Step Three of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model. Conceptualization: Extract Universal Leadership Principles for Application

In our previous installment of this series, we learned about Reflection and Discussion. This time, we will focus on step three of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model: Conceptualization in this installment. In conceptualization we extract universal leadership principles from our reflection and observation.

During the conceptualization phase, you take the first two phases (Experience and Reflection/Discussion) and develop theories to picture what you’ve learned.  As Dr. Richard Mobbs, University of Leicester, says, conceptualization helps you make sense of what has happened. You interpret the events, the stories, the circumstances, and the relationships between them. The learner develops principles that can apply to their own reality (later implemented in Step 4: Application).

The key questions at this stage of experiential learning are:

  • “What can we learn from the experience when (or as) it presents itself?”
  • Or saying the same thing more broadly: “Is there a principle we can state that summarizes what we’ve learned?”

These questions enable the learner to extract universal meaning from an isolated experience.

Here’s a real-life example of conceptualization

Using the earlier example of being late to work, you can identify the experience through deliberate reflection, “I was late because of the traffic.”  You’d next identify the universal principle at work.  That could be: excessive vehicular activity on a given roadway can cause one to be late for appointments!

Continuing the example from one of the country’s most storied battles

In the case of the Battle of Gettysburg, the military leader of the Confederacy, Robert Lee, issued an order to General Ewell that was unclear. General Ewell asked for help and clarification, which he didn’t receive from Lee. The principle that could be derived from this historic example could be: Orders from a leader need to be clear in order to be acted upon.”  Or “Leaders must give clear orders to those they manage.”  Or “Leaders must ensure their direct reports understand their direction to enable proper execution.” So, you see even here, in just one story there are two principles at work. Which would apply to you?

So, what’s the takeaway? 

This step of the Kolb model—conceptualization—delivers increased engagement with the learning as it helps you extract the universal lesson from which personal application can then be obtained.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself during this stage:

  1. Moving from reflection to conceptualization, am I extracting meaning from the experience that is universal?  Or is it specific to my unique circumstances?
  2. Looking towards application, if the principles are universal, what are my unique circumstances to which they might be applied?
  3. If the principles are unique to me, is there a higher-level principle at work that IS universal? How can I use that as a leader to apply to others?

It’s great to reflect on experiences and to state a universal principle, but we’re not yet finished. In the next blog in this series, we’ll focus on the final step of the Kolb model: Application.

Interested in reading more about Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model? Click here for all the parts of this series!


P.S. Has your leadership development stalled at great reflections or observations and not moved effectively into application? Contact us to discuss if the experiential learning model is right for you or your team with a Leadership Experience!