Action-learning, is a concept which essentially suggests that learning happens when what we already know is coupled with our seeking to answer questions about what we do not know. Action-learning is rooted in human beings’ helping each other understand and share concerns and problems about work related challenges. It is also rooted in the idea that reflection is an essential component to acting wisely and well.
Action-learning brings together people from across the organisation to work on projects of immediate importance to the company. Action-learning teams also benefit greatly from both internal mentors and external coaches to ensure that the learning is consolidated and applied at various times.
It is also useful to be aware of the role of conflict in Action-learning situations. While we encourage teams to reflect on how they manage conflict, we have seen conflicts get completely out-of-hand and groups fall apart. We have seen a three-member team choosing to produce three separate pieces of work rather than work together.
Conflict can be an enormous source of energy, provided the group can get past the conflict. The danger is either the team remains paralysed and produces nothing, or the group breaks up into factions and produces outcomes that have no synergy, or one person just does all the work. Especially in a downturn, such conflict can be very dangerous.
Appreciative enquiry can provide a complement to action-learning in order to guard against energy sapping incidents. Appreciative enquiry is a technique that gives space to numerous ways of looking at the world, so that assumptions and ideas have a chance to be expressed. Competition is an undercurrent in many teams, and an action-learning project is not going to be a band-aid for this undercurrent. This technique allows for a number of potential destructive interpersonal issues to be either set aside for a while or dealt with without judgment.
Using appreciative questions can help build reflection as well. Understanding what is working and why it is a vital ingredient of the action-learning process. Understanding how to make it work in the future across a range of situations is even more important.
A year-long leadership intervention with a pharmaceutical client is an example of how this process works. We have seen that what consistently makes a difference are the structured group reflection sessions. Without these sessions, much of the benefits of the group working together are lost. We also noticed that maximum learning happened when the group maintained its focus on four parameters: how do we work as one company or system rather than as individual silos, how do we find ways to innovate or do things better, how do we listen carefully to what someone else is saying even if we do not agree with it and how do we resolve our differences.
In order to ensure that adequate focus is given to different organisational situations, an organization combined the reflection component with a lecture-discussion format, followed by the project team work. They also ensured that these lecture-discussions were led, wherever possible, by senior management from the company. For example, a group discussion on anticipating crisis situations and handling crisis preparedness was followed up with a presentation to the management committee and the latter, in turn, participated in the second round of crisis preparedness discussions.
The focus on the organisation as a system and on better ways of doing things can show immediate, synergised results. Teams can work on immediate challenges to the organisation like identifying new customer segments or how current products and services can serve the organisation better. Indeed, in one of their manufacturing clients, the organisation made significant cost-savings in a crisis through an action-learning approach.
They began to focus not just on producing top quality products, but also on building better efficiencies in the process, and leveraging synergies, with powerful results. For the first time, the accounting team sat down with the manufacturing team and sales teams to really listen to each other and to solve a common problem, rather than being at loggerheads.
The downturn Is an opportunity, an intense experience, and is like “a crucible” in shaping the abilities and attitudes of leaders at an individual level. The current economic crucible is a perfect opportunity to forge the strength of collective leadership to lead not just in the best of times but also in worst of times.