Harvard University’s change management simulation on power and influence offers an unique and immersive experience to its students learn key principles of organizational change.

This simulation allows students to step into the shoes of key decision-makers who are tasked with implementing an organization-wide environmental sustainability initiative.

This simulation is set against the backdrop of real-world challenges that organizations face today during implementing change initiatives. Its kind of a game that test leadership, strategy formulation and negotiation skills of the participants.

Through a series of scenarios that vary in the levels of power held by the change agent and the urgency of the change initiative, participants are also tested on their ability to wield influence effectively and drive change.

In this blog post, we’ll dive into the strategies that can help you not just navigate but excel in this simulation, providing insights that extend well beyond the classroom and into the heart of leading change in any organizational context.

Let’s get started

Introduction of the Simulation

The Harvard University change management simulation is designed to immerse participants in the complex dynamics of leading organizational change, particularly focusing on the implementation of an environmental sustainability initiative within a sunglass manufacturing firm.

This setup serves as a microcosm for broader organizational challenges, offering a realistic and nuanced context for learning about power, influence, and the art of change management.

The Firm and Its Challenge

Participants are cast into leadership roles within a fictional yet convincingly real sunglass manufacturing company.

The company, despite its success in the market, faces increasing pressure to integrate sustainable practices into its operations. This pressure comes from various stakeholders, including consumers, environmental groups, and even internal employees who are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of their work.

Roles and Perspectives

The simulation assigns participants one of two pivotal roles: the CEO or the Director of Product Innovation.

Each role comes with its own set of responsibilities, perspectives, and influence within the company:

  • CEO: As the chief executive officer, the participant is tasked with overseeing the entire organization, balancing the demands of different stakeholders, and ensuring that the sustainability initiative aligns with the company’s strategic goals and financial health.
  • Director of Product Innovation: This role focuses on the technical and creative aspects of integrating sustainable practices into product design and manufacturing processes. The Director must advocate for change while navigating the complexities of innovation within a traditional manufacturing setting.


The primary objective of the simulation is to successfully implement the environmental sustainability initiative across the organization. Participants must choose among different change levers—ranging from formal authority and building coalitions to framing the initiative in appealing ways—to persuade key members of the organization to adopt and support the change.

Learning Opportunities

The simulation offers rich learning opportunities, emphasizing the importance of understanding the context in which change occurs, the power dynamics at play, and the need to adjust strategies based on feedback and evolving situations. It challenges participants to not only strategize but also to reflect on their actions and adapt, mirroring the real-world complexity of leading change.

04 Scenarios of power and urgency

The Harvard University change management simulation intricately weaves together various scenarios, each characterized by differing levels of power and urgency.

These scenarios are designed to challenge participants’ ability to adapt their change management strategies under different conditions, highlighting the dynamic and often unpredictable nature of leading organizational change.

Here’s a closer look at each scenario and the unique challenges they present:

1. High Power – High Urgency

In this scenario, participants find themselves in a position of significant authority, equipped with the power to enforce change decisions. The urgency to implement the environmental sustainability initiative is palpable, driven by external pressures such as regulatory demands, competitive market forces, or a crisis that threatens the company’s brand reputation.

The challenge here is to act decisively and quickly, leveraging the high level of power to mobilize the organization towards rapid change. Participants must navigate the risks of resistance, potential backlash from hasty decisions, and the stress of meeting tight deadlines, all while ensuring that the change is effectively implemented.

2. High Power – Low Urgency

Although participants still hold considerable power in this scenario, the urgency to produce results is not as immediate. This situation might arise from a strategic decision to proactively adopt sustainability practices ahead of industry trends or regulatory requirements.

The challenge lies in convincing stakeholders of the importance of the initiative despite the lack of immediate external pressures. Participants must use their power wisely to inspire and motivate, building a compelling vision for the future that encourages voluntary buy-in and commitment to the change process over a longer term.

3. Low Power – High Urgency

This scenario places participants in a position with limited formal authority or decision-making power, such as a middle management or specialized role, while facing an urgent need for change. The urgency may stem from emerging competitive threats, sudden shifts in consumer expectations, or critical feedback from key stakeholders demanding swift action on sustainability.

The key challenge is to influence without authority, relying on persuasion, coalition-building, and strategic negotiation to garner support for the initiative. Participants must identify and leverage informal networks, communicate effectively, and demonstrate the critical nature of the initiative to mobilize the organization.

