More than 20 years of working with organizational performance improvement and team building and experiential learning has taught me a few things, I think. So, I wanted to share some reflections around how to optimize the impacts on individual and group learning.

There has always been a discussion in the experiential learning literature about the need for focused debriefing versus the inherent learning that naturally occurs. After all, how much time needs to be spent talking about the obvious?

One might think that the experience itself would be sufficient for learning to occur and that no debriefing is necessary since the key learning points are all so obvious. The other perspective is that a focused discussion and reflection are paramount for learning to occur.

Overall, I think that the key is BALANCE. Key learning points should be discussed, with the reality that some people will learn more than others and that individuals within a group will each see different things, depending on their perspectives and experiences. But spending too much time in too much detail will dull the brain and cause a loss of interest and engagement.

I take the position that individual reflection and group discussion are integral to understanding from any event and especially for building a shared commitment to doing things more better faster
(or at least differently than before!).

Learning can occur within an individual simply as a result of some experience. But I also think that reflection and discussion generate much richer learning.

As an example, let me use my Square Wheels® illustration as an example. One person looking at the illustration may come up with 2 or 3 insights as to possible meanings, where another might find 10 to 15 learning points. Commonly, a group of people feeding off each others’ ideas and comments can readily identify 30 or more key points.  And, they will have more fun doing it.

How things work in most organizations = Square Wheels images LEGO

So, reflection and some discussion DO generate a richer learning environment and one that is more likely to generate some impetus for change.

My personal belief is that an exercise like Lost Dutchman is an excuse to do the debriefing and that the exercise is merely the platform for the group learning that will occur.

The authors of “The Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators” (Pfieffer and Jones, 1983) felt that it was “axiomatic” that the processing of the experiential learning program “are even more important than the experiencing phase”. These authors even urged facilitators to take care that the activity “does not generate excess data”. Rappelling a mountainside or descending whitewater in a raft with 5 others would be the kind of experiences which would “generate excess data.”  Too much, in fact, to capture and categorize, and not much real learning would occur.

Experiential exercises offer the benefit of links to preferred information gathering and decision-making styles.  It can match with the kinesthetic, visual and auditory learning styles and confirming systems.  The various roles can also benefit when a team applies the different thinking styles to the information processing and risk-taking situations.

So, one of the benefits of an exercise like Lost Dutchman is the clean design and straightforward metaphors that allow for a relatively structured debriefing of individual and group experiences.  In all of our game designs, we pay attention to business issues and opportunities and thus structure our suggested debriefing approach to allow groups to focus on realities of the workplace as well as the applications for the future. The themes and relevance are designed to be obvious.

collaboration generates optimal results in Lost Dutchman

At the same time, shared experiences also allow the facilitator to link the program to their existing and preferred tools. Should someone be using DISC, for example, they might use the game at the start as a tool to set the stage for a discussion of possible styles or at the end to test out applications of others preferred styles toward themes of teamwork and problem solving.

If people are focused on strategy implementation, they can use the issues about confusion regarding the overall goals of the exercise – “to mine as much gold as we can” in the case of Dutchman — to discuss the reality that choosing to compete will sub-optimize overall group results, the main cause of why “interdepartmental collaboration” is an oxymoron in most organizations. The game experience helps link the choice in the game to the reality of workplace choices, helping to define what could be done differently.

a user testimonial about team building exercise

By taking the time to debrief the program, you gain the benefit of group perspective and individual learning. What you got from the game is thus less likely to be lost among the informational noise and data. And a team focused on how they handled risk, for example, will most certainly generate different insights than simple reflection by an individual; the nature of the discussion and the different viewpoints will allow more objectivity and perspective.

Years ago, I jumped a 130-meter bungee jump in New Zealand, the Nevis. It was risk-taking in some ways. But a failure to debrief on decision making and perceptions of safety and other issues did not occur and there was not a lot of learning that occurred, in reality. I see this same kind of thing in the actual learning from a lot of different outdoor adventure activities – learning will come from the debriefing and reflection and not simply from the experience itself.

picture by Robert Young

It is when the activity and its review are combined, facilitated and discussed among teams that the real benefit of the event occurs – the learning that occurs with possibilities for personal and social development. Future-pacing possible outcomes is also beneficial.

Dutchman creates a learning event which includes some interdependent elements:

  • new and challenging collaborative decision-making
  • new group team building events and
  • various learning modes related to decisions
  • various information processing needs

The challenge is to discover ways of merging these learning elements into real individual and organizational improvement. In the short term, a single element may dominate the experience, but ultimately this dynamic form of learning depends on the harnessing and intermixing of these many elements and learning that come from reflection and discussion.

I hope that this is helpful and that you can apply it to your own learning and development events for building teamwork and improving people and performance,

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games Scott small picand organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

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Square Wheels® is a registered trademark of Performance Management Company
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