How I Enrich My Markstrat Programs: Tips from a Long-Term Instructor
By Robert Duke, Senior Teaching Fellow, Leeds University Business School, UK
Learning by Doing Enhanced By Reflection
You might be tempted, especially on an intense implementation of Markstrat covering a few days, to fill your limited time with as many Markstrat years as possible. You may want to have the first decision period at 8am on the first day, and the last decision period ending at 7pm on the last day. However, this could be missing an opportunity. Learning-by-doing pedagogies are powerful, as any user of Markstrat will attest. However, to make the most of Markstrat, it is important to have participants learn not only by participation, but also by reflection.
Generally, reflection involves the student examining his or her own experiences and learning from them. This idea leads to a number of potent implementations, including the reflective essay, a form of writing that has a number of distinctive characteristics compared to other forms of student essay.
There is a rich body of writing on reflection and related pedagogies, but Gibbs (2013) most elegantly articulates what I wish to focus on:
“It is not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten or its learning potential lost”.
The Markstrat Instructor can enhance the simulation by motivating participants to reflect on their Markstrat experience. Ideally, of course, motivation would not be necessary - participants would spend many hours during and after the Markstrat experience reflecting upon it. However, given the intensity of participation in a Markstrat simulation, and the need to return to other life tasks afterwards, it is likely that participants will remember what they did, and what prompted them to do it, but may not reflect on the whole experience with wisdom of hindsight, benefit of distance, and by applying theory. They might not review events and consider what they could have done instead. Additionally, even the best Markstrat participant can become so engrossed with the minutiae of tactical implementation that he/she may not fully appreciate the strategy of which it is a part.
Even if the Markstrat participant does reflect without being prompted, the Instructor can enhance this reflection by giving it a framework, and by extending the peer-to-peer learning that is characteristic of Markstrat to include team-to-team feedback, creating reflection that is shared across the whole simulation.
Two Ways to Encourage Participant Reflection
I give participants two post-simulation tasks that require reflection. These have proved successful; participants sometimes tell me that they learned nearly as much from the reflection tasks as they did during simulation decision-making, especially those who were relatively slow to engage fully with Markstrat and did not perform well.
Reflection task one: team presentation.
I ask each team to prepare a 10-minute presentation and deliver it to me and the other teams, followed by a question-and-answer session of about five minutes.
The presentation session has several strengths. It is the first and possibly only formal opportunity for participants to talk to opponents and ask why they did what they did. Was an apparently brilliant strategy truly brilliant, or just luck? The other teams can ask the winners what they did to win; the answer is often a powerful revelation, not just about Markstrat but also about marketing itself. The simulation is over, so there is no longer any need to conceal anything; the teams can be honest with their former competitors.
This presentation has a tight, 10-minute time limit because even with this tight control of time, a presentation session for a six-team Markstrat simulation easily takes two hours. This time limit presents a problem: the Instructor cannot realistically expect a team to reflect exhaustively on a multi-year Markstrat experience in 10 minutes. However, I turn this problem into an opportunity. I call upon teams to focus on part of their experience.
What I mean by “focus” and “part of their experience” is open to interpretation. The team’s presentation could be a high-level overview of the whole Markstrat experience: a winning team could distil the secret of their success into relatively few key skills and insights, while a losing team can identify the critical skills they lacked. An alternative is for the team to focus its presentation on a specific, pivotal event, such as the team’s vodite entry strategy, or a competitor-based struggle against another team.
I often find that teams need guidance in finding a focussed theme for their presentations. Occasionally, I have in mind a great topic for a team’s presentation based on my knowledge of their Markstrat story, and I am later disappointed that they did not themselves choose it, instead giving a presentation on something else. This has led me towards giving the teams specific titles for their presentations, such as:
- ‘The Secret of our Success’; a good theme for the winning team.
- ‘Our Biggest Mistake’; good for a team that made a big mistake.
- ‘Three Things We Did Right and Three Things We Did Wrong’.
- ‘Our Turnaround Strategy’; Markstrat is great at illustrating many things, and one of them is the power of retreat, retrenchment, and a concentrated marketing strategy that takes a team from dismal last place to winning or nearly winning, all within seven or eight periods. I find this happens to some degree to at least one team in nearly every Markstrat simulation, and it is useful to motivate a team that experienced this to reflect and present on how they got into such a bad situation and how they then got out of it.
- ‘How We Put Theory into Practice’. The theory could be, for example, market entry strategy (first, early or late into vodites) or competitor-based strategy and the use of military analogy. Good for a team that can use such theories to analyse their Markstrat successes or mistakes, and critically discuss the theories.
- ‘How We Beat Team Tigers’. A good theme if a titanic battle between two competitors was a major part of the simulation. Good for setting up an interesting Q&A session; Team Tigers might have a different take on events!
Reflection task two: team report.
The second of my two post-simulation reflection tasks is a team-based, 8800-word Markstrat report. I use this as assessed course work on two-semester university courses, where teams may have a week or two after the end of the simulation to write the report.
Unlike the presentation, this can be an exhaustive reflection on the whole Markstrat experience, which is why I give students a recommended structure that divides the report into three sections:
- Section 1 is exhaustive cross-sectional analysis, objectives and strategy for Period Zero – the Markstrat start position. For analysis, I recommend they use Ohmae’s (1982) Strategic Triangle – market, competitors and internal.
- Section 2 is a longitudinal discussion of the team’s experience from Period Zero to the last period. This section is less structured, testing the team’s analysis and reflection abilities in a different way.
- Section 3 has the same structure as Section 1, but applies to the finishing situation of the simulation. Objectives and strategy can be visualised as what the team would do if the simulation continued, or as a recommendation to imaginary incoming management.
This is a demanding task, but participants gain great knowledge from re-analysing and reflecting on what they did.
The Losing Team Often Wins the Reflection Game
Intriguingly, I find it common for the team that came last in the simulation to write the best report and get the highest report mark. What could explain this? One hypothesis is that aptitude for learning-by-doing does not necessarily coincide with aptitude for learning via reflection; maybe an individual student’s aptitude favours one or the other, or maybe this is a characteristic of an entire team. However, I can think of other possible explanations. Perhaps it is easier to reflect upon and write about mistakes compared to successes, or maybe the winning team gets complacent because it won and thinks winning makes writing the report easy. On one thing, I am certain: to get maximum learning out of a Markstrat simulation, I recommend adding reflective pedagogies. I propose you enhance the Markstrat simulation with post-simulation reflective exercises.
Gibbs, G. Learning by Doing. [online] [Accessed 21st August 2019]. Available from https://thoughtsmostlyaboutlearning.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/learning-by-doing-graham-gibbs.pdf
Ohmae, K. 1982. The Mind of the Strategist: The Art of Japanese Business. McGraw-Hill.