The discussion about centralizing operations in a Central American company was not progressing; students repeated the same arguments, until the instructor said, "Luis, you are a country manager in Honduras. What do you think of David's proposal?"

Luis, bored with the discussion up to that point, suddenly perked up. "No way," he replied-not to the instructor but to David-"That bureaucracy you propose doesn't work in this country."

Role-plays can fan the flames of a fading discussion, but they should be spontaneous, surprising and unexpected.

There are several situations that lend themselves to spontaneous role-plays, of which I mention three:

First, when the student makes a simplistic recommendation without thinking through the consequences. At The Dashman Company, students frequently propose that the new vice president of purchasing, Mr. Post, visit the plants to inquire why they are not complying with the instruction to report purchases over ten thousand dollars. The instructor takes on the role of the plant manager, thanks Post for his visit, invites him to take a tour of the plant, and disregards the procedural issue by saying that he has no supply problem. The student soon learns who has authority in a decentralized company.

Second, when students are discussing strategic decisions in a company organized by function, in which managers have parochial perceptions, based on their own functions. Multiple roles are assigned-marketing manager, production, finance, R&D. For production management, I try to assign a student with a marketing background and vice versa, so they understand each other's perspective. It's great for students to recognize their own biases-an essential meta-skill for every manager.

Third, when two students (or two groups of students) enter into a complex negotiation with some opposing, some shared, and some different interests. The instructor can enrich the negotiation by sharing additional information to each party. I have used the case of a regional agricultural extension office in a rural development ministry, whose director faces the threat of a strike by a group of female social workers, who feel discriminated against in a macho culture where their work is not valued.

I distribute background information on the two protagonists: the regional director, son of a cattle rancher who has grown up in a very traditional family environment; and the informal leader of the social workers, from a poor family, who has been a political activist in college. Successful negotiation requires the actors to "put themselves in the shoes" of the other party: it teaches listening skills and values of understanding and tolerance.

In the first type of role-play, which is done in front of the whole class, the selection of actors is crucial. Doing it with a shy or insecure student can cause emotional damage. Better with a student who tends to talk too often, with abrupt and poorly reasoned interventions.
These role-plays are spontaneous for the students, because they do not expect them, but not for the instructor: they must be well planned, leaving enough time-when multiple roles are assigned or additional information is given-for subsequent discussion.