Rethinking Experiential Learning – Part 1

img_5074I gained some new perspectives on experiential learning recently.   In the last few years, I had growing skepticism on this learning approach.   Experiential learning approach has its merits.   First, it takes the participants into unfamiliar context, both conceptually (e.g. climbing the wall instead of finishing a powerpoint) and physically (e.g. in the wood instead of meeting room).   This can better set them free from the assumptions or automatic responses associated with their familiar contexts e.g. projects in the workplace.   They can then more easily try out new behaviours or examine existing ones.   Second, the activities are normally engaging or fun in nature.   For a learning intervention of a few days, we need variety in the learning experience.    There are other benefits which however are not really for learning.   For example, the approach can often make the participants feel more like a team e.g. through overcoming some outdoor challenge together.   This is particularly useful for intact team.

On the other hand, experiential learning has its downside.   First, it is costly and potentially dangerous to run especially the outdoor ones than other learning approaches.   More importantly, participants often remember the fun rather than the (intended) learning points.  Most facilitators / trainers have experienced the laundry list (e.g. communicate better, take ownership, plan more) produced in the debrief.

To me, the root cause is that the participants will unlikely take the activity seriously.   After all, who care whether they can find all the treasures in the hunt, and win the champagne from the CEO?    If one does not really put effort in the process, he / she will likely learn less (if any at all)

In short, I would rather get the participants to learn from real life project (e.g. ARL) than experiential learning activity.    It is less costly and safer in running the former.   And it is more likely that the participants will take the real life project more seriously.

My thoughts changed…..  (to be continued on Part 2)

Intended Messiness – Part 3

The 2nd question to reflect on is ‘What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?’    By ‘bad’, I mean those odd moments which are not conductive to the learning objectives.   As such, the answer to this question is really ‘it depends’.   On one extreme, if the learning intervention is about topic like group dynamics or self-awareness, I think all odd moments are learning-friendly.   In fact, the odder, the better.   A classic example is the Group Relations Conference which basically provides white space for assumptions to be surfaced.   See my earlier posts – Tavistock Experience and Tavistock Experience – Learning Design.

How about the workshop I mentioned in the beginning i.e. learning objective around collective wisdom?   Most odd moments are still good for learning so long as the learning transfer mechanism is in place.   See my thought on question 1.

On the other hand, though messiness can help learn collective wisdom, it is probably not a good idea to start a workshop by saying ‘Welcome to the workshop!   We the facilitators have prepared nothing and let’s see what we can learn together in the coming 3 days.   By the way, we only booked this room till 10am.  [silence]’    It probably forces people out of the Learning Zone into the Panic Zone.

Your thought?


Intended Messiness – Part 2

Following from the argument from the last post, there are 2 questions

  1. How to assist the participants to learn from the odd moments instead of just staying in the ‘complaint’ mode in those moments?
  2. What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?

Capitalizing Messiness – To the first question, the first and foremost thing is how centered the facilitator is.   It is about how well he / she can rise above the emotion – to observe self, pause and then use rather than be consumed by the moments.  Practicing EQ helps here.   Without such consciousness, the first question is not relevant at all.

Assuming the facilitator is able to find space to consider this question, there are different ways to approach it depending on the situation.   In the scenario described above, I would probably hold a fish bowl i.e. facilitator team in the inner circle and participants in the outer circle.  The facilitators basically hold a design team meeting in response to the participants’ feedback.    The benefits are that:

  • It makes the participants feel heard
  • It transits the energy in the room from ‘I do not like that….’ to ‘what can we do about it?’
  • It allows space for the facilitator team to work on the feedback
  • It demonstrates how to tap into collective wisdom (among the facilitators)

After some 20-30 mins in fish bowl, all go back to one big circle and work on the question ‘What can we ALL do together to make the remaining 2 days a good experience?’ with the input from the design team meeting.    Lastly, I would leave some 10 mins to jointly reflect on the question ‘What can we learn from the experience this morning so far?’

My thought on the 2nd question to follow…..

Intended Messiness – Part 1

Scenario – Along with others, you designed and ran a 3-day workshop.   For various reasons (e.g. flow design, learners’ composition), on Day 2 morning, a few participants criticized strongly and openly their workshop experience on Day 1.   It was a hard time for the facilitators to deal with the dynamics on spot, and adapted subsequently.   There were odd moments…  with a lot of emotions and uncertainties.   Somehow, the workshop ended reasonably well.    Now, you are about to prepare for the next workshop, how would you like it to be different?

It would be natural to find ways to avoid the odd moments e.g. to re-design some processes or to align better the participants’ expectation.  In fact, it was my thought to do so.   But I changed my mind after a learning reflection with a fellow facilitator.  I no longer want to kill all the odd moments.  In short, our reflection informed me that sometimes odd moments are good stuffs for learning.   This sounds a bit paradoxical.  Let me elaborate by going back to the reflection conversation.

