Action learning is a dynamic process for solving organizational problems, advancing individual skills, building teams, and developing leaders. It is a powerful method of building mutual respect into an organization. It teaches people to continually question, creating an environment where “because that’s the way we have always done it” becomes an unacceptable answer.
The process empowers employees to handle the permanent white water that is part of everyday life. It sets in motion a process that allows for continual flexibility.
Naming the Problem
An action learning coach will have one participant state, in about two minutes, the problem the group needs to consider. The time limit on this prevents the speaker from taking team members down a path to his or her preferred solution.
At this point, team members begin asking questions of each other, as well as of the person who presented the problem. In addition, the presenter asks questions. With each question, the seeds of the solution are planted and the problem solving begins.
In action learning, the group approaches the problem at hand very differently from the way businesses usually approach challenges. Action learning teams get to new breakthrough solutions because they clearly identify the real problem before attempting to define the solution. See the sidebar, Clearly Defining the Problem, for examples of how problems are often presented.
Initially it feels like this process of defining the problem slows the team down, but by getting to the real issue, the team fixes the situation once and for all, instead of slapping another bandage on a symptom.
Solving the Problem
The problem solving is done in two stages. The first focuses on coming to a consensus as to what the problem is. The challenge that is presented in the first step often is merely a symptom of the true problem.
The coach plays a key role in ensuring the group reaches consensus on the what the problem is before moving to the solution stage. The coach accomplishes this by recognizing when the conversation shifts from dissecting the problem to moving to a solution. When the coach becomes aware that the group is prematurely shifting from dissecting the problem to deciding on a solution, an intervention is in order. During this intervention, the coach will have each person write down what he or she understands the problem to be.
Once members have written down their concept of the issue, they will read aloud what they have written. This exercise of writing and reading “the problem” forces teams to consider what each member believes is the true nature of the problem at hand. Typically participants do not have consensus during a first intervention. The power of this exercise is seen in the questions that follow. As the participants hear what others believe the problem to be, they recognize aspects of the situation they had not previously seen.
Many first-time participants of action learning find this process frustrating; they are used to jumping into solution mode. What they quickly discover is that, as they dissect the troubling situation, they are planting the seeds for the next stage, developing a solution. Regardless of how certain the participants were of the nature of the problem when they entered the problem-solving session, this exercise quickly opens their eyes to other possibilities.
Action learning sessions are intense. Consider this when you schedule sessions. Each session should require no more than four hours in a day, and there should be no more than four weeks between sessions. Intense outcomes have been seen in sessions that happen on sequential days.
Action learning groups tend to show similar patterns. The process starts slowly–the members typically find it hard to ask questions. After the first intervention, the process begins to pick up; the coach draws all members into the conversation and helps them figure out how to communicate better. In addition to helping them determine how to ask better questions and work better as a team, the coach probes to ensure members know why certain actions will work better.
Particularly exciting sessions occur when a group reconvenes after taking a night off. The subconscious—having worked all night on the learnings and the problems—creates an intense fire when the group gathers again in the morning. This new relationship among the group members infiltrates their day-to-day activities from that moment forward; conversations shift from statements to questions because those who have participated in action learning realize the real power is determining what is not known, not showing off what is known.
Questioning and Answering
During the questioning, the coach listens for learning opportunities; they present themselves in several forms. The simplest such opportunity is an early intervention that takes place within the first 10 minutes of a session. The purpose is to determine how the group has started as a team, but more important, to ensure everyone is participating.
The other two opportunities the coach looks for are:
- Reinforcing when things are going well
- Helping the team perform better.
On each occasion, the coach will test how the group feels it is doing and lead the group to dig deeper. Through this process, the team will discover and surface any issues hiding under the table. This allows the air to be cleared of tension and helps the group focus on being a better team and solving the prime issue at hand.
If the team does not identify a learning opportunity that the coach has observed, the coach will use a future, positive question to bring it to awareness. The final question from the coach will lead the team in determining how to move forward. Action learning coaches should restrict their participation to asking questions, letting the members find the answers for themselves. This questioning processes forces the participants to reflect on the impact of their actions.
Team members are encouraged to keep a learning journal for the duration of the project. They won’t be asked to share what they’ve written. Rather, at the end of the project they will be asked to summarize their learning journey. The composite of the team’s learning journey should then be shared at the beginning of a final presentation to the C-suite: The results of the project can be dramatic.
In the ideal world, the team will be empowered to implement the identified solution—sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, the real world is not nearly trusting enough, and the C-suite typically will need a presentation of the problem and solution. Consequently, the team needs to work continually with the problem owner.
At regular intervals, the team should apprise the problem owner of its progress. These meetings can be to confirm scope, verify the likelihood that the path the team is on will be accepted by the C-suite, and deal with challenges that have arisen.
When the day of the presentation arrives, there should be no surprises for the problem owner or the team. The expected response to the presentation should be all systems are go. The consequence of the solution not being implemented deflates the team and, more often than not, the process is blamed for the failure, making future action learning sessions unlikely.