Experiential Learning Exercise: Here’s How It Works

By October 9, 2019Commentary
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By Dr. Charles K. Pickar

It’s about 0630 on a Tuesday. People who will be overseeing this week’s simulation exercise have arrived. The exercise director quickly reviews the master events list with the assembled group of acquisition experts. The senior mentor briefs the group on the training objectives. A short time later, the exercise attendees start arriving.

This isn’t happening at a tactical simulation center, but in a building at the participants’ home station. There are also virtual attendees dialing in as necessary. This rotation’s PM and her key leadership team of acquisition specialists are getting ready to participate in an intense and sometimes stressful simulation to hone their acquisition skills.

In the main conference room, the exercise director and senior mentor welcome the PM and staff and meet the exercise team. Then the participants head to their designated spaces—four computer-equipped conference rooms—for the two-day exercise. The PM and her team have prepared for today’s event over the past month through briefings and discussions with the organization conducting the exercise. They have heard about these exercises and are looking forward to a meaningful learning experience. The list of scenarios derives from acquisition “big data.” The exercise itself, however, is free play, meaning the direction that it takes will be driven by the decisions the PM makes with her leadership team.


A cross-functional exercise—one involving PMs, systems engineers, contracting officers and budget specialists—that incorporates historical acquisition data, industry factors and command-specific issues would provide acquisition professionals an opportunity to develop and hone the executive, managerial, teaming and technical skills needed for managing complex acquisitions. (Graphic courtesy of the author and USAASC)


Participants will encounter the full spectrum of issues that would require them to make decisions in the day-to-day management of an acquisition program. (See “A full slate of challenges.”) The exercise will provide feedback on the participants’ decisions in accelerated time, with one day in the exercise roughly representing two to three years of program operation. (It’s important to note that this is not a rigid formula. The exercise director can extend or compress events, and the participants’ responses to simulated events during the exercise also affect the pace at which time unfolds.) Overall, feedback regarding a decision on a requirements change that normally would reach the PM team over weeks or months will happen quickly, at times within minutes.

Here’s how the exercise unfolds:


0900: The PM and key leaders set up in their assigned conference room. The exercise mentor, a retired senior-level PM or program executive officer, greets the exercise participants, and they discuss the agreed-upon goals, which could include expected issues such as rework problems, or more complex issues such as tackling problems that arise with cost and schedule overruns. The exercise begins.

0925: The participants review status reports on various aspects of the program defining the scenario, including cost, schedule and performance, as well as risk. The PM has an initial phone call with her contractor counterpart. The chief engineer and contracting officer begin to work through the details of the information they’ve received. So far, things are quiet … but not for long.

0957: While the exercise team reviews the acquisition status, the contractor PM calls the government PM to discuss a problem: A key component in the manufacture of the low-rate initial production units was installed incorrectly. The rework necessary to correct the problem will take seven weeks to resolve and cost approximately $700,000. The contractor PM knows this will delay the already-planned initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E). What does the government want to do?

Meanwhile, the exercise controllers are teeing up the next event. The simulation controllers will take the decision that the PM and team provide and run it through the simulation. The individual playing the industry PM discusses the government PM’s guidance from their initial call. Unlike most tactical simulations, this one is going to reflect the decisions and the dynamics they provoke. The results will be accelerated through the system—in this case, the seven weeks will be over in 30 minutes.

1027: The program executive office calls to say they may have an extra $2 million available from end-of-year sweeps; what can the program do with this money, and what will the effect be on the program?

1031: (Seven weeks later in simulated time) The contractor PM calls again to say that the low-rate initial production problem is bigger than first thought. Rework will now take at least another 90 days. He is still working the new cost estimate and will provide it ASAP. 

Exercise controllers are generating reports and forwarding them to the PM. The latest earned-value results, for example, show a schedule performance index of 0.76 and cost performance index of 0.81—a sign of potential problems, as the values are less than 1. Throughout the exercise, earned-value data will be reported to gauge reactions of the PM and team.

1045: The PM and her staff are slowly getting acclimated to the hectic pace of the exercise. They receive updated earned-value information. Shortly thereafter, the program executive office calls and wants to schedule a meeting between it and PM on earned-value results and problems in IOT&E.

The exercise continues to a natural pause around 1800, when the senior mentor leads an after-action review. The exercise team walks through the day’s events. PM and staff provide their feedback. The PM and team will receive the results of the review at the end of the exercise so they have a record of what happened and why. Then they are released until the next morning.


As on the previous day, the PM and her team are pushed to react to an ever-increasing tempo of acquisition management events. Generic events drawn from acquisition data but tailored to this exercise drive the pace. The events are designed to cause reactions from all team participants. They range from direction received from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress, to reviews and restrictions, to funding instability, to requirements changes and force majeure, keeping the participants on their toes.

The day ends with the final after-action review, and the exercise concludes. Data from the exercise feeds future exercises to ensure continuous improvement.


During a simulation, participants will encounter a variety of issues that would require them to make decisions in the day-to-day management of an acquisition program. These are some of the potential issues, among many others and variants:

Administrative changes to schedule, including updates to the acquisition program baseline, changes to the acquisition decision memorandum, decision delays and associated secondary delays.
Technical delays.
Testing delays.
Delay in availability of key capabilities or facilities (e.g., vehicles, testing facilities, initial operational test and evaluation units).
Budget and funding delays.
Delays attributed to the contractor.
Delays because of rework.
External events such as inflation, earthquakes, labor strikes, etc. (force majeure).
Delays because of contracting, contract negotiation and award delays.



This article is published in the Fall 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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