We’re often asked about the benefits of including a strong experiential activity component in a programme of learning, to the extent that I have an answer that will usually sell the idea, even to the most sceptical:
“Why choose to focus 100% of your available learning time on what you, and the participants, probably know anyway?”
What I mean by this is that learning, by definition, is about acquiring the knowledge that allows you to choose to do something different. So if your learning experience doesn’t deliver new knowledge it simply reinforces what already exists, you aren’t given any new choices, and probably revert to the status quo.
Learning time is hugely valuable and decisions about what’s included are investment decisions, by extension it’s always good business practice to invest in finding out what you don’t know. So, in setting out to use learning time to explore what you don’t know about your people, how do you structure your interventions?
The key design feature here is going beyond the assumptions that you will inevitably have made about your participants. Very often the content of our interventions is based on a strong sense of what will work for the group or individuals, so our design is immediately predicated on what we already know about them. We need to challenge ourselves to believe in the potential of the people with whom we’re working, and create learning experiences that allow that potential to be realised. We need to be brave in our programming and accept the risks that come with our role as learning gatekeepers. As an example let me describe the use of a very powerful tool from the RSVP Design catalogue, one that carries a strong element of risk/reward decision making for the learning professional, and one that offers many opportunities for them, and the group, to discover untapped potential.
Top Priority is structured the way that many organisations operate. Participants are members of teams who each have a clearly defined, but different, goal. The whole organisation has the target of allowing as many of those team goals to be successfully delivered as possible in a defined time. What complicates the scenario is that each team only has the knowledge and resources to go so far in completing their task, the rest of what they need is held by individuals who are members of other teams. The only route to success is collaboration and very often the group start at the simplest form of collaboration and a bartering system takes root (you come and work with us for a while and I’ll then come and offer what I have to your team). This picks up momentum and soon everybody is busy in a system that is both unstructured and inefficient. As an experiential educator this is where the potential for learning is at its peak - who will recognise these tactics as being doomed to failure? Who will move to change how the group are working? How will the group react to suggestions of change? What alternatives are offered and by whom? What follows is a demonstration of individual and group potential to perform beyond what I, and they, had previously anticipated - I learn, they learn. In task terms the group probably don’t succeed, they wasted too much time operating within a system that didn’t fit the target nor utilised their own abilities. Yet if I handle the de-brief properly, with a focus on this kind of sequence:
I should be able to execute a very slick and efficient transfer of learning back into real-world performance gains - all based on new knowledge that wasn’t contaminated by my assumptions about the people involved. Top Priority is offered here as an example of how the potential value of experiential activity is best leveraged. Yet it doesn’t need to be on that scale to gain some benefits in terms of revealing untapped potential. Any activity that doesn’t dictate the roles that individuals adopt within the exercise offers opportunity for potential to be revealed. Colourblind, Simbols, Webmaster… many RSVP Design tools put participants into situations where they have a unique contribution to make to team goals, yet it’s left to the team themselves to organise how those contributions will be made. This offers very rich learning and the potential for profound change in how participants view their role and influence in the team, and it’s at that point where they begin to consider how things could be in the future if they chose to adopt new ways of contributing. For the facilitator, and those who have commissioned the learning, this is where their investment begins to see a real return.