What is Challenge Based

Challenge Based Development (CBD) is a social collaborative process that revolves around solving real-world company strategic challenges.

Morten Dalum

Morten Dalum

It derives from the notion that development should be crucial to your strategy. That it should be purpose-driven and that it should seek to answer the unanswerable.

Challenge Based Development does this by fostering open flows of information, continuous learning and flexible hierarchies, as well as by promoting a culture of dialogue, critical thinking, creativity and ideation, which is crucial for any company to stay in business in today’s day and age.

The fact is the world is moving fast. Technology is evolving at blistering speed and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to predict how to stay in business a year from now – or even less than that.

In other words: the era of unwavering strategy plans is over.

There are already numerous of examples of companies that have had to succumb to this new reality, and in our view, no companies are exempt from suffering the same fate, unless they begin to encompass change as part of their strategy and part of their development culture.

Encompassing change means dealing with real-world company challenges as part of your strategy and accustoming your behavior accordingly and continuously. This is what we deem closing the gap between strategy and behavior, which is what Challenge Based Development will help you do to stay competitive in business and meaningful to those who make up your company – your people.

How it works

Challenge Based Development unfolds in development projects called Sprints. In each Sprint a team works on solving a specific challenge that directly influences the strategy. The team learns about the challenge through a series of modules that widen and deepen their understanding.

As they progress through the modules, a range of social engagers nudge them to share their opinions, experiences and ideas with each other. The aim is to come up with feasible ideas on how to solve the challenge.

As ideas are created each team member provides his or her rating on whether they are good ideas or bad ideas. All ideas are then gathered in an idea bank and presented collectively to the Sprintmaster (team leader) when the Sprint is done. The Sprintmaster concludes the Sprint with a report and the result of the Sprint either turns into new behavior, a new discovery, a new project or verification that the current behavior is adequate and valuable to your cause.

Challenge Based Development vs Typical Training Programs

The key learning principle of Challenge Based Development is to allow learning to happen instead of trying to make it happen. The reasoning behind this principle is twofold:

  1. You’re dealing with challenges that has no immediate answer
  2. Your aim is to create new and valuable practice knowledge

Because of these reasons the learning aim, principle, approach, characteristics and premise of Challenge Based Development differs from typical training programs. In this table we clarify the difference:

Typical Training Programs

Challenge Based Development

Learning Principle

Make learning happen

Allow learning to happen

Learning Aim

To recall and demonstrate an understanding of the facts and methods presented and to apply them in practice.

To create new and valuable practice knowledge through action, dialogue and ideation.

Learning Approach




  • Classroom teaching / E-learning
  • Individualized learning.
  • Debate curriculum with peers.
  • Complete assignments.
  • Test subject knowledge.
  • Online facilitated Sprints.
  • Social learning.
  • Dialogue about work practice.
  • Try out new things in work practice.
  • Create ideas to solve a Challenge.

Premise / Reasoning

  • To make sure people are qualified to perform certain tasks.
  • To make sure people comply with company policy.
  • To use each other’s collective experiences to create new and valuable practice knowledge.
  • To solve company challenges.

It’s a step away from the traditional learning management thinking, which is all about training your people in company policy, procedures, product knowledge, and so on. Such kind of development is great for supporting modes of operation in which you have all the answers. However, when it comes to closing the gap between strategy and behavior, you need to allow learning to happen instead of trying to make it happen. Otherwise you cannot foster the right environment that will bring you the answers you are seeking. That requires a whole different approach to learning, which is what Challenge Based Development can provide.

The origins of Challenge Based Development

Challenge Based Development is an appreciative nod to the principles of nordic educational tradition, in which “bildung” – the forming of whole individuals that are used to question authority, think critically, seek consensus, and work problem oriented, permeates learning activities from primary school to higher education – and even beyond.

Especially the learning methodology of Problem Based Learning, as perceived and popularized by Aalborg University and recognized by UNESCO, serves as strong inspiration to the way Challenge Based Development has been designed.