4. Low Power – Low Urgency

In the final scenario, participants encounter both limited power and a lack of immediate urgency to implement the sustainability initiative. This might reflect an early-stage awareness within the company or industry about the importance of sustainability, where the initiative is seen as desirable but not critical.

The challenge here is to gradually build momentum for change, using subtle influence techniques and long-term strategic planning. Participants need to engage in storytelling, highlight potential future benefits, and slowly cultivate a culture shift within the organization that values and prioritizes sustainability.

Understanding Power and Influence in Change Management

Understanding power and influence is crucial in change management as these elements significantly affect the ability of leaders and change agents to navigate organizational dynamics and drive effective change.

Power and influence operate on multiple levels within an organization, shaping interactions, decision-making processes, and the overall success of change initiatives.

Here’s a deeper look into how power and influence play a pivotal role in change management:

Power: The Capacity to Enact Change

Power in an organizational context refers to the capacity of individuals or groups to influence the actions, beliefs, or behaviors of others. It’s a critical tool for change agents, enabling them to direct resources, make decisions, and enforce actions necessary for the implementation of change initiatives. Power can be derived from several sources:

  • Formal Authority: Power granted through organizational roles and positions, such as CEOs or managers, who have the authority to make decisions and allocate resources.
  • Expert Power: Based on the skills, knowledge, and expertise that an individual brings to the table, which can influence others’ opinions and actions.
  • Referent Power: Stemming from personal characteristics, relationships, and the ability to inspire or attract others, often leading to a strong following or loyalty.
  • Reward and Coercive Power: The ability to give rewards or impose penalties to influence behavior.

Influence: The Art of Persuasion

Influence is the ability to shape the perceptions, attitudes, or behaviors of others without relying solely on formal authority. It involves the strategic use of communication, negotiation, and persuasion to garner support for change initiatives. Effective change agents use influence to:

  • Build Coalitions: Forming alliances with key stakeholders to support the change initiative.
  • Communicate Vision: Articulating a compelling vision for the future that motivates and aligns organizational members towards the change.
  • Negotiate and Compromise: Finding common ground and making concessions when necessary to move the change forward.
  • Leverage Informal Networks: Utilizing relationships and informal channels within the organization to spread enthusiasm and support for the change.

The Interplay between Power and Influence in Change Management

The successful management of change often requires a delicate balance between using power and exerting influence. While power can compel action, influence is crucial for winning hearts and minds, ensuring that the change is embraced and sustained over time. Key considerations include:

  • Context Matters: The effectiveness of power and influence strategies depends on the organizational context, including culture, history, and the specific challenges faced during the change process.
  • Adaptability: Change leaders must be adaptable, recognizing when to assert authority and when to employ softer influence tactics to guide the organization through the transition.
  • Ethical Considerations: The ethical use of power and influence is paramount to maintain trust and integrity within the organization, ensuring that change efforts are perceived as legitimate and fair.

Winning Strategies for the Simulation.

Winning the Harvard University change management simulation on power and influence requires a nuanced understanding of strategic and tactical approaches to leading change.

Success in this simulation hinges on effectively navigating the scenarios with varying degrees of power and urgency to produce results.

Here are key strategies that can guide participants towards achieving their objectives in the simulation:

1. Analyzing the Context and Stakeholders

Begin by thoroughly understanding the specific scenario you’re facing, including the levels of power and urgency. Assess the internal and external factors that may influence the success of the environmental sustainability initiative.

Identify key stakeholders within the organization, including those who support and those who oppose the change. Understanding their interests, concerns, and influence will be crucial in devising your strategy.

2. Effective Use of Change Levers

Based on your analysis, choose the most appropriate change levers. These can include leveraging formal authority, engaging in persuasive communication, or building coalitions. The choice of levers should align with the scenario’s demands and stakeholder dynamics.

Often, a combination of levers will be more effective than relying on a single approach. For example, using formal authority to initiate the change while simultaneously building coalitions to support it can be powerful.

3. Balancing Power and Urgency

In scenarios with high power, use your authority effectively but judiciously to avoid resistance. In low power situations, focus on building relationships and using influence to persuade.

High urgency requires swift action, which may involve making bold decisions or taking calculated risks. In contrast, lower urgency allows for a more gradual approach, focusing on building consensus and gradually increasing support for the change.

