This is a continuation of a previous blog series on the 5 Ways to Use a Change Initiative as a Leadership Development Opportunity. As a refresher the 5 targeted activities are listed below with this week’s focus on number 2, Action Learning.
5 Targeted Activities to Facilitate Leadership Development are:
- Developmental Assignments (within and outside of your current job)
- Action Learning
- Executive Coaching
- Personal Growth Programs
2. Action Learning
Action learning is not a term you often hear in commercial circles. Simply put, it is where learning and doing come closer together. Think of it in terms of a cycle, similar to Sheward’s cycle (“Plan-Do-Study-Act”) that was popularized by E. Edwards Deming. If you marry up this action cycle with David Kolb’s learning styles you end up with the action learning wheel.
According to Kolb, most people “take” naturally to one or two phases. The key is to know where your preferences lay, practise the others, and balance them out with the diverse preferences of others. Learning is cyclical. I have participated in many “lessons learned” sessions where months and years later we are still seeing the same items on the lists. This makes me ask two key questions, “have we really learned anything at all?” and “what are we doing wrong with our learning processes?”.
Adapted from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Senge, et al.
How to Use the Action Learning Wheel
This learning wheel can be used either individually or in a team. Each stage requires deliberate attention before you move onto the next stage.
In the Reflection stage, learn to be an observer of your own thinking and actions. Really look at your last project or lessons learned document. Ask yourself probing questions such as: What were we thinking and feeling during the process? What underlying beliefs were moving us in that direction? Do we see our goals and objectives differently now? This stage attracts the analysts and brainstormers who could continue to analyse and come up with one more possibility if you let them. At some point you need to cut them off and move them on to the next stage.
The Connecting stage is about creating ideas and possibilities for action and sorting them into new forms. It’s about looking for patterns in the systems around you and creating meaningful links. Leaders are often criticised for not being future oriented. This is where you look at what’s going on in your “system” asking what it suggests for a new path to follow. What new understandings do we have about the world and where should be we looking next? The natural systems thinkers lurk here and you need to draw them out into the dialogue so you can get a “look” at what they are “seeing”.
The Deciding stage is about choosing a method for action. Drawing upon the alternatives and options that are generated in the Connection stage, you choose an approach and articulate the reasons for it. The fixers and solution finders reside here and they are raring to get on with it, just pick something! Patience is not their virtue.
The last stage, Doing is about action with an experimental and learning frame of mind. You may be feeling rushed at this stage. Remember you should have quality on your side from the 3 previous stages resulting in greater buy-in during implementation. The implementors are action oriented people and before they move to the next action or project, encourage them to do a “look back” to determine how well it really worked out.
How to Implement Action Learning?
One approach is to combining formal training with experiences from select field projects or complex organizational problems. The projects are usually selected to develop thinking skills and interpersonal skills rather than technical knowledge. The participants would meet periodically with a skilled facilitator who would help them extract the learnings from their experiences. An alternative, and more informal approach would be to link the projects to a process of mutual coaching and mentoring. In this way, the project participants identify learning objectives for themselves and each other. Learnings are captured as part of the progress meetings. There are several commercial DIY programs you can choose from in the market place. Michael Watkin’s, The First 90 Days, is one such program that helps leaders with learning during transitions into new roles, new organizations, or new organizational environments (e.g. start-up, turnaround, realignment).
Choosing the right project is important. According to Gary Yukl, author of Leadership in Organizations, past research on the effects of action learning was inclusive; with more details needed around the project characteristics that are likely to provide the right challenge and opportunity for learning leadership skills.
If you have stories about your successful use of action learning, I’d love to hear them. Post away in the comments section below.