How "deep" is your experiential learning for managers and leaders?

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated January 2021

Many so-called “experiential learning” and “Team Building” sessions deliver little more than "edutainment" – that light blend of education and entertainment.

There is nothing wrong with this. In fact in many situations with large groups and short durations it is exactly what is required… and all that is possible.

However with smaller groups and more time (I am thinking groups of up to 30 and durations of 2-4 hours) you can achieve much more ...... provided you plan and design it properly.

I like to think of the analogy of diving and how deep you want to go - in my experience there are 3 depth levels in experiential learning for managers and leaders

(Interestingly according to the US National Ocean Service the ocean is divided into three zones based on depth and light level)

Level 1 – Key Management Skills

At this depth you are learning essential new skills and techniques such as creating a stakeholder map or assessing the capabilities of a team or interpretting a profit and loss account. 

This level of learning works best when you are first taught some theory then given the opportunity to immediately put it into practice and see how well it worked. Business Simulations (computer or paper-based scenarios) are great tools for this kind of learning.

Level 2- Team Leadership / Membership

If you venture deeper to the next level you can learn what it means to be an effective team member (its amazing how many people dont undetrstand this) and then moving on to how to lead a team well as you manage all the conflicting personalities, styles and opinions. 

Team-based Business Simulations and other team problem-solving exercises are great for this kind of learning provided you have time for self-reflection and the opportunity also for the team to be observed by a facilitator.

Level 3 - Interpersonal / Leadership Style

Dare to dive even deeper still and you can gain insight into the strengths, weaknesses and unconscious blindnesses which make up your unique interpersonal style. For example, can you engage effectively with both introvert and extrovert colleagues? Do you always have to speak first or have the last word? Do you like to be proved right and allocate blame? 

This is the trickiest form of learning and the one which is most neglected. It requires an expert (and sensitive) facilitator but also requires courage from the participants to be open to receiving personal feedback – ideally not just from the facilitator but also from their colleagues!


You wont necessarily want all 3 levels of learning at your next management/leadership development session ... however at very least you should work out beforehand which of them you do want and design and resource the session accordingly.

For more information on simulations to support experiential learning.

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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