Experiential learning: A must for product managers and leaders

“Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” – Albert Einstein

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

You’ve probably come across these quotes somewhere along the line. At their heart they essentially define what experiential learning (ExL) is: learning by doing.

Learning can be consumed in many ways; through theories, textbooks and tutorials on one side and activities, situations and experiences on the other.

Experiential learning falls in the latter and uses direct experience or hands-on involvement of an activity or situation. It’s a great way to learn because it puts the employee at the centre of learning and encourages active participation in the experience.

For PMs and leaders to really get to grips with their roles, ExL helps push learning from a mass, one-to-many system, to a more personal and relatable method. But don’t confuse this with self learning. ExL is not learning through YouTube tutorials or watching TED Talks. It is geared to function with the active participation of all employees in unison.

ExL: Four types

Pioneering American organizational sociologist and educational theorist, David Allen Kolb, has broken down learning into four steps known as The Experiential Learning Cycle:

Concrete experience: Active involvement in the experience

Reflective observations: Reviewing and analysing the experience

Abstract conceptualisation: Drawing conclusions and evaluating the meaning of the experience

Active experimentation: Implementing what has been learned

This cycle, which we take for granted, happens without us even noticing, and is a great way to think about learning for PMs and leaders.

The benefits of ExL 

Studies show that the retention rate for employees, especially in a remote environment, who participate in ExL, can reach as much as 90%. Of course, employees must do the hard work and reflect on their experiences and use what they’ve learnt to inform and improve future actions.

The “learning-by-doing” model can also help increase motivation, team-building and generally lead to a better work environment. You’ve probably heard of some well-known experiential learning methods already. Think flight simulators for pilots, role-playing scenarios for call-centre employees or emergency response personnel. And there are many more interesting examples.

Of course, this is not to say desk-based concepts or theory-based learning should be thrown out. Quite the opposite. What’s required is a relook at how learning works, especially in the real (business) world. It’s all well and good reading and understanding business theories, concepts and frameworks, but they need to be put into practice in real-life scenarios. Here, the variables are so many they wouldn’t fit into a textbook! This is why experiential learning is so important, especially in business environments.

We live in a culture where attention spans are short and keep getting shorter. We’re constantly distracted by phone notifications, email alerts, and endless social media scrolling. ExL can help overcome this by providing engaging and immersive learning experiences for PMs and leaders.

ExL is also a more fun way to learn. Games, interactive situations and simulations can enable  employees to actively participate and get their hands dirty! And who knows how many other great ideas will pop up along the way.

ExL also helps bridge the gap between theory and practice. For those in product roles this is crucial in not only understanding how products are built, developed and marketed, but also what works (or doesn’t), gaining better insights into customer (and employee, stakeholder, investor) behaviour as well as how to best solve day-to-day challenges.

For PMs and leaders, ExL can provide better assessments of their employees. Feedback can be given more clearly and scenarios can be tweaked or modified to better serve individual employees. This personalized, hands-on approach can benefit the entire business and increase motivation levels, break down silos, and boost retention rates.

For product teams to succeed, employees need to connect with what they’re creating. ExL can help drive this by getting everyone involved in various processes, conducting interactive training and development sessions and supporting managers and leaders with the right tools and solutions to drive the entire product journey.

Communication, innovation, flexibility

Three key ingredients of successful product teams, communication, innovation and flexibility, can be leveraged with ExL. The latter can be achieved by better understanding the ever-changing nature of not only market forces and conditions, but also employee attitudes across departments (read: engineers vs. marketers), fickle customers and demanding stakeholders as well as adapting to changing situations.

ExL can also drive innovation by creating conditions specific to certain situations. These could be product features or tool related, customer response types or certain product development processes. These situations can help trigger further creative thinking across the board.

ExL can drive communication within and across the product development process. Internal teams can work more closely together, managers and leaders can clearly understand where bottlenecks or challenges lie, and issues can be addressed directly.

However, for ExL to be successful across the business, all participants need to believe in it. It requires creative scenario-building, time, investment and patience to see it work. It also requires a change in mindset and a culture shift from the top down.

The way forward

For those who still think it’s an easy substitute for product concepts and theories should think again. ExL cannot replace frameworks but can add another way of looking at them. On the flipside many concepts pertain to ideal or normal conditions, which we know don’t exist in the real world.  Many educational training programs tend to focus on theory and don’t take into account the actual (and messy) world of product building and the ever-changing dynamics of dealing with people and technology. This needs to be taught by those who have “been there and done that and have made mistakes and succeeded.” This type of experiential learning is invaluable and needed to succeed in the real world.

This is the first of our series of ‘Get Real PMs!’ blogs where we will continue to dish out no-nonsense tips for those in product management from those who’ve undertaken the long hard road of product building – and not from inside the pages of a textbook