I found the conversation very rich in learning for myself.  To begin with, we were very drawn to the opportunity to reflect because of the emotions involved in the event.   There were a lot of case-in-point which we could discuss how we could handle differently.   Pondering why, I believed the richness was largely because of the challenges in the workshop.  I suspected that if the workshop was smooth and things turned out as planned, I probably would learn less.

I then wondered whether it would be the same for the participants.   Well, it depends.   Most importantly, it depends on the learning objective.   If people come to learn about quality management or Health & Safety at workplace, odd moments in workshops probably do not help.   But when the learning objective is about collective wisdom (it is the case for us), odd moments is useful and in fact probably essential.  (Basically, using Ron Heifetz’s language, the former is ‘Technical’ in nature and the latter is ‘Adaptive’)

After all, learning how to tap into collective wisdom is largely about how to deal with messiness, emotion, uncertainties.

There is another reason why odd moments are good in learning collective wisdom.   Most people (especially those with ‘Technical’ professional background e.g. accountants, lawyers and bankers) resist the notion of collective wisdom.   Or to be specific, we (I was a banker before) hate the loss of control which often accompanies the process of collective wisdom.    Thus, some odd moments are good signs that the participants are entering their learning zone (i.e. outside their comfort zones).  Of course, hopefully they do not ‘check out’ as they go into the panic zone!

It then leads to 2 questions:

  1. How to assist the participants to learn from the odd moments instead of just staying in the ‘complaint’ mode in those moments?
  2. What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?

What are your thoughts to these 2 questions?    I will share my thoughts later.

Drawing out thoughts and emotions (Cont’d)










[.. continued from last post]

Third, it is the space.  We held the session in her quiet little penthouse in a very old house.   From where I sit, I can see the trees through a small window.   The room is ‘populated’ with books.   The lighting is mild and it is always very quiet.    I find such environment to be like magic to me.   I feel like I am in a private and safe space.   I believe it makes a big difference.   To illustrate the point, if the same analyst runs the sessions with me in a corporate board room (especially if I work in the same company), I think we could hardly go that deep.    Overall, I do not think we always need exactly this particular set up in order to make people talk.   But the point is to create a safe and cozy space….  at least to avoid the corporate board room….

Last point. I come up the above for coaching and facilitation with an assumption.   For coaching, my assumption is that it is to draw out thoughts and / or emotions which would not be expressed without the work of coaching.   It is different from psycho-analysis, basically, in a way that coaching is future-focused.   But it is also about drawing out thoughts and / or emotions from the coachees.    The same applies to facilitation to group.   Whilst coaching is about enabling conversation with self, facilitation is about enabling conversations with each others.

There are of course some types of coaching and facilitation which are more transactional, and the above points are less relevant.

See also previous posts on similar topics – Power of ‘Question’ & ‘Space’ and What does a facilitator do?   Space and Time.


Drawing out thoughts and emotions



In my exploration of what some people called ‘Depth Psychology’, I have been receiving psycho-analysis in recent months.    There are a lot of angles for me to reflect on the experience e.g. feeling and sensation, mid-life, family.   In this post, let me take the perspective of facilitation and coaching.

We had very deep conversation in the sessions.   I could not help thinking – ‘What made the analyst so successful in drawing out thoughts and feeling from me?’   Further the question is ‘What can I learn from these sessions for facilitation and coaching?’    Well, there are factors which are specific to psycho-analysis e.g. her particular questioning skills in helping me make association with dream.   But there are some which can be borrowed to facilitation and coaching.

First, to start with, I am open to her because it is my own choice to work with her.   We had a chemistry session in advance like the those in some executive coaching arrangement.  Sometimes, this is applicable in group facilitation.   I know of a practitioner who was once asked by a CEO to do a challenging team development work.   He sat the condition that he would only take the job if he could interview 1 on 1 every single top team member and no one refused his appointment as the facilitator.  (How smart he is!    The interviews themselves were probably already interventions!)

Second, it is my analyst’s silence.   After she asked a question, or when we were like running out of things to talk about, she managed to keep silent with her gentle eye contact.   In particularly, I am impressed with her way to start almost each sessions.   She greeted me, we took our seats, and then she just remained silent and waited for me to start!    To me, this was more stimulating than questions like ‘So, what would be useful to talk about today?’

[To be continued….]

Individuation, Abstract Art and Corporate Learning (Part 2)


The question I raised in my last post is ‘What is the implication of the individuation concept to corporate learning?’ The individuation is the ultimate developmental work (psychologically).   Ideally, a more self-harmonious and self-aware individual would contribute better to the workplace.

