Sudoku Solutions, INK:
A Simulation of a Project-Oriented Organization

In this workshop, we simulate a company that solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers. Each puzzle is a project, solved by a project team led by a project manager. Team members hail from different parts of the organization, such as QA or the Department of Threes. Puzzles have different values, and the company must strive to meet revenue goals. The metaphor is uncanny. Lessons abound.

Organizations today are increasingly performing their work in project teams, which overlay the functional structure of the organizations. That is, the functional structure of Administration, Finance, IT, Human Resources, Sales, Marketing, Customer Service, Engineering, Manufacturing, and so on, remains in place, while more and more of any organization's work is performed in teams that cross these functions. The inevitable tensions that arise are expensive distractions.

This program helps participants understand how to deal with these tensions, how to prevent them, and how to work more productively in and with cross-functional teams. We do this by simulating a company we call Sudoku Solutions, Inc. (SSI), which solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers.

Cross-Functional Teams: How Organizations Actually Work

A game of Sudoku — the basis for a highly interactive workshop that reveals much about how organizations work

Projects sit off to the side, typically belonging to no particular function — or in some cases, residing within IT — and interacting with the various functions as needed. Project managers and portfolio managers do have some authority over the people who work on their project teams, but generally, formal authority remains in the functional units. Functional managers continue to exercise organizational authority, creating and adjusting policy as needed, and controlling the application of resources. That is, functional managers decide who works on what, when, and for how long.

Consequently, project teams, project managers, and portfolio managers must adjust their schedules and priorities in response to the actions of functional authorities.

In this lively and highly interactive program, we study the dynamics of these kinds of organizations. Through a series of experiences — team "games" you might say, based on solving Sudoku puzzles — we examine how functional units and their leaders interact with projects, portfolios, and their leaders. We demonstrate the impact they have on each other, and clarify for all participants how the structure itself is responsible for much of the day-to-day frustration and angst that people throughout the organization experience.

Perhaps a more concrete description will be helpful. Here is some detail about one part of the simulated organization: a project team.

The team members are:

  • A project manager, who reports to the Project Management Office (PMO), and who is responsible for ensuring that the team has what it needs
  • A Quality Assurance lead, who reports to QA and who checks that no number can be inserted into a cell unless it can be proven that the number is correct
  • Team members, who are responsible for supplying numbers to insert in puzzle cells. Team members hail from different functional departments that have various specialties, such as Fives and Nines, Odd Numbers, Powers of Two, and so on.

Each team has a sponsor, who supplies account numbers against which all effort is charged. Sponsors typically are responsible for three or more teams. They also have production goals that they must meet.

A minimum of 20 attendees is needed, but we can accommodate up to 75. Every attendee has a role, and we never fail to keep everyone engaged. As the number of attendees increases, we increase the revenue goals of SSI, and increase the number of puzzles being solved simultaneously. We can also add complexity by overlaying roles such as program managers, CFO, CIO, and CEO.

As work progresses, we keep the simulation faithful by designating vacation days, conducting reductions in force, outsourcing various roles halfway around the globe, assigning team members to multiple teams, and so on. Chaos will reign.

By revealing the true costs of conventional practices, we explore ways to more effectively accomplish the organizational goals we now address through conventional practices such as these:

  • "Lean and mean" organizations
  • Reductions in force
  • Furloughs
  • Hiring freezes
  • Capital equipment freezes
  • Virtual teams
  • Outsourcing and offshoring
  • Use of contractors in lieu of full time employees
  • Split assignments

This program is available as a workshop or clinic.

Learning model

This program is structured as a simulation of a single enterprise. Events occur, as they do in real enterprises, in response to unplanned situations that compel the teams, and the enterprise as a whole, to work together to solve problems under a variety of different constraints. The constraints are designed to emulate the management practices we commonly find in organizations.

We explain the constraints the teams must obey. We tell them how we will measure success. We give them time to solve their problems and we debrief periodically to harvest lessons learned.

Our learning model is partly experiential, which makes the material they learn accessible even during moments of stress. Using a mix of presentation, simulation, group discussion, and metaphorical team problems, we make available to participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations.

Target audience

Project managers, program managers, managers, executives, leaders and project team members. Participants should have experienced at least six months working with or as a member of a project team.

Program format and duration

Available formats range from one-half day to two days. The program requires a minimum of twenty participants.

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