“Entrepreneurship” has been a buzzword for years now, ever since the tech boom propelled big-name entrepreneurs to the forefront of cultural consciousness. These days, corporations large and small want to tap into the power of entrepreneurial thinking, even if their employees aren’t technically entrepreneurs themselves. As markets shift and change, having teams of nimble-minded employees who are able to solve problems creatively—traits commonly associated with entrepreneurs—has become a big goal of companies for their employees.
But how can companies boost entrepreneurial thinking in their employees? The answer: experiential learning.
This unique type of hands-on, discovery-based training fosters an entrepreneurial mindset in trainees. In fact, top universities around North America are incorporating experiential training into their entrepreneurship programs, reaffirming the link between the two. At prestigious Rice University, MBA students have the option to join Entrepreneurial Experiential Learning Labs to develop entrepreneurial skills. And at Babson College, Professor Sebastian Fixson has identified several links between entrepreneurial leadership and experiential training, which he explores in the classroom. Fixson states: “We have found that experiential learning, and the active engagement of the student in the learning experience, is the most effective method for enabling students to develop the cognitive ambidexterity characteristic of an entrepreneurial leader.”
Here’s how this type of training contributes to the development of three key modes of entrepreneurial thinking: problem-solving, willingness to take risks, and taking initiative.
Experiential training boosts participants’ problem-solving skills in a big way. How? Its hands-on nature puts the onus on the learner to figure out the lesson of the training, meaning it puts the learning outcome into the participant's hands. That’s in contrast to more passive training methods, like lectures, videos, and workbooks, where a participant is required to read, watch, or listen. These methods of training do not guarantee the learning sticks with participants, as it does not activate creativity, because everything they need to know is in front of them.
In experiential learning, the discovery-based training requires full participation by all trainees. Trainees must work through scenarios that mirror real-world workplace problems, without knowing what a solution looks like—it’s up to them to create and carry out the solution, which also creates complete accountability for the result. That’s what ignites entrepreneurial problem-solving skills. Without a clear path or plan in front of them—or a lecturer at the front of the room—participants must rely on their own creative and innovative instincts and often do so with conviction.
True entrepreneurial innovation just can’t happen if a company—and its employees—are too afraid to take calculated, well-thought-out, disciplined risks. Only by being willing to take risks can you reap big business rewards. In addition to being an incredibly effective tool for sustained learning, experiential scenarios can also help make participants comfortable with taking these kinds of risks.
That’s because, in an experiential activity, participants must take risks and get out of their comfort zones to “win” at the experience. Moreover, these sessions are designed to make doing the uncomfortable as comfortable as possible by creating a safe space for trial and error. As explained, an experiential scenario mirrors the problems that participants face on the job—but doesn’t mimic these problems exactly. Instead, they’re masked using a fun, game-like metaphor, like searching for gold in a desert. Using a metaphor removes the discomfort that participants feel at the prospect of making a misstep on the job (as nobody wants to make a mistake at work), which allows them to stretch themselves creatively and take risks to solve problems. The threat of failure just isn’t as strong in an experiential learning scenario, and that’s by design. Once participants see that taking risks can pay off big-time, they’ll be likelier to reflect that kind of calculated risk and coordinating confidence into the “real world,” if their company supports a high-performance culture driven by innovation.
3. Taking Initiative—and Responsibility for One’s Actions
Finally, experiential learning helps participants adopt an entrepreneurial mindset by driving them to take initiative—and take ownership of their actions. Creative thinking and innovation will fall flat in an environment where everyone tries to pass the buck.
So how does experiential training accomplish this? As discussed, this training method is designed so that participants must take actions to solve the scenario’s problem and therefore learn from the experience. Unlike the on-the-job scenarios that they mirror, however, these experiential scenarios are stripped down so that participants can clearly see how their actions lead to certain consequences, good and bad. Budget constraints, deadline extensions, and other common workplace issues aren’t present to cloud the results of participants’ actions. The result? Participants know exactly how their own actions influence the success or failure of the session. That does two big things:
- It gives participants the confidence they need to take decisive action on the job, because it illustrates clearly how big an effect their actions have on outcomes.
- It eliminates opportunities for participants to hide behind excuses for poor outcomes, which instills a sense of personal responsibility. Thinking like an entrepreneur means being action-oriented, a trait that experiential training helps instill.
Have you implemented experiential learning initiatives in the past? If so, what other ways have you seen experiential learning boost entrepreneurial thinking in your employees?