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Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 12 News List

So you think you could manage a multinational?

Ever fancied running a giant corporation? A new simulation lets you -- and assesses your thought processes at the same time.

By mira katbamna  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

No one looks forward to the annual review, but if your boss suggests you have your brain tested you might think you're in for a really hard time. In fact, for an increasing number of us, having our brains tested or "undergoing strategic assessment" is exactly what we could find ourselves doing this year, thanks to new research showing that the most important factor in good leadership is strategic thinking -- and to a new machine called Thought Leader that can actually measure how you think.

My first contact with Thought Leader is on the phone to the cofounder of the Center of High Performance Development (CHPD), Tony Cockerill. His explanation leaves me none the wiser.

"The modern environment is characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and change. This places special emphasis on the capability of leaders to think and act effectively in normal and crisis conditions, and move fluently between these two situations as circumstances demand," he said.

Not one to be put off by a bit of jargon, a few days later, I make my way to the CHPD's offices in London. I soon discover they don't mess about. After a quick cup of tea, I'm taken straight in to meet neuropsychologist Usha Satish, an expert in cognitive functioning and a designer of Thought Leader.

Satish leads me into the "simulation room," which looks suspiciously like CHPD's boardroom. It soon becomes apparent that it is in fact CHPD's boardroom. Furthermore, Thought Leader, computer from the future, consists of a laptop, a printer and "Thought Leader Operative" Karl Maskell. There is one unusual thing about the room: a large number of Post-it notes and highlighter pens are piled high on the desk. And there's a map of somewhere called Astaban.

It turns out the first part of the test won't involve any actual testing: I have to watch a video about an imaginary country called Astaban and an imaginary company called RPR. Astaban seems a pretty cliched place. Located in Eastern Europe, it has recently become a democracy, boasts a range of competing ethnic and religious groups and is highly unstable.

RPR isn't much better. Having decided to buy up the national bank, the capital city's only hotel, a department store and a pottery (the only profitable operation), the US-based owner wants to make a profit. Now. And he informs me, via "video link," as I am the new head of Astaban Operations, he's relying on me to do it.

As soon as the video finishes, the printer on the table starts whirring aggressively. The goverment wants a loan to start producing alcohol.

What is that supposed to mean? Deciding to worry later about why the government wants to sell alcohol to a department store, I tell Maskell I agree to the loan. As he types in my instructions, he asks if the decision is related to earlier or future decisions, or to any future plan, but before I have time to think, the printer starts up again.

While I try to sort out a plan, Maskell types every decision or request for information into the computer, which cleverly responds to my instructions with more problems (or, the news that a decision has actually averted disaster).

As the afternoon wears on, Astaban goes into political crisis, separatists take over half the country (and my profit-making pottery), the department store fails to sell anything, government blockades stop deliveries, and hotel staff walk out. My bank goes bust. My negotiations fail. It's a disaster. But, to my surprise, it's also enormous fun.

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