4. Adapting Strategies Based on Feedback

Treat the simulation as a series of experiments. Be prepared to adapt your strategy based on the outcomes of your actions. This may involve pivoting your approach or trying different combinations of change levers.

Pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t. Reflecting on the feedback from the simulation can provide insights into how to adjust your strategies for better results.

5. Building and Maintaining Momentum

Seek to achieve early successes to build momentum and demonstrate the benefits of the change initiative. Early wins can also help to convert skeptics into supporters.

Change management is a marathon, not a sprint. Develop strategies to maintain enthusiasm and commitment over time, including recognizing and celebrating progress.

6. Communicating Effectively

Articulate a clear and compelling vision for why the change is necessary and what the future will look like. A well-communicated vision can inspire and motivate stakeholders.

Foster an environment where concerns can be raised and addressed. Listening to and involving stakeholders in the change process can increase buy-in and reduce resistance.

7. Developing Personal Resilience

The simulation will present challenges and setbacks. Viewing these as opportunities for growth and learning can help you develop resilience.

Be open to changing your approach and learning from the simulation experience. Adaptability is key in responding to the dynamic nature of organizational change.

Common Pitfalls and how to Avoid these?

Navigating the complexities of change management, especially within the context of a simulation like Harvard University’s on power and influence, requires a keen awareness of potential pitfalls.

Participants often encounter common mistakes that can derail their efforts to successfully implement change.

Recognizing and avoiding these pitfalls through strategic planning and effective stakeholder engagement are crucial for success.

Here are some of the common mistakes to watch out for and advice on how to avoid them:

1. Underestimating Stakeholder Resistance

Participants sometimes fail to anticipate the level and intensity of resistance from stakeholders, assuming that the logic and benefits of the change initiative will be self-evident.

Conduct a thorough stakeholder analysis to understand their interests, fears, and potential resistance points. Develop targeted strategies to address concerns, and actively involve stakeholders in the change process to increase buy-in.

2. Overrelying on Authority

Leaning too heavily on formal authority to push change can lead to resistance, disengagement, and a lack of genuine commitment.

While authority can be effective in certain scenarios, complement it with influence tactics such as persuasion, negotiation, and coalition-building. Focus on winning hearts and minds to foster a deeper, more sustainable commitment to change.

3. Neglecting Communication

Insufficient or ineffective communication about the change initiative can lead to misunderstandings, rumors, and increased anxiety among stakeholders.

Develop a comprehensive communication plan that addresses what the change involves, why it’s necessary, and how it will be implemented. Use multiple channels to reach different audiences and encourage feedback to ensure messages are received and understood.

4. Failing to Adapt Strategies

Sticking rigidly to an initial plan without considering feedback or changing circumstances can result in strategies that are no longer effective.

Adopt an iterative approach to change management, being open to adjusting strategies based on new information and feedback. This flexibility can be crucial in responding to unforeseen challenges or opportunities.

5. Overlooking the Need for Quick Wins

Participants may focus too much on the long-term goals and neglect the importance of achieving short-term successes to build momentum and credibility.

Identify opportunities for quick wins that can demonstrate the benefits of the change early on. Publicize these successes to build confidence among stakeholders and maintain momentum.

6. Ignoring Organizational Culture

Assuming that change can be implemented without considering the existing organizational culture can lead to strategies that are out of alignment with core values and norms.

Understand the organizational culture and tailor your change initiatives to align with or gradually shift these cultural norms. Leverage aspects of the culture that support the change and address those that may hinder it.

7. Not Building a Coalition of Support

Trying to drive change alone, without building a broad base of support, can limit the initiative’s reach and impact.

From the outset, identify and engage key allies across the organization who can champion the change. Building a coalition of support can enhance the legitimacy and collective strength of the change effort

Final Words

The Harvard University change management simulation on power and influence serves as a powerful reminder of these dynamics, offering participants a unique opportunity to explore and experiment with strategies in a controlled yet challenging environment. It highlights the necessity of navigating the delicate balance between using authority and cultivating influence, all while adapting to the shifting landscapes of organizational contexts. Whether you’re leading a small team or an entire organization, the lessons learned here about power dynamics, stakeholder engagement, and adaptive leadership can provide a robust foundation for guiding your actions and steering your change initiatives towards success.