About Experiential Development

What is experiential learning?

Team Building, also known as Experiential Learning (1990), Corporate Adventure Training (1996), Experience-based Learning (2000), Experiential Training & Development (2004)… The language associated with the processes of team building has changed over time, but at it’s core, the principles remain.

For some, team building means activities for socialization and bonding. For others, it means developing trust or working on communication skills. The point being that team building has grown into a catchphrase and in our opinion, that actually makes it harder to connect people with activities that are properly paired with goals and objectives

When one asks, what is team building, we ask what is important in a team.  What is necessary, required, essential to YOUR team health? Designed to meet your team at your level, we use humor, play and collaboration to help individuals explore what is vital to a healthy team.  Our unique style fosters an environment where each person gets to know themselves better and collectively take a good look at how a healthy team is better for everyone.

Why do leading organizations use ETD?

Because it works. Research shows that adults learn best and are better able to change behaviors when the learning experience is engaging, involving strategic thinking, and allows for periods of reflection to synthesize learning. ETD is often fun and is always memorable. That’s why leaders and organizations seeking to accelerate the learning process and enhance both team and organizational effectiveness use it.

Diving deep into the realm of experiential training and development

Experiential Learning Methodology by Simon Priest 

Learning – Learning is a change in the way we feel, think, or behave. When we are aware of the change, when we intend to make the change, and when the change is maintained over time, then our learning has been conscious, deliberate and lasting. Unfortunately, and all too often, attempts to learn or change are prevented by a lack of reflection (defeating awareness), the presence of resistance (defeating intent), and many barriers to supporting transfer (defeating maintenance).

Experience-based – All learning is experience-based. Whether we hear a lecture, watch a video, or read a book, our learning is “based” on those experiences. Unfortunately, we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see, but 80% of what we do.

Experiential – Experiential learning is founded more on the active doing rather than the passive being done to. In this way, people practice the very skills they are learning and are more likely to maintain their change back at work. Experience-based learning becomes “experiential” when elements of reflection, support and transfer are added to the base experience:

  • Action – utilizing a thoughtfully crafted experience to set the stage for development;
  • Reflection – purposefully examining the process of experience enhances the awareness of learning and leads to changes in feeling, thinking or behaving that derive from that experience;
  • Support – providing time, resources, and team or project opportunities that permit people to continue changing (or maintaining new learning) and allows them to lessen their resistance; and
  • Transfer when change obtained in an experiential program shows up in the real-life workplace: this transfer of experiential learning can be enhanced by the use of metaphors and isomorphs.

Studies show that ETD is one of the most effective tools for facilitating organizational and personal transformation. The best ETD consists of time-tested methods blended with cutting-edge content. It focuses on specific outcomes and is led by experienced practitioners able to help your organization, your leaders, or your people make tangible and meaningful transfers between a learning experience and ongoing organizational challenges.

What does ETD look like?

ETD comes in many forms, depending upon the needs of the client: engaging simulations, business-focused problem-solving, group challenges, outdoor adventures, and applied projects, to name a few. ETD programs can take place in training rooms and board rooms, conference centers and hotels, outdoor learning centers and beyond – even in virtual space or integrated throughout your organization.

ebtd graph1

A company uses group problem-solving tasks at a conference to make attendees happy and to get them mingling (recreation).

The company uses similar tasks to demonstrate the value of teamwork and to introduce their new team strategies (education).

Once the benefit of teaming is evident, the company uses problem-solving tasks to actually build new teams (development).

Lastly, the troubled team.. withhold information, sabotage change efforts, and distrust one another – so the company uses similar tasks to help them become more effective in their work (redirection).

NOTE: In these examples, the facilitation methods used to introduce and reflect on the experiences (not the action events) are the instruments of change.


Generalized Characteristics of ETD Program Types

Recreational programs change feelings and are about entertainment. These are usually applied universally to any and all present. Action is emphasized and off-the-shelf activities remain unmodified or the same for everyone. The program objectives are disconnected from the Organizational Development (OD) goals. The Human Resource Development (HRD) professional’s involvement is normally absent. As a result, change is zero-order with no long term impact on the organization. Programs typically vary from 0.5 to 2 days in length. Group sizes range from 20 to 1000 with about 1 staff for every 20 clients. No diagnosis of client needs takes place and about an hour is spent on program design. All staff energies are given to delivering the activities and no debriefing occurs. The program stands alone and so disembarkation lacks any planned carry over to the workplace. Since the activities speak for themselves and are inherently fun, specialized facilitation skills are not necessary.

Educational programs change thinking and are about learning new lessons. These are usually applied organization-wide. Reflection is emphasized, with activities that are tailored to the client by general business language. Program objectives are related to OD goals. HRD professionals may observe the program since they have the responsibility to transfer learning. As a result, change is first order with clients learning, but the system (that shapes their thinking) remains the same. Programs typically vary in length from 1 to 3 days. Group sizes range from 10 to 100 with about 1 staff for every 10 clients. About 1 hour is devoted to diagnosis and a half-day is spent on design. Staff energies are mostly devoted to activity delivery (75%) rather than debriefing (25%). The program disembarkation is handed over to the Human Resource professionals who were observing earlier on. Staff need a minimum of unstructured discussion and structured funneling skills to conduct the key debriefing sessions.