The learning domains of Challenge Based Development

Challenge Based Development draws on notions from three major learning domains – Experiential Learning, Action Learning and Social Learning.

Experiential Learning

Concerns the continuous learning process that happens inside your brain when you experience. The sum of your experiences keeps sculpting your knowledge in ways that directly influences how you perceive and act on given situations – especially situations that you can relate to experiences you have had earlier, albeit under different circumstances. A basic example of experiential learning is that of the child who burns his fingers on the stove and learns to be more cautious in the future – colloquially known as “learning the hard way”. Read the source material here.

On Acadal, Experiential Learning comes into play as each team member goes through a series of content modules consisting of videos, assignments, podcasts, and articles. Each content module provides a new experience for the team member as it entices him to reflect on his learning, try out new things, and share his experiences with his fellow team members, thereby sculpting his understanding of the challenge at hand.

Action Learning

Is based on Experiential Learning but with expanded emphasis on how learning can be managed in learning processes where certain criteria are met. In Action Learning the combination between doing concrete actions and reflecting on what was learned from those actions is key. Read the source material here.

The criteria to practicing Action Learning are as follows:

  • Every participant must describe a problem he or she wants to solve.
  • The problem must be relevant to the organization.
  • Each person must have adequate time to reflect on his learning and note these reflections in a learning log.
  • Peer groups must meet up occasionally and support each other’s learning process with a specific questioning technique.
  • There must be a coach or facilitator that supports the participants in their learning journey by asking questions and enticing them to reflect on their learning.

On Acadal, Action Learning comes into play in the following manner:

  • The focal point of a Sprint is to solve a company specific challenge.
  • The participants are continuously enticed to try out new methods and ideas whilst the Sprint is on.
  • The participants are continuously enticed to share their reflections and ideas with each other.
  • The Sprintmaster facilitates the participants by asking thought provoking questions and enticing to increased engagement.

Social Learning

Concerns all expressive and reflective actions that happens between people when they engage together with a common interest, relationship and practice.

Expressive action is when people externalize their thoughts, opinions, experiences or knowledge concerning a specific topic, item or individual – both verbally and physically – e.g. by showcasing how a specific action should be performed, by using an item to illustrate a point, or simply by making a written answer.

Reflective action is when people internalize their experience into thoughts, believe and opinions about a specific topic, item or individual. When this happens our senses, emotions and cognition come into play – e.g. when we see another person’s expressive actions or when we try out ourselves.


On Acadal, social learning is central to what goes on during a Sprint. The team have a common interest – they want to solve the challenge. The team learns together by trying out new things, sharing practice experiences with each other, engaging in dialogue, and creating new ideas. As a result, the team develops a shared repertoire of resources – a shared practice – which becomes stronger with each Sprint and hones their ability to solve the challenges they face.

In this way, Challenge Based Development incorporates social learning with outset in the framework of communities of practice. Read the source material here.     

Through the combination of Experiential-, Action-, and Social Learning, Challenge Based Development makes people development the main driver of business development. Because real business challenges are centric to the development that goes on during Sprints, everyone is included and will feel included in the fulfillment of the company’s strategy.

More importantly, each individual will strengthen his ability to engage in teamwork, knowledge-sharing, dialogue and ideation, commonly referred to as ‘soft skills’, but in reality, what we deem as ‘essential skills’. Essential because they go beyond being able to recite and demonstrate facts. Essential because they strengthen everyone’s ability to solve real-world challenges. Essential because they hone your ability to go from strategy to behavior and make valuable changes that matter to your company.

Learning and creativity as your valuable knowledge resource

When you utilise Challenge Based Development you combine learning and creativity into a knowledge resource that helps guide the progress of your people and your company.

In each Sprint you focus on solving a real-world company strategic challenge. You journey together through subject matter content presented in videos, articles and podcasts, actively reflecting on how said content can be used to solve the challenge and discussing it with your fellow team members. Along the way you’re also assigned small action tasks to try out in your work practice – e.g. new methods or takes on how to perform a certain action differently.