My first thought to the question is that most corporates would not really care.   In my experience, corporates expect return on investment in learning (in fact any other areas) in a relatively short period of time, with high certainty of success and value directly applicable to work.   The ideal is like having a Microsoft Excel workshop with what a participant can then use the Project Tracker template on his product development project the day after the workshop.    So, the challenges are:

  1. Time – Work on depth psychology takes time. Psycho-analysis or therapy takes months.
  2. Certainty – Some argue that the degree of ‘success’ varies. At least, it seems to be less scientific than traditional developmental interventions e.g. coaching, training, which are already difficult to evaluate
  3. Value – To individuate, becoming more ‘whole’, is not regarded as ‘valuable’ at work in most corporates. The quote from Henry Ford illustrates the extreme ‘Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’

And 2 more challenges come to my mind:

  1. Branding – Concepts like ‘Depth Psychology’, ‘Dream Analysis’ are generally associated with mental illness – not exactly an attractive ‘branding’ for corporate executives as most are (or would like to be seen as) tough-minded.
  2. Preparedness – Learning professionals are generally not prepared for and told not to step into the Psycho-analysis or therapy area. Instead, some companies engage external counselling services for those who needs help.    (Again, work on depth psychology is associated to be something ‘negative’.)

In short, it seems unlikely corporates will one day run interventions dedicated to work on depth psychology e.g. a workshop called ‘How to individuate’ (!).    Yet,

  • Teal – There are movements in the world which embraces ‘wholeness’ as researched and described in the book called ‘Reinventing Organisation’.   See the summary in this Strategy+Business article.    In short, such Teal organizations encourage people bring all of themselves to work – their moods, aspirations, uncertainties.   So, point 3 above is less an issue.
  • Different Form – In fact, some Jungian theories have penetrated into corporate learning very successfully….. not in the form of psycho-analysis or therapy.   MBTI is an outstanding example (though under a lot of scrutiny these days).   It is said to be used by about 80% of Fortune 100 companies.    See Forbes article here.   We individuate as we attend to our inferior functions in MBTI.
  • Design Consideration – I think it will still be beneficial to take into account the individuation process in designing developmental interventions in corporates.   First, it is about how middle-age (35-45) learners develop themselves, say, compared to the late 20s / early 30s.     With the individuation process, the middle-age learners are likely more receptive to open reflective space rather than content-filled experience.   In fact, they may even need the reflective space.   They would also be more receptive to work on self-awareness and mindset (way of thinking) rather than skill-set (way of doing)

Overall, I sense that there are other things going on between the depth psychology world and corporate learning / development.   I am curious.   What do you see?    And what do you think is possible?

Individuation, Abstract Art and Corporate Learning (Part 1)

This post is related to my recent exposure to Jungian psychology and in fact the last post on Abstract Art.

I set out the Swiss journey as an opportunity to discover.   In this spirit, I attended a workshop in the Jungian institute in Zurich earlier this year.   Frankly, I was lost like 50% of the time during the workshop.   All the strange terminologies are difficult to me.   The one-way lecture (even reading from note sometimes) did not help much.

Yet, I am fascinated with some of the concepts.   Above all, I love the idea of individuation.   Jung advocated that the goal in life for all is to achieve individuation or self realization.  To become undivided.  It implies becoming one’s own self / a psychological ‘individual’ / a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole’    The individuation process will lead to mental health or a healthy functioning personality.   By individuation, it means to confront contents of the unconscious to bring about a more harmonious balance between the different part of the psyche (i.e. mind or soul)

And on the idea of unconscious – Jung advocated that the psyche consists of 3 parts – conscious, personal unconscious and collective unconscious.    The conscious is the part of the psyche which one is aware of.  The personal unconscious is composed of repressed elements from one’s personal history.    The collective unconscious is composed of elements which are inherited and which all humans share.

The ideas make sense to me.   I believe that each of us is unique by nature.   Yet, for most if not all of us, the first part of our lives is to ‘fit in’.   We are normed (parented and educated) to find some socially acceptable roles and play well in those roles e.g. to be a good son / daughter, to be a successful banker / teacher.   In order to fit in, I suspect that most of us suppress some parts of ourselves.    After we find our place in the society, it makes sense to find and play to our true-selves.   Probably one will never become totally his / her true-self but I think the path towards it would be fulfilling already.  And I think it is a natural process for most.

In fact, this coincides with my own experience.   Majority of my coaching clients are 40 plus / minus.   Most are drawn to work on a similar issue – ‘I have done well in what I am doing.  If I continue, I am sure I will still do well.   But I am not sure whether I shall spend my remaining life on this.’    Some may call it mid-life crisis.   It seems to me examples of how people are drawn to the individuation process.

The idea of ‘confronting the unconscious’ also makes a lot of sense.   I believe most have experienced occasions which we cannot explain how we came to certain decisions or what made us having certain emotion.   Or suddenly some of our long-lost memory came back just because of a specific smell.  There is some part of our mind which we are not conscious of. We parked, filtered out and forgot some parts of our mind personal unconscious), and we inherited some since we were born (collective unconscious).

In order to find and play to our true-selves, we thus need to approach the unconscious.   And that is where the Abstract Art comes in.  The hypothesis is that we can surface our unconscious by free association.   It seems to me a painting without immediate and direct meaning would be useful in inducing free association.   It is NOT what it is.   It is what YOU are.    I think the same logic applies to dream analysis.

What do you think?

Assuming the above is true (if there is any truth in the world….), I wonder what the implication is to corporate learning?   Let me ponder on it and share later.