Developmental programs change functional behavior and are about acting differently. These are usually applied to intact groups. Transfer is emphasized, with activities that are customized to the client’s culture. Program objectives are well integrated with OD goals. HRD professionals have roles as assistant facilitators in the program. As a result, change is second order with the system changing to support clients’ behavioral changes. Programs typically vary in length from 2 to 5 days. Group sizes range from 5 to 20 clients with about 1 staff for every 5 clients. Diagnosis takes about half a day and design takes a whole day. Staff energies are equally divided between delivering and debriefing the activities (50% – 50%). Disembarkation includes a booster or follow-up program. Staff need a minimum of direct frontloading and isomorphic framing skills to deliver the program.

Redirectional programs change resisting or denying actions and address dysfunctional behaviors. These are usually applied to paired relationships or individuals within intact groups. Support is emphasized back at the workplace. Original activities or variations are created for unique client needs. Program objectives are seamlessly connected to OD goals. HRD professionals are equal co-facilitators. As a result, change is third order with system and clients changing in concert. Programs typically vary in length from 3 to 10 days. Group sizes range from 2 to 10 with 1 staff for every 2 clients. Diagnosis takes at least a full day and design takes several days. Staff energies are mostly devoted to debriefing (75%) rather than activity delivery (25%). Disembarkation rarely happens because the program is ongoing. Staff need solution-focused, paradox, and double bind skills.

Action events – the activities used most commonly in experiential and/or adventure programming can be categorized as follows (see also photographs below):

  • Socialization games – “ice breakers” designed to disinhibit people and familiarize them with one another (these rarely form the content of more than the first 5% or 10% of most programs);
  • Group initiatives – group problem-solving tasks that individually isolate a single teamwork tool (such as trust, communication, or collaboration) or collectively test those elements in combination;
  • Ropes or challenge courses – people negotiate challenges built high or low above ground level among trees or utility poles, where safety is provided by spotting (low) or belaying (high); and
  • Outdoor pursuits – self-propelled outdoor or wilderness activities (rock climbing, canoeing, etc.) usually applied to complex interactions of individual and group issues (leadership, risk, etc.)

Facilitation – Since reflection is the key to deeper learning that leads to more lasting change, anything that a “facilitator” does to enhance reflection before, during, or after an experience is called “facilitation.” Four facilitation techniques have special relevance to experiential or adventure programming (for more on these and other methods, see the section on facilitation):

  • Funneling – using sequenced questions during or after an experience to guide debriefing;
  • Frontloading – using punctuated questions before or during an experience to redirect reflection;
  • Framing – introducing the experience in a manner that enhances it relevance and meaning; and
  • Solution-focused – changing the focus of questions away from problems or dysfunctions.

Adventure – Adventure is a specific subset of experiential programming where the outcome of the experience is uncertain and may contain risks (physical, emotional, social, financial, etc.). “Direct participation in [these and other] action events” requires us to use our competence to face our fears of the risks and to resolve the uncertainties of the outcomes. In dealing with these challenges, and by turning perceived limitations into abilities, we learn a great deal about our relationships with others and ourselves.

Relationships – Two types of relationships are most commonly addressed in experiential or adventure programming:

  • Interpersonal – the relationships among people in a group (sample benefits include improved teamwork, trust, communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, shared leadership, etc.); and
  • Intrapersonal – the relationships of people with themselves (sample benefits include improved self-concept, confidence, strategic or visionary leadership, willingness to take calculated risks, etc.).

Facilitation (transfer and techniques)

The central purposes of facilitation are to: enhance the quality of the learning experience, to assist clients in finding directions and sources for functional change, and to create changes that are lasting and transferable.

Transfer of learning and change from experiential programming to real life is often a critical concept in facilitation and is, even more frequently, a most difficult outcome to achieve. Since many characteristics of experiential programming and real life are very different, a wide gap exists for the client to bridge when attempting transfer. Three types of transfer and their respective gaps warrant further discussion.

Specific transfer involves the learning of particular skills for use in closely related situations. Learning to type on a typewriter for the purpose of operating a computer terminal is a common example of specific transfer. Here the skill learned is used in the same manner and in a similar situation. A small gap between learning environments makes transfer relatively easy.

Non-specific transfer refers to learning general principles or behaviors and applying them to different situations (a large gap). For example, the mastery of a new way to solve problems learned in a classroom situation has potential application on the job. Here, the principles or behaviors are used in a very different setting. A wide gap between learning environments makes transfer somewhat difficult.

Metaphoric transfer is an attempt to narrow the gap between apparently different learning environments through client realized metaphors. A metaphor is an idea, object, or description used in place of another different idea, object or description, in order to denote comparative likeness or similarity between the two. By findings metaphors, clients can bring seemingly different learning environments much closer together.

Example = “climbing a mountain is like completing a project, just take it one step at a time!” This client’s words express a metaphor and a key piece of learning gained from experience.

In the debriefing part of facilitation, clients are encouraged to discover and share their own metaphoric connections as a way to make the experiential programming more meaningful and relevant. In a subsequent method of isomorphic framing, the facilitator introduces the experience and “frames” it in the context and culture of the client, thereby presenting a deliberate and purposeful metaphoric experience.


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