Clients have got a new way of testing the mettle of a bid team – by simulating a project that’s going up in smoke and down in flames and watching what happens next. Katie Puckett finds out how the process works – and how to beat it

When CLM won the delivery partner contract for the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) last August, it was the culmination of a gruelling, six-month selection process. But it wasn’t the written submission or the presentation that team members talked about afterwards; it was the day-long “team simulation” exercise. This is a technique imported from the US military that is soon to be used on major UK projects.

Team simulation is a bit like a cross between Big Brother and the Crystal Maze. Bidding teams are set a series of tasks that are observed in minute detail by the client’s assessors. For the Olympic job, each team spent a day in the ODA’s offices in Canary Wharf pretending they’d won the contract and, a year down the line, were in the middle of the day from hell. The teams turned up on their appointed day for a mock management meeting at 9.30am. There were between eight and 10 key people from each side, including ODA chief executive David Higgins and

then-chairman Jack Lemley. They started by debating what the objectives for the project should be for the next 12 months. They drafted responses to letters from MPs and local businesses. Then the teams were expected to come up with solutions to mock problems as they happened. As the meeting progressed, the ODA ramped up the pressure.

“It was everything you can possibly imagine that might go wrong with a project,” explains Morag Stuart, ODA head of procurement. “It was over budget, there were safety issues, security issues, industrial relations …” Each team was rigorously assessed on how they reacted, how they worked as a team and most trickily of all, that elusive “Factor X” – whether the ODA felt they could work with them for the six-year life of the contract.

For clients, team simulations expose flaws that the bidding team can conceal in standard written and oral presentations. “It’s quite exciting, you get six months of a project in one day, and it’s a true test of how people react,” says Bob Hewitt, director at Turner & Townsend, who helped with the ODA’s selection process. “The client says we’ve just received notification that there’s been a death on site, or the first phase of work has gone over budget. Then during the discussion, something else is brought in that complicates it further, like a member of the press has gained access to the site and there’s going to be a headline in the Evening Standard.

“You can have the best team, but they don’t work well with the client if the dynamics and chemistry isn’t there. You can have your best people wordsmithing round the clock for the written submission, and present the best bits of the bid in the oral presentation. But team simulations demonstrate the calibre of the individuals and how they work in a team. There were pronounced differences – it did help separate the bidders.”

Team simulation has been used before in construction in a less developed form but now it is about to take the industry by storm. Turner & Townsend will be using it on all major projects from now on, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency will be deploying it in an even more intense form. Soon, any company that wants to win work on major projects will have to make sure their staff are prepared to undergo what amounts to the most intense job interview they’ve ever had.

It all began in the US military. One veteran of the technique describes it as a way of “testing people almost to destruction, seeing how far you can upset people before they crash out”. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was the first client to use it in the UK, to select contractors to run its property portfolio, which is where the ODA got the idea from.

It was everything you can possibly imagine that might go wrong with a project

Morag Stuart, ODA

Both the MoD and ODA have used a company called ITS, which will set up and run “soft issues assessments” at a cost of anything from £50,000-250,000. John Doyle, its director, says ITS is in talks with a number of new clients. “Lots of people are wanting to do it now,” he says.

Doyle stresses that no two simulations are the same. Each is minutely tailored to suss out exactly what kind of people the client wants to work with, and the exercises are designed by Doyle’s team of occupational psychologists to isolate the precise attitudes and personality traits they’re after.

“For example, if the client wants a team that’s good at collaborative problem-solving, they’ve got to be good at negotiating, listening, trying to find a win-win solution. Do they ask questions? How inclusive are they? Do they show that they’re listening? We look for microskills, like whether they paraphrase what someone’s said.”

In any case, they also vary the process, setting and exercises so nobody can be too experienced. Some of the MoD’s assessments have been carried out overnight, some have taken place on site, with a “cast of thousands” waiting in the wings to offer information if the team has the presence of mind to ask for it. Sometimes the clients are in on it, with a script and clipboards, and sometimes they’re as in the dark as the bidder.

Pressure is the common denominator of all simulations: “You’ve got multiple phones going and faxes coming in,” says Doyle. “A team member might be off doing a task, when they’re handed a mobile phone with all sorts of other problems coming down the line.” Another popular stitch-up is to introduce new information or even greater crises 15 minutes from deadline. No matter how well drilled the team, the theory goes, when a situation becomes desperate, everyone reverts to type.

All this takes place under the hawk-like gaze of the assessors, who mark down every nuance of their behaviour in preparation for days of dissection. At the ODA selection process there were six assessors, as well as the ODA team, generating hundreds of pages of evidence on which to base their decision. The team may be engaged in trying to prevent project Armageddon, but the assessors are more concerned with how they interact with each other. Is everyone involved? Are they arguing? How do they treat the client? A favourite technique is to ask the bidding team to separately answer questions they are unlikely to have discussed with their team mates to reveal how strong the company culture is.

