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5 ways to use roles in experiential learning exercises

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One excellent way of better tailoring experiential exercises to the particular context,situation and objectives within which you are working, is to use roles within an experiential exercise. There is something really nice (and memorable!) about the surprise factor of opening an envelope as a participant and seeing what is inside and I would really recommend doing that at least once within a facilitated day. So onto some of the options for using roles…

1. Leadership styles and models

You might be using Situational Leadership on your programme or Action Centred Leadership or Tannenbaum & Schmidt’s Leadership Continuum or a model of your own. Whatever model you want to include, using roles within an experiential task is a great way to introduce it. Give participants sealed envelopes before the task begins, each with a clear description within it of one of the styles within in your model and ask them to try during the task to behave in that way. After the task, you can then introduce the model as part of the review and use examples from throughout the exercise to illustrate and bring to life the model. You can also do fun things like guessing which role each individual had been given etc. It makes the model far more memorable than if you had simply presented it.

2. Blindfold and non-blindfold

Any time you introduce blindfolds into an experiential activity, you dramatically up the quality of communication needed for the group to be successful. I’m particularly partial to blindfolding half of the group to enable each blindfolded participant to have their own communicator. If the blindfolded person is not communicated with well, it brings into sharp focus how people feel when they are disengaged in a task or in a company! This provides rich material for review.

3. Team roles

In a similar way to with leadership styles, you could use roles to introduce a team model such as Belbin or Team Management Systems or outside of that you may just wish to assign people roles according to responsibilities you would like them to take on within the exercise. For example, lets say that a team, through the use of team diagnostic of some sort or through previous experience in experiential exercises have identified that they need to be better at time keeping and at celebrating successes, you could assign somebody to these roles to make them more likely to come to the fore. The review could then encompass how useful (or not) it was having people assigned to cover this and whether or not that could help in the workplace and in what circumstances.

Other roles that you might consider include…

  • Summariser / clarifier – clarifies objectives, summarises discussions
  • Ideas person – suggests new ideas
  • Evaluator – helps the group to avoid coming to agreement too easily, encourages people to reflect
  • Observer – watches group and takes notes on what is happening
  • Recorder – ensures agreements are written visibly
  • Data Collector - collects and records data
  • Elaborator - connects discussions with prior material and activities
  • Encourager - praises and affirms, records positive comments and actions
  • Materials Manager - gets and returns supplies and materials

4. Managers and workers

A classic use of roles in experiential learning exercises is to divide the group into ‘managers’ and ‘workers’. Often the groups will be separated in different rooms, but not always. The ‘managers’ are typically given more information than the ‘worker’s about how to solve the problem and the ‘workers’ are typically the only ones allowed to actually touch the equipment and solve the problem. Sometimes communication between the two groups is limited to certain times or people, to text message or mobile phone. This environment provides for a review rich in understanding the impact on relationship and engagement of the managers’ communication and usually leads in to a great discussion and action plan.

5. The saboteur

If one of the objectives of your workshop is to develop giving and receiving feedback or to help people understand the difference between their intentions and the impact of the things they say and do then this a great one though it does need handling with care (or excellent facilitation). Basically you tell the group that you are giving them an envelope in which they will find a note telling them whether or not they have been selected to act as a saboteur. If during the exercise, a participant suspects that they have identified a saboteur then they must stop the action and explain why they suspect this. Then, when it is established that they are wrong, the exercise continues. Nobody’s envelope says that they are to be a saboteur so this leads to a brilliant review focused on different people’s perceptions about a situation, the power of expectation or feedback confidence and expertise.

Hope this gets your creative juices flowing. I’d love to see alternative ideas for using roles in experiential activities below.

Shirley is a first-rate organiser of our regional Training Journal meetings. She's a natural facilitator with a warm and genuine style. Her infectious enthusiasm is always focused on ensuring events are packed with learning and fun. Shirley's great to work with.

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HRD Manager at Redcats UK

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