“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” – Confucius
What if there were a way to fully engage your best people to solve crucial problems quickly and creatively without the usual conflict, ambiguity and inefficiency of typical group interactions? And what if, while engaged in this process, the participants also could gain deeper insights into themselves, develop their leadership skills and learn to function more productively and positively as team members? Further still, what if the technique were applicable to almost any problem, issue or crisis? Finally, what if it could result in significantly higher quality decisions and solutions than any other group problem-solving or strategic planning format? My guess is that you’d say this is typical consulting BS (Blue Sky, of course). Actually, such a technique exists and is widely used by many of the largest and most successful global corporations. There are many variations to the format but it goes by the somewhat less-than-exciting term Action Learning.
Action Learning is a structured problem solving practice first developed by British physicist, university professor and consultant Reginald Revans in the 1940s. Early in his career, he had the good fortune of working with many world-class scientists, several of whom were Nobel Prize winners. He reported that he was struck by their ability to acknowledge and discuss their own ignorance by questioning and reflection, and then to share their observations with one another. His first application of the insights he gained from these scientists was in the nationalized coal mines of England, where he was able to increase production by an incredible 30%. Since that time, these principles, now known as Action Learning, have been applied worldwide to help organizations successfully improve their performance and solve some of the trickiest and most difficult problems they face.
Author Jim Collins and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, among many other successful leaders and scholars, have noted that the great leaders ask great questions. They engage people in conversation. Great coaches, therapists and counselors know that the right questions are more powerful for generating deep insight and learning than received wisdom, prescriptions or solutions. This is the core of the Socratic method – asking the right questions to open our minds. Thoughtful and reflective questioning is central to a great conversation and is the heart of action learning. It is an educational and developmental process that encourages dialogue by focusing people on real world problems they experience, not by dealing with case studies describing things others have experienced.
Action learning provides the platform for people to gain knowledge, insights and solutions through questioning, action, practice and reflection, not traditional educational methods. It doesn’t seek to find the right specific answer (like, for example, Six Sigma). Rather, it is described by authors and Action Learning scholars Skip Leonard and Art Freedman as more like an operating system. That is, it connects inputs (problems and opportunities), applications (tools and techniques) and outputs (solutions). It is central to the idea of the learning organization and continuous learning. It can be a key tool to help change a culture to become quicker, more responsive and better able to deal with crises and quickly shifting business/technology landscapes.
Action learning is deceptively simple. There are six components and two major principles:
- There is a problem, challenge or opportunity to be addressed. It should be of high importance and urgency to the organization so that it pulls for maximum engagement.
- There is an action learning team consisting of 4 to 8 people who have diverse backgrounds.
- There is a specific process of questioning, listening and reflection.
- Actions are taken in response to the process.
- There is a commitment to learning. In the short term the process solves the problem. However, there is an important and valuable long-term learning component that helps develop individuals, teams and organizations over time.
- There is an Action Learning coach, who may be internal or external to the organization, to help keep the focus and to assist in reflection and learning.
- Statements are made only in response to questions, and questions can be asked by anyone to anyone else.
- The coach can intervene at any time to increase performance and assist in learning.
The Action Learning process can be employed in an almost endless variety of ways to solve an almost endless variety of crucial problems and challenges. Types of problems or opportunities that can be addressed by this process include:
- How to successfully assimilate an acquisition.
- Determine the best way to cut our costs by $1 million.
- Figure out the best way to handle a problem employee.
- Find the best ways to ensure that we get the right parts on the floor on time so that we won’t miss shipping dates.
- How to create better a performance management and feedback system for employees.
- Determine whether we should offshore. Or whether we should bring some operations back from offshore.
- Develop an appropriate strategy for cutting across the silos and getting people to work more collaboratively.
Michael Marquardt, in his book Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, offers a good framework and insights for introducing and institutionalizing this tool into organizations. Although many of his examples come from large organizations (Boeing, Sony, Lockheed Martin, and Dow Chemical to name a few name a few), these principles can be applied and adapted to almost any type of organization. They work well with cross-functional teams in large organizations to help cut across silo lines and to generate solutions that will work in the real world. However, they also work well with intact executive teams charged with making crucial company survival decisions.
In fact, this process is particularly useful for executives expressly because they are typically strongly biased towards action and solution generation than towards reflection. Because reflection is crucial to the development, they can learn more about leadership and about themselves by participating in Action Learning than by attending seminars or workshops. As the name implies, this process balances action with learning.
Action Learning focuses and defines the problem to make sure everyone sees it, understands it and agrees that the right problem to solve. In so doing, it fosters team development. It reminds everyone that their success depends on that of the others. It helps to build trust and it helps to even out participation. The structure makes it exceptionally difficult for one person to dominate the process.It’s very useful for Apollo Teams and teams with one or more smartest-people-in-the-room members, because it enables everyone to be heard and engages everyone in the conversation. And, as many leaders come to realize through painful encounters with reality, when everyone is engaged and participates, the chances for a high quality outcome are greatly increased. When that’s not the case, train wreck.
Hodges L. Golson, Ph.D.
Marquardt, M. (2011). Optimizing the Power of Action Learning
Marquardt, M, Leonard, S. and Freedman, A. (2009). Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations
Revans, R. (2011). ABC of Action Learning