For all the rigour of the evaluation, the simulation carried relatively little weight in the final score of the ODA’s selection process. The “Factor X” accounted for 2% of the available marks. The team simulation itself accounted for 12% of the technical evaluation. The written submission was 60% and the oral presentation 28%, though the ODA’s Stuart notes that the simulations inevitably influenced their impressions of the presentations a few weeks later.

The weighting may seem small, but as one of a battery of selection procedures in ever more complex procurement systems, it can be decisive. John Forster, business development manager at Interserve, is a veteran of MoD simulations. They were worth 18%, just two points less than cost. “Big companies are all going to have prices round about the same, technical solutions about the same, competence about the same. This 18% could make the difference. We’d spent six months and millions of pounds bidding and it could all come down to one day.”

A popular stitch-up is to introduce new information or an even greater crises 15 minutes from deadline

How to get ahead in team simulation

1. Learn your team's names

If you’ve never seen the rest of the team before the day of the test, you’re unlikely to come across as a well-honed unit. Winning teams spend time getting to know each other. Ministry of Defence (MoD) contractor Interserve triumphed in the team simulation after two days of orientation – a day’s briefing followed by a day of outward bound activity.

2. Expect the unexpected

Try to think of every hitch that could possibly occur. And some that couldn’t. Then think of ways of dealing with all of them – potentially at the same time. Don’t forget secondary crises with local residents or the media. After all, these are the issues your client is most concerned about.

3. Give them what they want

The client will have spent months deciding what kind of people they want to work with and how this will come across in the simulation. Your team should have a briefing beforehand – make sure you come away with a clear idea of what they’re looking for. You don’t have to do your own psychoanalytic profiling beforehand, but it will probably help.

4. Show your workings

The client says there’s been a death on site, or the first phase has gone over budget. Then something else happens that complicates it further

BOB Hewitt, Turner & Townsend

It’s not enough to give the right answers; the assessors want to know how you came by them and the management techniques you’re using. One client compares it to a driving test: “You can drive, but you have to show you’re doing all the signal, mirror, manoeuvre.”

5. Ask questions

Team simulation is a scrupulously scripted exercise and the assessors will make sure that exactly the same information is available to each team. But you won’t get it if you don’t ask. One MoD simulation involved building on the site of unexploded ordnance from World War I – a report was available on request. “One team didn’t even spot it and tried to dig it up,” says assessor John Doyle.

6. Don’t rely on the team leader

The assessors want to see how you work together, not just whether you complete the task. Make one member of your team responsible for checking everyone’s involved and they’re getting on well with the client. You could also allot responsibility for staying on budget, health and safety and sustainability.

7. Get feedback

Whether you get the job or not, ask the assessors what you could have done better. Think of it as free management training.

One who lived to tel the tale...

John Forster is business development manager for Interserve, the prime contractor for Defence Estates’ south-east region, undertaking work worth about £500m.

“We spent six months bidding for the contract and we had 30 people working on it. The team simulation was worth 18% of the marks, cost was worth 20%.

The assessments took place on two days, a week apart, and we had to put forward two teams – one strategic, made of six senior managers, and one of six operational staff.

It’s from nine to five – quite a lengthy period. You do get a lunch break but you’re with their team so you’re on your best behaviour all the time.

First there is an icebreaker, like a party game. You have to show an ability to plan and involve the whole team and think laterally. They keep emphasising that there’s no right or wrong answer, they’re looking for how you work together in a team and how the contractor works with the client’s team.

There were the ITS guys all there monitoring how we were interacting. But you do a presentation at the end and if you spent a lot of time working nicely together but didn’t come up with an answer, that probably wouldn’t go down too well.

There were two problems in the morning and two in the afternoon, and they’re quite wide-ranging. I was on the strategy team and it was things like staff and contract problems, debt issues, obstacles with the public. There was one where we were converting a building to house asylum seekers. You had to say how you’d find the building, manage the reactions of the public and the press. You’re meant to work with the client team as if they were in their proper jobs. It was like a role-play. They had information available but they wouldn’t give it to you unless you asked.

It was quite intense. They give you two hours to solve a problem and then with 15 minutes to go, they come in with a fastball. We’ve had a leakage of aviation fuel, the local MP is here, people are up in arms, the station commander has to speak to the press in 15 minutes and you’ve got to brief him. You still have to meet the deadline for the other problem, so it’s testing how you use resources. They’re replicating something that could happen and also trying to find out how you’d react under pressure. You can role-play, but when you’re under pressure, you revert to type.”