Action Learning Builds Agile Leaders

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In today’s world of rapid change, leaders and organizations must evolve faster than the white water rapids we are cascading through. To do this, learning organizations must be open to change. Continual adaptation is the only means to survive, and one of the best ways to do that is to teach adaptability through a flexible learning method like action learning.

Action learning leads to agile leaders, teams and ultimately agile learning organizations

Highly agile leaders recognize that change never stops in a complex, competitive global marketplace. They set new benchmarks by questioning old assumptions and actively encouraging others to do the same. 

Action learning teams often consist of four to eight members working with a coach to solve real problems. While the team works, the coach looks for learning opportunities to help the team process better and become better leaders. When these opportunities present, the coach raises awareness, questioning the team so that they own the impact and the path forward. At the close of each session, the coach has the team reflect on how they will integrate these learnings into every day interactions.

Each subsequent session reinforces the prior learning and surfaces new learnings. Over time team members become more acutely aware of learning opportunities on their own — both during action learning sessions and other team meetings. Consequently, this method improves participants’ agility, which increases their ability to take effective action in complex, rapidly changing conditions.

In "Leadership Agility," Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs write that agility requires flexibility in four competencies: context-setting (selecting and framing issues), stakeholder (understanding and aligning key ones), creative (solving complex problems) and learning (from experience). These get applied at three levels: individual, team and organization.

Agile leaders also use diverse perspectives to see a business situation from many angles, and then synthesize the information to come up with innovative, potentially breakthrough solutions. For these leaders, both failures and successes are seen as learning opportunities, which can promote continual learning in an organization.

The repetitive process of participating in session action learning helps agile behaviors evolve naturally. Teams work on projects that run the gamut of organizational challenges. Teams may address cultural issues, strategic opportunities, technical concerns, and people and leadership challenges, to name a few.

Two rules of action learning encourage the use of questions and reflective learning, both of which are paramount to be an agile leader. The first rule is that statements can only be made in response to questions. Questions we don’t know the answers to help people determine the underlying problem. The second rule is that a learning coach can intervene whenever there is the opportunity for development that encourages deep reflection. 

For example, if a participant was trying to steer the conversation without regard to others’ insights, the coach would raise this to awareness with a question. This question might be “How are we doing respecting and incorporating all team members views?” and that would lead to other questions like “Why is it important that we respect and incorporate all team members’ views?” and “How will we draw in all of the different views?” This series of questions highlights the behavior but leaves it to the team to determine the best path forward.

Each participant in an action learning team identifies a leadership skill they want to develop during the session, such as inclusiveness or active listening. It should be something they have a vested interest in practicing, something that has direct application to their job or to a business challenge the company is experiencing. At the end of a session, the coach circles back to each participant to assess how they did to encourage learning on an individual level.

The coach raises questions to determine how the team is progressing and to encourage the team to reflect on how they are working together and how they might adapt their behavior to increase efficiency. If nurtured, this questioning ability can infiltrate an organization’s culture. It becomes safe to question everything, which can promote innovative thinking as well as the implementation of new ideas, new product and service developments as well as new work flows or procedures. Teams should actively look for ways to develop new benchmarks to keep the organization ahead of the changing business curve.

Action learners live in shared leadership. They often strive to find a common understanding for problems, which gives them a shared purpose and orientation. They look for solutions that truly address the challenge without regard for the politically right answer. Experimenting and failing is no longer feared but embraced and seen as an opportunity to excel.

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story failed to reference the original source of the agility competencies.