A Research Paper Created by Kathryn Scanland
(Executive and Leadership Coaching, UNITED STATES)
A problem is an opportunity in work clothes. ~ Henry J. Kaiser
Imagine that you’re in a room with a group of trusted peers. For about an hour they help you focus on a difficult problem that you are determined to solve and it’s been plaguing you. They don’t offer you solutions to their view of the problem. Instead, they mostly ask you a variety of powerful questions. This allows you to explore your problem and possibly begin to see it from different perspectives or perhaps even redefine it altogether (Ruebling, 2007).
Through reflection, you now see more clearly the overall context of the issue and the depth of the problem, including how you experience it may be different from how others experience it and you also see what role you may play in perpetuating the problem. The new insights you’ve gained reveal additional options. As a result, the choices seem more evident regarding possible actions that would move you toward a solution (Ruebling, 2007).
This is Action Learning.
Action Learning is a dynamic process where a team meets regularly to help individual members address real issues through a highly structured, facilitated team process of reflection and action. Peer accountability and visibility of plan execution are powerful motivators that get results for the individual team members and meaningful experiential learning for all (Ruebling, 2007).
History and Background
The concept of action learning was created by Reg Revans in the 1940s. Revans (1980, 1982) believed that lack of knowledge can awaken our quest for knowledge if we allow our awareness to define the limits of that lack of knowledge. Awareness is an intentionality that connects the mind to action, the process of which is learning. Revans (1971) defined learning as being comprised of programming and questioning, enabling an individual to adopt an exploratory mindset to seek new meanings, structures, and actions.
In the mid 70s action learning began to infiltrate American industry. Almost a decade after the HBR article, “Action Learning Comes to Industry,” action learning was started at General Electric in 1985 by Noel Tichy; (Tichy was with GE from 1985-87; his supervisor at Columbia was Morton Deutsch, a colleague of Kurt Lewin) (Boshyk, 2012). Lewin was a psychologist and pioneer in applied psychology and experiential learning and action research.
By 2005, action learning had been identified by Business Week as one of the fastest growing approaches for developing leaders (Byrnes, 2005). In a recent survey of learning executives conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, 77% of the respondents rated action learning as a top driver for developing leadership competencies (Corporate Executive Board, 2009).
Action Learning Defined
Questions are like treasures hidden in broad daylight. ~ M. Goldberg
What exactly is action learning? Action learning is a vibrant process that involves a small group of people solving real problems. At the same time they are focusing on what they are learning and how their learning which can benefit each group member, the group itself, and the organization as a whole.
It may be that 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 overwhelm us (Marquardt, 2004).
Michael Marquardt (2004), George Washington University professor and Director of the Global Institute on Action Learning says “Action learning is a process that emphasizes insightful questioning and reflective listening.” He goes on to say, “Action learning emphasizes questions and reflection above statements and opinions. By focusing on the right questions rather than the right answers, action learning focuses on what one does not know as well as on what one does know. Action learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. The focus is on questions since great solutions are contained within the seeds of great questions. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.”
Echoing a similar perspective, Marsick (1988) states, “the capacity to dig below the surface layer of perception and examine taken-for-granted assumptions and values is necessary in order to determine whether or not one is addressing the right problem.’”
While there are various nuances and approaches to action learning, there is a set of basic principles that seem to be common elements, regardless of varying approaches.
The 5 principles are (personal-coaching-information.com, 2013):
Each action planning group member should be given the opportunity to speak and no one member should be allowed to dominate the session.
An agreed time is put on each stage session so each member knows when it will start and finish. The advantage of this is that is prevents excessive time being spent on one issue holder and helps focus the members to use the time most effectively.
There is an agreed structure to each session which members agree to. This may be altered for the following session if members agree during the process review.
In each session the focus is on helping one member present their issue and helping them find a solution.
There is learning for all members during each session, not just for the issue holder. Learning is gained from the issue itself and also about the process of learning.
Action Learning Model
It is not uncommon for fundamental discoveries in one field to be made by men in other disciplines. ~ Reg Revans
Most resources suggest that an action learning group should consist of four to eight individuals. Keeping the groups small allows for more vibrant interaction from all participants. It is also helpful to have individuals who are not necessarily content experts on the topic or issue to be discussed. As Reg Revans, originator of action learning, stated, “It is not uncommon for fundamental discoveries in one field to be made by men in other disciplines.”
There are numerous action learning models and most adhere to the principles that were outlined in the previous section. The following model presented in six steps is an amalgamation of several models to make the approach more fitting for a group coaching scenario. The foundation of this model is based upon the ICF philosophy of coaching that “honors the client as the expert in his/her life and work and believes that every client is creative, resourceful, and whole (ICF Code of Ethics).”
Action Learning Model in Six Steps
Step 1: Issue Bringer Presents the Problem or Issue (2 minutes)
Within the two-minute presentation these are questions the issue bringer may want to consider.
- How can you describe your problem situation in a few sentences?
- Why is this problem important to you and/or the organization?
- What are the difficulties you anticipate as you and/or the organization work through this problem?
- What will be the benefits if this problem is minimized or resolved?
Step 2: Clarify the Problem (15 minutes)
Ask questions to clarify the problem and to understand more about the issue, not to make statements to solve the problem.
For example, asking “Have you tried…, or Have you thought about…” is really a statement dressed up as a question.
Ask questions that allow everyone to explore and to learn. Questions should be asked for the purpose of enabling all of the group members to broaden and deepen their view of the situation or issue that was presented.
Be a learner – ask questions that are more open to new possibilities and less attached to your own opinions and the need to be right.
You stated X was part of the issue, can you tell us more about that?
How much control do you have in this situation?
What are the main obstacles you face?
What’s the timeframe? (how often does it occur, by when does it need to be resolved, etc.)
Are there others who will be involved in resolving this issue, if so, who?
What are the consequences if this isn’t resolved?
What are the most critical consequences that you would like to avoid or eliminate if possible?
What would the ideal outcome look like?
Step 3: Identify the Assumptions (10 minutes)
List all the assumptions about or around this problem or issue. (Assumptions are conclusions we’ve made without considering all of the actual evidence or facts. We “assume” it to be true.) Then ask:
What has caused you to hold that assumption?
How do you know that this is accurate?