Build capability through experiential learning


Have you ever noticed that the journey to a new place always takes longer than the journey back? Why is that?

I hiked a new trail the other day and it seemed to take me forever to go one mile. But then when I returned by the same route, it seemed to take but a few moments. Has this kind of thing happened to you? Maybe you’ve taken a wrong turn when driving, and it seems you’ll never reach a turn-around spot. But then once you do turn around, it takes no time to get back to the spot where you went astray.Journey

This all got me thinking about how each of our experiences better prepares us for the next. It’s what John Dewey calls continuity, with each experience being influenced by those that came before, as well as impacting those that will take place in the future. Knowledge from one situation becomes the basis for understanding experiences that come later. (Dewey, 1938) Whether on a new hike or driving a new road, we are better prepared each subsequent time we take that path. We know more clearly what to expect – what the hazards, stumbling blocks, distractions, or pleasures might be.


Because of this, learning at work – whether it takes place in a “classroom” or on-the-job – will be most effective when experiential learning methods are incorporated. This might be done through simulations, role-play (I hear you groaning, but this really can be a great tool), field work, or other practical application opportunities. At other times, individuals and groups may participate in purposeful activities that are not directly related to their normal work environment. These experiential learning activities incorporate reflection and processing steps that allow learners to make connections back to their day-to-day environment, and gain understanding at a deeper level. By intentionally creating continuity in the learning process, skills and capability are developed at higher levels and with greater sustainability.

Think about some of your best learning experiences. What made them effective?


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education (1st Touchstone ed.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Experience & Education

Why do team challenges work?


Recently I was hiking on a granite dome, and after exploring a bit at the top, found myself challenged with finding a navigable route back down. In essence, I was “lost” on the dome, climbing up and down steep slopes for a couple of hours, occasionally getting stuck and frequently wondering whether I’d ever make it down in one piece. At times I thought it was either going to take a rescue or a fall to get me off that mountain. But I kept at it, and after much scrambling, climbing, sliding, and scooting along the rocks, I successfully made it to a trail, and then back to camp (just in time for dinner).

The experience got me thinteam challengesking about team challenges and what makes them so effective. A typical workplace team is rarely tested in the normal work environment. Team members perform their duties, handle responsibilities, and complete tasks routinely, but usually without ever knowing what they are truly capable of. And because of this, they don’t necessarily stretch themselves to try to do more, and team potential remains untapped.

A well-designed challenge activity will take team members outside of their comfort zones (but not too far!). It allows them to step out of their normal work environment and into one that propels them to learn more about themselves individually and as a team. Those lessons can then be applied back in the workplace. For example, team members may recognize something about the way they communicate (or don’t) that influenced their ability to be successful in a challenge. Or, they may have found that it was necessary to rely on the diverse strengths of all team members in order to achieve a goal.

Often self-confidence increases through participation in challenge activities. Participants may recognize that: “If I could do that, then I can most certainly do this!”  In my own dome-climbing adventure, I had to rely on strengths that I didn’t even know I had, until they were tested on the mountain.

I also came to understand things at a deeper level that I had already known. For example, the importance of planning, and thinking ahead further than the next step or two. And how failure to look at the goal from a big-picture perspective can lead to dead-ends or jams that are really hard to get out of. Additionally, I had to recognize when something was beyond my skill.  Just because I wanted and was willing to climb up a certain slope didn’t mean that I necessarily had the size or physical strength to do so. These are similar to the types of things that team members may learn during challenge activities.

Every team and every challenge activity experience is unique. What insights will your team have that will drive them to peak performance?

Crucial Conversations


crucial conversationsWhat happens when a “normal” conversation suddenly takes a turn and becomes something much more? How can you become more aware so you can successfully navigate those more difficult conversations? What can you do to keep a crucial conversation on track and solution-focused?

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, you’ll learn how to recognize when someone feels unsafe in a conversation, and also what you can do about it. You’ll learn strategies to continue a dialogue toward a successful outcome, even when emotions begin to run high.The authors use examples that are easy to connect with, and demonstrate how different types of responses can influence outcomes when conversations turn crucial.


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Fitting in on a new team


We’ve all had the experience of being the “new kid” at one time or another. Whether it was the first day in a new school, moving to a new neighborhood, joining a new sport team, starting a new job, or countless other things – it can be intimidating. As humans, we have an instinctive need to belong, and the chance that we might not fit in to a new situation can be a little frightening.Fitting in

When a group forms, everyone takes part in the process of “fitting in.” This happens whether it is a newly formed group, or just one or two members have changed. The group dynamic is altered, and so is the performance level of the group, even if only temporarily.

When a new member joins your team, do you have a process to welcome the new member and make him or her part of the team? What do you do to ensure that both new and existing team members belong? Does your group rely on the mere passage of time to bring the group together into a cohesive unit, or are you more purposeful about it?

We tend to teach the way we were taught, and lead the way we’ve been led, whether consciously or not. If we don’t think about it, it’s easy to fall into the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” trap without even realizing it. Recently, when I asked a group about what they do to make new members feel part of their team, I was greeted with puzzlement. Being intentional about building cohesion was just not something they’d experienced before and the idea was foreign.

So how can you be more purposeful in developing your team, creating a sense of belonging where every member fits in?  Here are a few ideas. Consider how you might apply them – whether your team sees each other in an office every day, or members work remotely:

  • be clear about the purpose and goals of your team
  • talk about group norms and expectations
  • create opportunities for interaction among team members
  • show each member that you value him or her as an individual and as an important part of the team
  • make the environment psychologically safe so that team members are comfortable sharing ideas and voicing concerns
  • remember to make this an ongoing process, not a one-time effort

What would you add? What have your experiences been? Have you experienced, as I have, a well-planned first-day welcome, followed by … nothing? I’d love to hear your stories!