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10 November 2011

Action learning puts the learning in action

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

So you want to create new levels of leadership excellence in your organisation? You wish your leaders (or maybe yourself?) were more agile, more sophisticated, better at dealing with conflict and complexity? If you’re like most of the leaders I know, you use the tools at your disposal: you set aside time for a two-day retreat, or you take the plunge and invest in a fancy Executive Education program for your senior staff. Then you cross your fingers and hope this time it will be different.

Einstein is famous for saying that the definition of insanity is: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Yet we pursue leadership development the way we would take an Italian cooking class: Three nights to master Arancine di riso and impress your friends. I talk to clients all over the world who are searching for a different approach, and yet at the end, they often turn to the only thing they know how to do: invest a couple of intense days in program and then hope it lives on in future practice. It almost never works out, but it’s all we know to do. Insane?

Yet there are techniques that seem more likely than others to make a real and lasting difference. One is action learning, which has a long history connected to innovation and exploration. Bill Torbert at Boston College has studied action learning for decades, and he shows how it is useful not only to solve organizational problems, but also to grow leaders. And isn’t that the point, really, to create leadership development that makes leaders better today and long into the future?

My rules for action learning groups are simple. In relatively small groups (6-8 works best), people take turns presenting an issue that stymies them: we call that the “adaptive challenge.” The others in the group then have 15 minutes or so to ask genuine and curious questions. They cannot make suggestions, tell stories of their own or ask a question that is actually a suggestion in disguise (e.g., “Have you talked to Mary about that?”). The person presenting the challenge can answer the questions or not, because in this case it doesn’t matter what the answer is so much as the thinking that opens new possibilities. At first, groups struggle. Asking questions that are really questions turns out to be much harder than it sounds, and group members are astonished that they have so many suggestions and so little curiosity. But after a while, group members don’t only get better at asking questions, they find themselves becoming more curious. As they become more curious, they are also more helpful. (How ironic is it that it’s when we stop trying to solve problems for others that we help them more?)

After a few months in an action learning group—especially one connected to a program that also supports them to get better at asking questions in the first place—leaders find that they are somehow more agile, more sophisticated, and better at dealing with conflict and complexity. It is not the program alone that works the magic. Action learning has a kind of straightforward magic of its own: by helping people foreground the learning as much as the action, we put the possibility of learning and changing at work in people’s minds in a new way. Declaring learning a part of action means that you’re more likely to get both. Nothing insane about that!

Try out your own action learning group.

• Invite people (the more diverse their perspectives, the better) to talk about work issues that are on-going and intractable.

• Review the rules: this is about asking questions and not making suggestions.

• Cope with the awkwardness that comes at first and know that that’s the sign of learning (think of the sore muscles when you’re learning a new sport or yoga move).

• Keep it up anyway and build the questioning and creativity muscles that action learning supports.

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