What Wikipedia Can't Tell You About Action Learning Projects

Done well, action learning projects are one of the very best forms of leadership development. A great action learning program (ALP) has tremendous benefits:

  • New ideas from fresh perspectives
  • Real work gets done
  • Learning is contextual
  • It doesn’t feel like training
  • Participants must manage through complex situations and team dynamics
  • Terrific opportunity to showcase talent to the executive team
  • Safe testing ground for high-potential talent

If you have no idea what an action learning project is, Wikipedia actually does a pretty good job of describing it.

Action learning is an approach to solving real problems that involves taking action and reflecting upon the results. The learning that results helps improve the problem-solving process as well as the solutions the team develops. The action learning process includes (1) a real problem that is important, critical, and usually complex, (2) a diverse problem-solving team or “set,” (3) a process that promotes curiosity, inquiry, and reflection, (4) a requirement that talk be converted into action and, ultimately, a solution, and (5) a commitment to learning. In many, but not all, forms of action learning, a coach is included who is responsible for promoting and facilitating learning as well as encouraging the team to be self-managing. In addition, the learning acquired by working on complex, critical, and urgent problems that have no currently acceptable solutions can be applied by individual, teams, and organizations to other situations.

But what Wikipedia can’t tell you is why this beautiful design so often fails. Having been involved with hundreds of action learning projects over the years, I’ve seen amazing, breakthrough work and also colossal train wrecks.

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Implementing an Action Learning Program

1. Lack of Project Sponsorship

Participants get REALLY excited about their project, and pour their heart, soul, and many long hours into making it happen. But they’re oblivious to the political dynamics lurking beneath the surface. They didn’t have access to the right people or all the information. They spin their wheels, and these high-potential employees feel frustrated that they wasted their time, and become resentful of the experience. Sure, learning to stakeholder is all part of the game, but if the mountain is gnarly, a knowledgeable sherpa is only fair.

2. Unclear Parameters

Be clear on big rules, resources, and other parameters. If the real deal is they must solve the problem with no funding or other limitations up front, say so.

3. The Wrong Players

Action learning projects give participants exposure to executives. Not all exposure is good exposure. Be sure you pick the right talent who are ready for this experience. Yes, stretch, but don’t send them into the deep end the first day they learn to swim. I’ve seen people’s careers seriously damaged from being pushed into such programs before they’re ready.

4. Lack of Supervisor Commitment

Sure, one sign of a high-potential leader is that they can do THIS and THAT, meaning they pull off the work on this project while doing their day job. But it’s important for supervisors to understand the investment necessary in such programs. If they consistently get in the way of participants attending meetings or doing their fair share, the high-potential participant can become very stressed worrying about balancing their relationship with their boss and preserving their reputation with the ALP team.

5. Lack of Implementation Resources

Typically such programs result in recommendations with an assumed handoff to the appropriate team or department for implementation. Be sure to secure the appropriate commitment. Nothing’s worse than the “Whatever happened to that project?” feeling. A few false starts, and your ALP will lose all credibility.

Done well, it’s hard to top action learning for leadership development. Be sure your design is well-thought through.

If you’re interested in creating or improving your leadership development program, or running an Action Learning Program for your company, please give me a call for a free consultation.

kellyriggsJoin me tonight on Biz LockerRoom radio at 4pm EST for more details click here.

Succeeding as an Entrepreneur: Lessons From My First 9 Months

For those of you just tuning in, nine months ago, I quit my executive job to pursue my dream. Nope, no big buy-out, just me feeling the pull of a calling and taking the leap. “Are you crazy?” was my most frequently heard phrase at that time. It’s been nine months to birth this business.

Although I’m certainly not an expert on building a start-up, I’m confident enough in the momentum that I wanted to share my lessons learned, in the hopes of saving others some time.

10 Lessons For Succeeding as an Entrepreneur

  1. Differentiate your brand
    It’s tempting to be all things to all people, but that just makes you look like everyone else. It’s been an evolution, but I’m finding it vital to define and differentiate my brand and to share it consistently wherever I show up.
  2. Be scrappy, then patient
    There’s no doubt this year has been a constant hustle. I’ve worked most days, including the weekends. I’ve gotten up early and worked like a machine. I’ve spoken to and written for anyone who asked. And for the first six months, I wondered if ANY of the bulbs I’d been planting would sprout. And then, just about six months to the day, work started coming in. I don’t regret the scrappy, but I do regret the angst. If you’re doing the right thing, be patient with yourself, this stuff takes time.
  3. Don’t underestimate your value
    Seth Godin’s recent advice pretty much sums up my first six months.”Begin with the smallest possible project in which someone will pay you money to solve a problem they know they have. Charge less than it’s worth and more than it costs you. Repeat.”That’s a great way to start and I have no regrets. BUT, I soon learned I was really undervaluing my work. Have the confidence to charge what you’re worth.
  4. Work comes from unusual places
    The strength of loose ties is so true. Wonderful people from my business past are popping up in companies all over the country. The friend of a friend thing is working well too. Always operate with high integrity and confident humility, you never know who is paying attention.
  5. Being nice is a great business strategy
    Call it karma or luck, but two of my favorite projects came from just reaching out to someone to check in as a caring human being when they needed support. I’m pretty sure nice has trumped any marketing strategy I’ve tried so far.
  6. Always provide more than expected
    The old adage, “under promise, over deliver” doesn’t quite sum it up. I see it more as “carefully design what will best meet their needs, and then think of a bonus topper.”
  7. “Competitors” make amazing strategic partners
    I love working with other leadership folks with the same mission and the same journey. It’s the best way to learn, grow, and collaborate.
  8. Some people are just selfish, recognize the signs
    I had a few disappointing false starts in terms of collaborators. I’ve learned to ask more questions and to talk about the tough stuff like money, sooner in the game.
  9. Diversify your strategy
    As I was getting started, it was tough to expect too much momentum from any one channel. But I found that investing in building some speaking, some consulting, some coaching, some writing and some teaching created a nice integrated approach, as well as supported my long-term vision of making a broader impact on the world. I don’t think my business would have been profitable as quickly if I had just picked one arena.
  10. Don’t neglect your health
    Start-ups can take a toll. The first six months I ate too much and exercised to little- a terrible formula. I’ve now gotten a grip and realized that being a healthy role model is all part of the brand. I’m also finding I’m more productive returning to my healthier lifestyle again.

It’s not been easy, but I’ve never looked back. Thank you all for being an amazing part of this journey and of the path forward.