The continuous interaction between subject matter presentations, discussions about its value in relation to the Challenge, and trying out new actions on your own or together with your colleagues, fueles the creative proces behind the ideas that will help you solve your Challenge. And since the aim of a Sprint is to create great ideas on how to solve a Challenge the interaction between experiencing, formulating opinion, engaging in dialogue and trying out in practice is crucial, because it is through this exact interaction that learning and creativity combines to become a valuable knowledge ressource you can leverage to develop your people and your company on a continuous basis.

As you become better at Challenge Based Development you strengthen the connection between your strategic planning and your development culture with clear and meaningful purpose and decision making that involves more people in your organization and leverages learning and creativity as a valuable knowledge ressource.

The Learning Approach of Challenge Based Development

As opposed to typical training programs, which are often teacher-centric in their approach, Challenge Based Development is learner-centric. This aspect is closely tied to our learning principle of allowing learning to happen instead of trying to make it happen.

For instance, in a teacher-centric approach, you try to make learning happen by conveying knowledge to the learners via presentation, application and testing. The learners are supposed to listen, write down notes, solve assignments and pass one or several tests which may result in a diploma. This approach is widely used and can be categorized as Compliance Training.

Compliance Training is great for making sure employees are qualified to perform certain tasks and for making sure employees comply with company policy and procedures. It is a learning approach in which the company has all the answers and knows exactly what needs to be done to ensure that job functions are upheld, and that company policies and processes are complied with.

With Challenge Based Development the aim is different. Development is not about educating your people in company policy and specific procedures. It is about creating new and valuable practice knowledge through action, dialogue and ideation. Valuable practice knowledge that will help you solve your company strategic challenges. It means you don’t have all the answers – but you know the challenges you’re facing, and you are actively exploring what you can do differently and better to solve them.

Because of this aim, the learning approach of Challenge Based Development is learner-centric. It puts the learner and the combined learning experience of the team in the center of development. It does so by providing the environment and the freedom to allow learning to happen. It happens through interaction between experiencing, formulating opinion, engaging in dialogue and trying out in practice, which effectively combines learning and creativity into a self-organized learning experience where new and valuable practice knowledge is created.

Challenge Based Development affects the way everyone involved views learning and development because of its direct connection to the strategy, thus the mission and the vision, effectively making it very purpose-led in nature and affording of commitment and continuity.

Roles in Challenge Based Development

There are essentially four roles in play in Challenge Based Development. Each of them is important and necessary to plan, roll-out, and complete Sprints:

1. Top Management

The Top Management are the standard-bearers when it comes to setting the scene and rolling out Challenge Based Development in the company. Because Challenge Based Development connects directly to the strategy and how you work on the strategy it is critical that Top Management conveys the purpose and the aim of utilizing Challenge Based Development.

In turn the Top Management will be able to make better strategic decisions from the valuable practice knowledge that is created in each Sprint.

2. The Sprintmaster

The Sprintmaster is the team leader. His responsibility is to facilitate the team and make sure that everyone takes part in the dialogue and the idea-creation surrounding the Challenge. He primarily does this by taking part, overseeing team progression and by asking questions that inspire and motivate the participants.

3. The Participants

The participants make up the team of individuals who are working together to answer the Challenge. Each participant must be somewhat influenced by the Challenge or have some sort of professional connection to it in order to create the right feeling of ownership and motivation to solve it.

4. The Consultant

The consultant is the subject matter expert that designs the content and the flow of the Sprint. He decides which content to include in the Sprint as well as the timeframe of each section of content. His aim is to design the Sprint as action-oriented and inspirational as possible.

Whilst the Sprint is on, he is able to provide subject matter feedback to the team as their dialogue progresses and the ideas begin to appear.

The consultant can either be an internal specialist from your own company or from an external consultancy.

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