The Transformative Power of Action Learning

A dynamic process for problem solving, building teams, developing leaders and changing culture, “action learning” consists of the following six components: a problem; a group of four to eight people; a commitment to learning; a process that encourages questioning and listening; a resolution to take action on; and an action learning coach.

Beyond its valuable problem-solving benefits, action learning teaches teams to process more efficiently, stagnated teams to innovate, floundering teams to find tools to survive, anxious teams to find solutions and dysfunctional teams to perform effectively.

A key component of the action learning process is that it forces the group to fully understand the problem before moving toward defining solutions. This dissection can lead either to resolution or to realizing that the dilemma presented is merely a symptom of multiple problems.
Action learning synthesizes thinking. Not only does it clearly demonstrate these skills in the action learning environment, but also it molds participants’ attitudes in their daily interactions with each other. It changes communication tactics from making statements to asking questions.
This shift converts talking at each other to hearing, comprehending and caring what the other person has to say. It forces individuals to listen to each other; significantly increasing the comprehension experienced during the discussion.

Action learning sessions start with a coach explaining the process. The two fundamental ground rules of action learning are: Statements can only be made in response to questions, and the coach has ultimate authority.

The coach must have this authority to ensure that all learning opportunities are optimized. Through these learning windows, the coach guides the dynamics that the groups use to communicate changes.

There are three basic types of learning opportunities: early intervention, process interventions and group dynamic interventions.

The coach uses early intervention to be sure everyone is participating in the process. One of the most difficult aspects of group processing is getting all attendees into the conversation.
Often, in typical problem-solving sessions, a few people with dominating personalities monopolize the meeting, preventing the quieter participants from speaking. The longer it takes these reserved individuals to get into the conversation, the harder it becomes for the group to ever work as a unified force.

During this early period in action learning, it is imperative that the coach enables everyone to participate. This short intervention serves the purpose of ending that silence, thus breaking the barriers that make it so difficult for some members to speak openly.

Process interventions by the coach ensure participants are playing by the rules. The coach will refocus participants who shift into old habits of making statements or accusing. Additionally, the coach will make sure the group has come to a consensus, defining the problem before allowing the group to move to the solution phase.

More often than not, the problem presented at the beginning of the session is simply a symptom. Typically, as the group asks questions to learn the nature of the problem, it becomes clear that a deeper issue needs to be resolved.

Other times during process interventions, the group members begin to realize they are actually talking about multiple problems. This can either be a conflict that exists at several levels or a situation that is complex, touching many aspects. In either case, the participants determine how they would like to address these issues, and at what level.

When the problem exists at multiple levels, they will decide whether to start with the local issue then move toward the global or start with the global then move toward the local. When the problem is complex, they will frequently use the first session to isolate the individual components. This helps prioritize the list, using future sessions to resolve the individual elements.

For group dynamic interventions, the coach handles both positive and negative learning opportunities. During these openings, the coach will ask questions — all in a positive vein — to determine how the group could be processing better. The coach never tells the members how to handle a situation appropriately, but rather lets the group determine what works best for the individuals involved.

The coach takes the group to the deeper level of understanding why the changes they are making in their processing are more effective. By understanding not just the “what” of this technique of processing, but the “why” and “how” of making it better, the participants carry over these behavior modifications into their everyday interaction with all members of the organization — co-workers as well as superiors — functioning more effectively and harmoniously.

A second aspect that emerges from group dynamic interventions is a clearing of the air regarding hidden issues. A trained coach recognizes when the group is harboring resentments that need to surface. By exploring these issues and processing them, the group can then move ahead.

Bringing these issues into the open — some that have possibly been festering for years — the group comes to a better understanding of each member.