5 Questions to ask of any experiential learning programme

Regardless of content or format, experiential leadership learning is most effective when the answer to these five questions is ‘Yes’.

  1. Is it rooted in reality?
  2. Is reflection placed front and centre?
  3. Does it make you uncomfortable (in a good way)?
  4. Does it help you grow?
  5.  Does the outcome really matter?

Anyone who has passed their driving test, raised young children or remembers school chemistry lessons (ignite your Bunsen burners!) knows that nothing beats learning by doing.

Irrespective of academic qualifications, successful executives will report: at the end of the day it is experience (not to be confused with tenure), that really counts. It is that daunting overseas assignment or unexpected crisis that almost cost them their job rather than an MBA or ‘ten-steps to greatness’ seminar that shaped them into who they are as a leader.

Classroom learning has its place in leadership development, as does (some) management theory. But in isolation neither meets the imperative for the problem solving and empathetic skills needed today.

 

Experiential has many meanings

 

The many faces of “experiential”

In business education today, experiential has become an umbrella term to describe anything outside the conventional lecture-and-listen format.

Many “experiential” programmes still take place entirely in hotel meeting rooms or on business school campuses. Simulations, case studies and games make learning active rather than passive.

Business schools take a playful approach to leadership” as described by Financial Times Executive Education, (May 2017).

Common forms of experiential executive education include:

  • Outward-bound and adventure-learning
  • Internal company projects and/or field work
  • Rotations and secondments (internal and external)
  • Market visits to foreign countries
  • Service-learning and community engagement

Service learning, which involves volunteering in local communities alongside stated learning goals, is becoming increasingly popular as companies seek to embed a greater sense of purpose amongst employees in order to improve productivity, retention and general wellbeing.

Coming Soon on Ideas to Action: The Power of Purposeful Engagement

Virtual Reality will no doubt soon offer alternative visions for experiential executive learning. Will it work to affect behaviour change? Who will design the digital experiences? What biases will be built in knowingly or unknowingly?

This article cites Google Expeditions and its 360 degree field trips to zoos, museums, Ancient Greece and Mars.

The real world will be coming soon to a virtual world near you!

 

Reality may bite, but it can’t be avoided

Classroom-based executive education is typically far-removed from the realities on the ground.

The global business landscape is changing fast, especially in Asia’s so-called “emerging” economies. By the time management theory has been researched, peer-reviewed and integrated into business school curriculums, the world outside the classroom has changed, often dramatically.

A compounding factor is that the majority of MBA and corporate education courses are still developed in Europe and the US. Yet the challenges facing business leaders in Jakarta, Nairobi and Sao Paolo are vastly different from those in London, Zurich and Boston.

Only by getting boots on the ground – in the markets where you operate, in the communities your decisions impact – can you understand the trends shaping customer behavior as well as the role of your business in society.

 
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Real Learning has Ups & Downs

 

 

Do. Learn. Reflect. (Repeat)

Leadership learning is a roller-coaster. Time for reflection is essential.

Whether the immediate experience is success or failure, those in the “hot seat” – the participants – need time to reflect on what happened and to internalise it. Ideally this happens in the moment or very shortly thereafter, in “real-time.”

Experiential programmes that allocate time and space for participants to reflect on what they did and what they learned, offer greater value than those which overlook this critical exercise in introspection.

One thing we have learned is that when participants openly speak about their experience and their personal learning it helps everyone else involved, validating what others may be feeling or providing a useful counterpoint.

Experience may help us learn how to be better leaders but it is reflection that teaches us to make better decisions the next time around.

 

The right amount of discomfort is a good thing

Learning is never easy. Neither is leadership. It’s no surprise then that leadership learning can be tough.

On-the-job learning, such as shadowing or rotation across departments, business units and countries have long been deployed in order to develop the next generation. While challenging at times, internal programmes are, by definition, sequestered within a particular corporate culture.

Only by stretching beyond the narrow confines of our companies (no matter how large or small) can we broaden our knowledge which, as this recent post emphasizes, is a prerequisite for effective, purposeful leadership.

Exposure to different cultures, views and contexts may make us uncomfortable. But it works to break down narrow stereotypes and lays the groundwork for bold new thinking.

The real world is messy and unpredictable. Limiting experiential programmes to carefully engineered company visits, cultural excursions and cocktail parties misses out the true enrichment of face to face engagement on issues that matter, with people vested in outcomes.

 

The greater the challenge, the more we grow

John Dewey (1859–1952), perhaps the most prominent American philosopher of the early twentieth century, and devoted pioneer of the relationship between experience and learning, once said:

 
Any experience is miseducation that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience...
— John Dewey
 

Experiential learning should promote qualities that lead to continued growth, such as:

  • Critical thinking
  • Broad awareness
  • Insatiable curiosity
  • Intellectual boldness
  • Self-awareness
  • Sense of purpose

We believe that a participant-led methodology is exciting, engaging and impactful. Skillful facilitators should strive to create a safe environment where participants feel comfortable to share openly, broach taboos, question conventional wisdom and challenge orthodoxy.

 

 
 

Meaning is motivating - we learn the most when outcomes matter

By making experiential programmes output-driven, and ensuring that those outputs have real-world impacts, the level of participant engagement goes through the roof. 

Simulations and “live” case studies may generate entertaining discussion at the evening’s networking drinks, but at the end of the day does anybody really have skin in the game?

Our experience over ten years of facilitating programmes has shown that partnering with real companies and challenging participants to find solutions to real problems raises the stakes and elicits the core leadership qualities above.

There is perhaps no outcome more tangible than getting someone access to a home. We're not talking about manual labor to build a house, although that can also be useful. Below is a short video of one of GIFT's project partners, Swarna Pragati Housing Microfinance, who our team of executive participants helped to develop a new model for scaling up micro-home loans for rural customers in India on the Feb 2017 Global Leaders Programme (GLP).

 
 

We are not just taking participants out to look at a slum. It is not poverty-tourism, nor is it charity or employee engagement.

This is experiential learning within the context of a changing world.

  • It is learning through doing.
  • It is conceptualising and communicating complex ideas.
  • It is testing their resilience - working across sectors, working under time pressure, working in unfamiliar environments.
  • It is also non-threatening. Our feedback to them is constructive (it does not affect their bonuses). 

After all, if they are "high flyers" they are not hired just to follow standard operating procedures. They are meant to be well-equipped to make difficult judgement calls in the real world.

The fact that experiential project business models contribute to solving pressing social needs while also driving commercial value, provides added incentive for participants. It motivates them to push themselves further than they previously imagined possible.

In GIFT’s experiential learning methodology we add a healthy dose of pressure at the conclusion by hosting a public forum where participants present their ideas to a live audience.  Fielding live questions from government officials, potential investors, community representatives and local media is the icing on the experiential learning cake.

It doesn’t get more real than having to stand up in front of 200 strangers (in a strange country) and pitch a business model you’ve worked on intensively for just one week.

 
 

Experiential education isn’t a panacea for all leadership learning needs, but it is an essential complement to traditional classroom-based approaches and conventional business schooling.

With so many definitions of "experiential", it’s important to ask those five key questions:

  1. Is it rooted in reality?
  2. Is reflection placed front and centre?
  3.  Does it make you uncomfortable (in a good way)?
  4. Does it help you grow?
  5. Does the outcome really matter?

If the answer to all five is “yes!” it is more likely to foster the mindsets and behaviours needed to meet the challenges of a messy and unpredictable world.

Isn’t that the real purpose of business leadership education after all?

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To learn more about GIFT’s executive education offerings for current and aspiring leaders contact us today!

enquiry@global-inst.com