According to Michael J. Marquardt, “action learning is a dynamic process that involves a small group of people solving real problems, while at the same time focusing on what they are learning and how their learning can benefit [one another]….Perhaps action learning’s most valuable capacity is its amazing, multiplying impact to equip individuals, especially leaders, to more effectively respond to change. Learning is what makes action learning strategic rather than tactical. Fresh thinking and new learning are needed if we are to avoid responding to today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions while tomorrow’s challenges engulf us.”
Engaging in action learning involves coming together to create a learning space that not only allows but facilitates out of the box ideas. Sometimes people may wish to throw the box away completely; so the learning space must also be a safe space for exploration. Action Learning is an exercise in creativity and the audacity of people believing they can do better, be more, and make a bigger difference.
While the end results of such time together cannot be predicted please keep in mind that the purpose of coming together is bigger than crafting incremental change or making minor modifications to a program or changing service criteria.
The outcome of the time spent together will not automatically become the new way of doing business. However, the hope is that a group of dedicated, intelligent, and inspired (and inspiring) people will create something so compelling, it will take on its own momentum.
Action Learning Lens
The diagram above captures key aspects of the action learning approach that I suggest deserves your consideration. Throughout the Action Learning experience, people are challenged to continuously learn, adapt and change.
Key components of include:
- Building clarity and bonding around the challenges being addressed.
- Asking questions that instil trust and engagement and give birth to constructive dialogue about disruptive thinking.
- Being disciplined to listen well and in ways that further the conversation.
- Welcoming all that arises: being open to ideas, what-ifs, speculation, and unexpected perspectives.
- Include yourself in what you create. You are not being asked to create things you will walk away from. You should operate with the assumption that you can be the change you have decided you must create.
- Build on what you can act on. You may need to change how you think or behave in the future, but there is no point in envisioning a future that is not actionable.
There are a number of approaches to engaging in Action Learning. One that I have used is this: Bonding, Exploring, Building and Deciding.
Bonding is about coming to a common understanding of what is at the root of your organization or initiative and why it attracts and inspires us. People should talk about why they believe big change is necessary and how we not only need to change as an organization but also need to change as individuals, professionally and personally.
During the bonding phase, people should ask questions of one another and engage fully in addressing them. Why does our organization exist? Who are our clients? How do we see the world as an organization? Are we clear about our service orientation or philosophy? Do we feel we are accomplishing what we believe we should be?
The point to all of this it work together to ensure there is a common sense in the room about prevailing trends, threats, and motivations for change. The discussion should include looking at data and discussing what it means and how we feel about what it means. Does it speak of success? Are we getting the right bang for the buck? Do we see shortcomings? What doesn’t the data tell us?
Exploring can be incredibly exciting but also unnerving. Think of it as a group of explorers looking for a new place to settle and build a future. They will travel to many places, take stock of the land, uncover the possibilities offered by the landscape and assess along the way their potential to excel. They will arrive at dead ends or move on in search of something better. And throughout it all they will also face themselves, having to break new ground internally, clear a path, and learn how to adjust their thinking and fears as they learn more about themselves and the world around them.
Exploring involves group think, group imagination, group risk, and group engagement of wild ideas as well as pictures and stories of what could be. It involves learning techniques that help foster dialogue and the development of ideas.
Exploring also entails being honest about why you prefer this idea over that idea, how you are doing with balancing what is best for the common good and your own self-interest. By the way, it is to be expected that participants have a good measure of self-interest. Welcoming it and working with it is preferred over pretending we have hung on the hook over there.
The exploration of ideas and possibilities will shift into building prototypes of innovations and new ways of delivering on your intent. Small teams or design teams work together to engineer a new model or test out a new delivery method.
The results of the prototyping work of teams should be even if the work is not complete. Teams might switch projects to get fresh ideas. It will depend on what is going on and what is needed to move forward with the work.There is a need for balance. However different the prototypes may be from what we do now they still need to stand up to the results we are striving for. And they need to fit the new environment we are experiencing today and anticipate will be with us tomorrow.
Deciding begins with reflecting, thinking about the options, and thinking about the possible future. What criteria will we use to make decisions? As we all know, not all ideas pan out; not every prototype becomes a product. In the end people need to decide. They need to decide which of the alternatives are best our stakeholders or clients, which ones can attract others to join us in bringing to fruition, and which ones the group itself can move forward.
This is about setting priorities not only for the prototypes we like best but also setting next step priorities about maintaining, if not increasing, the momentum of the work the group has accomplished.
Effective action learning does not ignore the importance of engaging in some theoretical learning that can expand thinking and promote dialogue.In no particular order, here are examples of what could be integrated into your action learning time together.
- Learning about Dialogue (David Bohm, the Co-Intelligence Institute)
- Single, Double, and Triple Loop learning (Kollner Group)
- Eco-Cycle: Birth, Maturity, Destruction, Renewal
- Complex Systems (Zimmerman, Homer-Dixon, et al)
- Why we resist change (Homer-Dixon, et al)
 Michael J. Marquardt, professor of human resource development and international affairs, GSEHD, has written two books on action learning – Action Learning in Action and Optimizing the Power of Action Learning.
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