The power of experiential leadership development - virtual learning | Learning & Development | Primeast

2020 saw a dramatic acceleration in the uptake of virtual learning & development. The range of available digital learning platforms and portals exploded; both free to use and subscription based. Some now offer simple broadcast content and others have a SCORM functionality linking to the buyer’s LMS. However, they are mostly aimed at knowledge transfer and knowledge testing. This is great for improving what people know. However, it’s what people actually do at work, day in day out that counts.

Virtual Instructor Led Training also exploded, with thousands of hours of traditional face to face classes being switched to virtual delivery. Again, much of the focus is still on knowledge transfer, generally scaffolded with some discussion and a few activities converted for use in the virtual world. Some have been very successful; others less so.

Over the last few years my learning design colleagues at Primeast have found that the principles of experiential learning that we have honed, in our 30+ years of creating meaningful face to face learning experiences can and have been successfully transferred to the virtual environment. And so far, our clients have been delighted!

What is experiential learning?

In their simplest form, experiential learning sessions involve individuals being exposed to challenging scenarios, each of which has been designed to allow them to practise using what they have learned in a low-risk environment. We believe this is an important consideration as allowing leaders to effectively practise in real-life situations is too risky for all concerned (Bregman, Harvard Business Review, April 2019). Following solid adult development principles, the scenarios themselves also stretch, test and provide insights on a learner’s ability to lead in specific conditions.

The process generally follows these steps:

  1. Create a simulated scenario depicting a potential issue/situation that replicates dynamics in learners’ day to day work.
  2. Work through the scenario in real time to see how learners apply what they have learned and how they respond to the situation.
  3. Use reflective debrief processes, such as 4F and deconstructive dialogue (based on Kegan, 2010) to examine the behaviours that were exhibited and actions or decisions that were taken.

Experienced facilitator/coaches lead discussions where groups of learners reflect in detail on how their underpinning mindsets and their actions (or lack of) affected the outcome and also what could be done for better effect if a similar scenario were to be faced again.

This focus on understanding the importance of mindset and the resulting action/decision-making while under the pressure of time, helps learners understand how they might react in similar real-world circumstances. It also allows them the opportunity to reflect on both their physiological & psychological responses - learning by feeling as well as doing, providing an even more profound learning experience.

This immersive combination of feeling and doing is the essence of experiential development and has been proven to be highly effective in transforming leadership capability.

The benefits of an immersive and experiential approach to learning

One of the areas where this approach has been found to highly effective, regardless of business scale, is that it stimulates challenge of extant mindset or thinking. Often business growth is held back, not by technology or what people do but leaders’ internal operating systems and their modes of thinking, both individual and collective.

Being stewarded through scenarios by an experienced experiential facilitator/coach surfaces those underpinning mindsets that drive the way people act and the decisions they make and can be analysed at key points during, and at the end of the scenario. The care taken in designing scenarios that replicate workplace challenges means that insights are easily linkable to the real-world and discussions which result in insights which can be enacted more effectively.

Can experiential learning really be done virtually?

Now consider the virtual learning space in which we now spend so much of our time. Recent reports from a range of respected sources like EY & Harvard Business Review have highlighted the narrative around digital fatigue which has grown significantly since the start of the pandemic.

Virtual learning environments which exacerbate this digital fatigue will not be effective, will not be a good investment and will just add to the overall reduction in human effectiveness organisations may experience.

However, we have found that there is little reason why the principles of experiential learning cannot apply to the virtual learning space and change this game around.

Feedback we have received from our learners indicates that fatigue has been mitigated by our focus on their personal and collective experience as learners, alongside teaching them useful concepts. Simple steps such as allowing facilitated reflective debrief discussions in small groups to promote psychological safety creates both engagement and insight for everyone involved.

The ability to design thoughtfully constructed, stimulating digital-enabled virtual experiences which reflect scenarios that are faced in reality is a very specific skill. It requires diagnosis, analysis and a creative and innovative approach which embraces the technological opportunity to leverage sound learning principles. As one of our colleagues noted “the trick is to see it less like designing a class or workshop and more like creating a live TV production”. The best virtual learning feels like a perfectly choreographed performance that immerses, stimulates, engages, challenges and inspires. It must stir the mind, the body and the heart. Like all good learning.

If you're currently finding yourself working in teams or managing teams remotely and/or virtually, read more about how you can help build trust in remote teams.

Find out more about how we can help you creating truly engaging and experiential learning, both face-to-face or virtually; speak to a member of the team today.

About the Author


Russell Evans

Russell Evans, Managing Director of Primeast, leads a team of around 100 core and associate consultants, facilitators and coaches based in 24 countries. A key component of Russell’s role is to work at a strategic level with Primeast’s client partners to help them develop themselves as ‘learning organisations’.

Russell has global experience across a range of sectors, particularly in highly matrixed and/or heavily regulated environments. He is passionate about supporting leaders as they embark on their leadership journey helping them develop both their 'outer game' (skills) and their 'inner game' (thinking and mindset).

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