Experiential Learning at Offsites

Business 2.0 has a short piece on “why we all hate offsites.” I’ll try not to be defensive since I often facilitate retreats that are held out of the office, but in this case, the article is referring to the traditional corporate offsite, which is typically at a resort location and involves outdoor exercises, trust falls, or what the author disparagingly refers to as “experiential learning.”

I think experiential learning is cool, actually, and very important, but the example he cited was of the facilitator who had little colored stones representing the “cornerstones” of teamwork (communication, sharing resources, etc.) and the participants had to roll a stone to each other if they violated a cornerstone during an exercise.

I guess that’s experiential, but it’s not real. Why do people think that in order to learn things and figure out how to work better together they have to venture into the realm of the hypothetical or the conceptual or the simulated? Why not take time during an offsite retreat and actually identify and solve the problems you face as a team? Then when you’re done, look back at the experience and figure out what worked and what didn’t. Now, that’s experiential learning.


  1. 03.05.2006 at 5:54 pm

    I do one or two “offsites” a year with my team — nothing fancy, just a meeting out of the office to get focused and a little perspective. I’ve often thought about bringing an outside consultant in for a little fresh viewpoint but haven’t exactly because I.don’t want to wind up doing something idiotic like rolling stones at each other.

  2. 04.05.2006 at 9:20 am

    Yeah, this is an ongoing challenge for my marketing, but I suppose that’s true in all industries (being dragged down, at least initially, by yahoos who are in your category). It all depends on the background of the consultant. Some who come from a training background treat facilitation like an event that requires “exercises.” I come from a conflict resolution and organization development background, so I treat any kind of event as an opportunity to work thorugh a difficult or important conversation. It’s a matter of style, in a sense. And that’s not a knock against training–I think you can use exercises to promote learning. I just wouldn’t do it at a retreat.

  3. 05.05.2006 at 8:29 pm

    I really enjoy facilitated off-sites that use metaphorical exercises to help participants discover problems and solutions. There are many different learning styles. I like metaphor.

  4. 08.05.2006 at 8:34 am

    Hey Ben, I totally agree about different learning styles, and I have nothing against metaphors (or similes, for that matter). My issue gets to your last point about identifying problems and solutions. Do you have a good example of metaphor-based retreat learning that really led to identification of problems and solutions? The stories I hear are mostly about using metaphor simply to make a point, or simply to teach a concept. The concept is likely applicable to the system in question, but I’m afraid that connection is never made.