really focus in on? And having all those details in a very simple format, to use moving forward.

Then, the other benefit to a playbook is that this is the output of the stakeholders in the organization. So, this is not a third party telling them what to do or one person, it’s everyone aligning as a group in terms of, “We understand the core issues. We understand where our opportunities are. We align on what our next steps are going to be.” It’s a much quicker way to mobilize an organization towards a particular goal or actions.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I love the point you made in the book about how consultants might come in and say, “Right. This is what you should do.” And then, they’re not ever responsible for the outcome of what they’ve recommended. There’s a big difference. And so, how often should organizations repeat this process?

ARJAN SINGH: A lot of organizations do wargaming on an annual basis. So, some of the best in class companies have integrated war gaming into their planning process, so their annual planning process. They’ll kick that off with a war game, look at different aspects of their competitive environment, and then they get into their planning.

So, that’s kind of best practice. Depending on industry, it’ll vary. So if you’re looking at strategic issues and you’re in a traditional industry, you probably need to do one once every couple of years or so. If you’re in a fast moving area like technology or others, you could do it once a year, you could do it multiple times a year. And then, it also depends on the topic area, as well. So for example, if you’re bidding on a large contract that’s worth billions of dollars and you’ve got a 18-month to 24-month sales cycle, I know of companies in those situations, they war game every week.

ALISON BEARD: Hmm. Wow.

ARJAN SINGH: Yeah. I mean, for some of the big ones, like the Jedi contract, I know there are some companies that did weekly ones. When there’s $10 billion on the table, you try and figure out not only what you’re thinking, but all the key stakeholders, and what that battle might look like and all the permutations and combinations there, for which you would need significant amounts of rounds of scenario planning and wargaming.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, it sounds like you’re saying that specific teams within organizations can also use this process to think about their competitive strategy on a smaller scale, like signing a big deal.

ARJAN SINGH: Absolutely. You know the sales team can find a lot of benefit from being able to sell more product, meet their goals. It can help from a marketing perspective. There’ve been others, research and development, finance, strategy. A lot of different functional areas can benefit from this, but their topics will be different. Marketing would be interested in very different things from say, R&D and others. And so, it definitely has a space for different areas within an organization, as well as for start-ups.

This is not just a toolkit for large organizations. The larger organizations do spend a lot of time and effort on it. This is a very simple toolkit that start-ups can use in terms of if you’re bootstrapped, you’re bringing a product to market, just role play and see how the competition’s going to react. You can save a lot of costly mistakes by doing that internally before you start deploying your strategies externally.

ALISON BEARD: Have you ever had an instance where a war game led a company in the wrong direction because they didn’t come to the right conclusions?

ARJAN SINGH: There’s been a few. Wrong direction in terms of optimizing assets and prioritizing their developmental plans, it’s happened a couple of times. And, one of the main reasons for that was around not really having the right background information on the area. It was an emerging area, and so they had to make certain assumptions on what was likely to happen.

The big issue there was the way that they thought about it was from their company’s lens, not the competition’s lens. That was a mistake that happened, where they ended up going in a different direction. But with tracking and continuing to look and having early warning signals that you look at, you can course correct very, very quickly. And so in that instance, there are certain assumptions and hypotheses that they had in an action plan getting out of the workshop. They started deploying it. And then very quickly, based on feedback, what they discovered was that they were thinking through it the wrong way, and then they course corrected fairly quickly.

ALISON BEARD: You do say in the book that an individual can use wargaming to plan their career, or de-risk their career maybe. How would you do that?

ARJAN SINGH: I tell all my students to war game their careers. The reality is that every time someone’s looking for a new job or career or a start-up, you’re going to commit a certain amount of time and resources towards that. And generally, people don’t like to move jobs for at least a couple of years. Sometimes it’s longer.

And I’ve met a lot of people around the world, where it’s been interesting conversations around like, “Oh, I took this job. I thought I’ll do it for three years, and I’ve been here 15 years or so. But, this is not what I want to be doing. My passion’s somewhere else.” And so, I tell people that, “Really, take your career and look at the career path. You’ve got a certain runway. You’re going to work for about 30, 40 years or so. Where do you really want to be? What’s your winning aspiration look like? Think about that commitment trade-offs that you have, and you can war game those outcomes to figure out what your next steps should look like to get to where you’re trying to get to, and understand things like who are you competing with, what kind of skill sets, especially with the job market changing and different skill sets in need.”

And then ultimately, it’s for each individual to understand, “What does winning mean to you? Not everyone’s going to want to be or is going to be the President of the United States. However, for what you want to be, there is a path that you can take.” And then, wargaming can help individuals stress test that.

ALISON BEARD: So, you did talk about pushback and the fact that, especially in emerging markets, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. For those people who say to you, “Everything is changing so quickly. I already have so much on my plate. I think we can develop a good strategy without going through this process,” what do you say?

ARJAN SINGH: That’s a great question. That happens a lot of times. The time commitment and taking 15, 20, 30 people from work and having them in a day or two to workshop, that’s always a challenge. And, sometimes it’s quicker to overcome it through just showing previous examples or value. Sometimes it takes time.

I had a company that had that same pushback. And they didn’t do a game for, I think it was almost three years. And then finally, they were ready to do it. Once they completed it, the first reaction was, “Why didn’t we do this earlier? This would’ve saved us a lot of time, effort, heartache, and resources.”

Sometimes companies just have to kind of go through that whole process to get that realization because ultimately it’s around blind spots and costly mistakes and opportunities that they could have identified earlier. A lot of times the catalyst for breaking that is if someone in the team’s actually been through a game. They’re the champions of talking through wargaming and the benefits that are there. That’s a process to go through. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, was to just educate everyone in terms of the benefits of doing this and having effective, actionable games in their organizations.

ALISON BEARD: Arjan, thanks so much for talking to me today.

ARJAN SINGH: Great. Thank you.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Arjan Singh, adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University and author of the book, Competitive Success: Building Winning Strategies with Corporate War Games.

And, we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, Senior Producer Mary Dooe, Associate Producer Hannah Bates, Audio Product Manager Ian Fox, and Senior Production Specialist Rob Eckhardt. And, thanks to you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.



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