For the next 15 minutes, I would like to take you on a trip. Grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea, take a seat, and just relax because I’m going to take you to the West of Ireland.

Imagine that the first thing you see when you wake up are green hills and mountains emerging from a beautiful fjord. You get up, eat a nutritious breakfast, and start the day by cycling through a stunning national park. Lunch is waiting for you when you get back, then a hot shower, and perhaps a nap. After a relaxing morning and afternoon, your course starts at 3pm. After all, you came all the way to Ireland to learn something useful! So, you spend the rest of the day, together with other participants, learning and practising, questioning and experimenting.

In the heart of the Connemara mountains, on the only fjord in Ireland, there is a centre that has a special place in my heart. It’s called Killary Adventure and was set up by Mary and Jamie Young who, during their honeymoon, sailed all the way across the Atlantic Ocean on their own. (This says a lot about them and about the place they’ve created!)

I discovered Killary Adventure Centre in 2013 while I was looking for a place to run a European project meeting. I deliberately chose not to host the meeting in a hotel conference room. I spent way too much time during other project meetings in such rooms, drinking too much coffee, and trying not to fall asleep because of the lack of fresh air and movement. When I first saw the Killary fjord, I knew that this place would bring great energy to my project. And it did.

I started M-Powered Projects in 2016 with the goal of teaching people about project management and creative-thinking in places like Killary Adventure Centre. So far, we have been able to use many unique and beautiful places for our courses, including Killary. I would like to tell you the story of one of them, called Design Thinking in Education, which we ran just a couple of weeks ago.

This course differs in several ways from other courses I’m aware of. Starting with the remote and peaceful venue, but also in how it incorporates nature, physical challenges, great food, music, and workshops. I hope that this story will inspire you to do things differently and to remove barriers to working more effectively, which I believe are mostly just in our heads.

An unusual agenda

Whenever we present a course agenda to participants, they first tend to look slightly confused! This is what our typical course day looks like:

9:00 – 10:00               Breakfast
10:00 – 13:00             Physical outdoor activities
13:00 – 14:00             Lunch
14:00 – 15:00             Break
15:00 – 18:30             Design Thinking / Project Management workshop
18:30 – 19:30             Dinner
19:30 – 21:30             Design Thinking / Project Management workshop

I must admit that I’m not surprised that our participants are a bit shocked when they realise that they are to study until night-time! However, our methodology is well designed and tested. In the last two years, we’ve tested three different types of programmes:

  1. No physical activity – a typical course day from 9am to 5pm
  2. Physical activity in the afternoon
  3. Physical activity in the morning

Again and again, the third scenario proved to be the most successful! Typically, people who participated in the traditional course (option 1) struggled a lot with energy levels in the middle of the day. The second option was more effective, but it was harder to activate participants during the morning workshop, which starts just after breakfast. In our experience, we get the best outcomes when participants spend the morning exercising. Activity “opens-up” our minds and hearts to accumulate knowledge; It relaxes muscles and bring a sense of achievement.

Physical exercise and challenges

Our bodies are not designed to sit in front of computers for 8 hours a day. Yet, this is what most of us do. There have been tonnes of research studies on the bad effects of a sedentary lifestyle on our health. We also know now that inactivity can make it very difficult to concentrate. Yet, formal education and most working environments require people to be glued to their chairs for a third of every day.

We use physical activities in our courses because we have experienced for ourselves the wonderful impact that activity can have.  Each of us, the M-Powered trainers, couldn’t imagine life without exercise. Kasia is a climber, Diarmuid practices Aikido, and I’m simply a sport lover.

So, what kind of activities did we do in Connemara during our course? On Monday, we cycled to Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Gardens. On Tuesday we worked in teams to complete a series of tasks called the “Killary Challenge”, which includes different games composed of mental and physical challenges. Wednesday was the most challenging in terms of getting out of our comfort zone and facing our fears. The “High Ropes” activity takes place 8 metres above the ground and includes trapeze jumping and balancing on a small platform. On Thursday, we crossed the fjord on a speedboat, hiked to a sheep farm, and learned how sheepdogs are used in herding. These activities had a tremendous effect on teambuilding, especially High Ropes, which involved a lot of trust and team work.

As you can imagine, we were physically tired, but endorphins and a sense of accomplishment gave great results at the Design Thinking workshops that we ran later in the afternoon. Day by day, our participants felt more relaxed and enthusiastic. For me and Kasia, as trainers, it created the perfect teaching environment.          

Good food

Nutrition is essential for our bodies and minds to work properly. I don’t know about you, but every time I spent a couple of days at meetings abroad, I tend to drink too much coffee and eat too much junk food. Therefore, I really appreciate when a host serves us some fresh fruit and other healthy options.

In Connemara, we ate a lot of vegetables, fruits, and fish. Our delicious dinners were cooked by Kim and Reinaldo, a couple who runs a food truck called Misunderstood Heron, which was recently named one of the 10 coolest food trucks in the world by the Lonely Planet travel guides!

Nature and fresh air

The soothing effect of nature can’t be overestimated. Spending a week with no traffic and no rushing brings a different perspective to our lives. Ireland is famous for its fresh air. So, even if it is a bit rainy, you should come away refreshed!

Minimum PowerPoint presentation – maximum practice

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience

David A. Kolb

We truly believe in this statement and we design our courses based on a methodology called the Kolb’s cycle. According to Kolb, effective learning happens when a person progresses through a cycle of four stages:

(1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalisations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

Therefore, during our Design Thinking course, the participants were exposed to the DT process three times. Firstly, they experienced a concrete example of Design Thinking being used to create a tourist product for a 30+ year old woman. It was followed by observation and reflection about the method. Secondly, we went through the theory of DT and an analysis of different stages. This process was supported by a practical exercise of DT using the example of cosmetics design. Finally, once the participants gained the necessary knowledge and became familiar with the theory, we asked them to conduct the whole DT process for a topic related to their own organisation, which focused on education.

By the end of the course the participants knew exactly when and how to use the DT method in their work!

Energisers, music and breaks

Breaks should never be underestimated. Recently I participated in a course in Denmark, which was fantastic but had almost no breaks. Although the course was extremely interesting and relevant to my work, I felt drained and unmotivated. I made a mental note to never do the same to my course participants!

So, we had plenty of short breaks during our Design Thinking course. After each of them we introduced some energisers and exercises to boost creativity. We also made good use of our M-Powered JBL speaker! Music helps to create good vibe and atmosphere.

Good night sleep

We know the importance of sleep. Good sleep can maximise problem-solving skills and enhance memory, while poor sleep has been shown to impair brain function.

Therefore, in Killary, we didn’t insist our participants got up at the crack of dawn. We started our days at 9 am with a common breakfast. It was crucial for us that our course participants slept well to regenerate their bodies and minds.

Results

Did the course work? We believe it did. Here is what one of the participants said about it:

Kasia and Marzena found the golden ratio in the proportion of theory to practice and in the combination of workshops with outdoor activities. They demonstrate great mindfulness to the course participants’ needs, professionalism, commitment and, above all, incredible energy. And all this in such an unbelievably beautiful place. It was an unforgettable experience. Thank you!

Anna Hofmańska

Fundraising Specialist, The Children’s University

I hope that the story of our recent course inspired you to try at least some components of our methodology in your work. I truly believe that we can always improve the way we run meetings and organise our own work and the work of our teams. I would love to encourage you to use these practices and make such improvements. After all, we only have one life, so why not make it as enjoyable as possible!

Right now, we’re preparing a Work-life balance course in Tenerife, using the same methods as described above. The course will be run in October.