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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Helping people learn

Part 1: Case in Point as an experiential approach

There is a growing consensus that the real work of leadership development is to create environments in which leaders can draw on life and professional experiences while interacting with peers to learn from each other, and from the experiences that the circumstances offer. This type of learning is sometimes called vertical development.

From an adult development perspective, learning is a product of repeated and persistent conflict between the requirements and complexity of new circumstances, the psychological demands created, and an individual’s ability or inability to meet those demands. Developmental transitions are demanding and require a combination of challenge and support: both from others and from within yourself.

Research shows that adults can and do learn from life experiences and transitions, sometimes called crucibles. However, learning from experience is not guaranteed since effective reflection and integration of the experience varies among different people. As discussed elsewhere learners need to create a vessel within which they can genuinely examine, test and experiment with all that they believe they are and all that they need to be. We have called this developing a provisional self.

It is, therefore, the job of leadership educators to increase the chances that leaders can and do learn from experience; be it one the job, in a classroom, in coaching and/or from life. There are several models available that discuss different means to achieve this, but they all have several common themes:

  • the need for challenge or “heat” experiences;

  • the need for learner's way of thinking to be expanded;

  • the need for people’s view of themselves as learners to be tested;

  • integration of deep reflection with a tolerance for experimentation and failure; and;

  • creation of a shared context where individual perspectives and sense-making are tested against those of others.

Leadership development, therefore, can be summarized as requiring personally relevant, complex and challenging experiential activity, in a variety of situations, over time that engages with peers and stakeholders, and with sustained opportunity for reflection. Such experiential learning is seen as the core of the kind of transformational learning, which prepares leaders for the future.

The question then is how do you create such learning and ensure that leaders are constant learners? One core approach is to integrate Case in Point methods into the learning design and application.

What is Case in Point?

Case in Point (CIP) is a method which involves using the actions and behaviours of individual participants as well as those of the group they are members of, as the case study, making it a “here and now” experience; and bringing the dynamics of adaptation and leadership into the learning room. The group serves as a case for a set of concepts and issues relating to leadership, ranging from an individual’s use of power and relationship to authority, through to the systemic processes in groups that undermine effective adaptation and learning or, for an organisational work group, to observe its own functioning and any barriers to progress.

The approach combines didactic (cognitive) and experiential (affective) learning (or as we like to say “above and below the neck”) placing emphasis on the interactions and dynamics that are generated in the learning (or work) setting and using these as a source of data for observation and reflection. It draws on the participants’ (and facilitators’) immediate experience as it unfolds and allows anyone in the group to “push the pause button” and ask “what’s going on here?” and “how can we understand this?”

The group and each member’s changing place in it create rapidly developing relationships and so the group-room, like the workplace, may become charged or “hot” with reactions and emotions. The particular “heat” generated becomes a unique resource for each CIP analysis.

In other words, CIPuses the interactions and dynamics of the group working together to explore leadership and organisational systems, while simultaneously thinking about the forms or methods of action best suited to make progress given the purpose of the particular group.

The use of the group as an experiential case permits relevant issues, assumptions, knowledge, analytical and intervention skills and influencing behaviours to surface so that they can be examined. Debriefing and discussion provide disciplined reflection and analysis on the patterns of thinking and behaviours exhibited, as well as their implications for individual practice. Coaching, skills practice and small group discussion then allow incremental learning and application to take place and build a foundation for transfer to the workplace.

We must prepare people to operate more effectively in the “swampy” ground of adaptive change by offering both frameworks and tools, together with meaningful experiences that ensure leaders as learners have the capacity to:

  • Understand themselves as individuals, as socially embedded beings, and to see how they are a part of, and get “used” by, the systems that they are part of (to think systemically);

  • Get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming - of perpetual beta;

  • Understand human systems as multi-party entities that interact in the service of solving problems, each with different needs, stakes and loyalties (to think politically);

  • Engage in hard conversations to test assumptions (one’s own and those of others) and;

  • Be able to tolerate conflict and heat and to hold a group through sustained, difficult and often experimental work; and

  • Be able to entertain divergent perspectives and interpretations and have empathy for these different views and loyalties.

To develop these leadership capabilities, we need to provide a set of learning experiences that illustrate and are consistent with a coherent intellectual framework; one that offers learners a wide field of understanding and action.

The broad rationale, then, for using case in point is to replicate and illustrate the dynamics of adaptation and change, including the process of trying to move a group from its current reality to a better future, where new attitudes and competencies are needed but where there is a default for people to rely on those in authority to provide the answers.

CIP is a developing methodology even though it has its origins in well established group process methods such as Group Relations (Tavistock), T Groups (NTL), Psychodrama and Process Oriented Psychology. The benefits of CIP are reinforced by research in neuroscience of learning, how to make learning stick and research on learning leadership.

CIP continues to be developed by practitioners in Australia and the USA, and there are now formal training and accreditation processes, including in Australia.

If you are interested in Case in Point, and in accreditation, please contact us at


**Parts of this blog are extracts from our original Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper (2005) "Case in Point: An experiential methodology for leadership education and practice". This paper was published in the Kansas Leadership Journal and has subsequently been cited by several other reserachers and practitioners, for example Parks, Hall, Green, and Hufnagel and Pianesi

First published in LinkedIn on 9 Sept 2018


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