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.
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I too love action learning projects and I have found that sometimes the politics in an organization can derail the project quickly. Everybody involved needs to see the value of all those connected with the project and not give themselves too most weight.
I was coaching a manager recently who felt he had less of a say than another more senior leader. He became intimated and decided he was not interested in offering up his great ideas. As you say, facilitation is essential.
Terri, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and insights. As you say, it’s also a way to draw out group dynamics for further insight and discussion.
Terri – I love your comments as well. Facilitation is so important. The goal is to facilitate “an even playing field.” I am reminded of a writing brainstorming technique that is called brain-writing, which allows introverts or less assertive individuals to have a platform that is equal to that of the extroverts. I haven’t tried it yet, but I would be interested in this technique, especially if it could be combined with a scribe who facilitates by typing out the replies (projected on screen) and asking for discussion on significant contributions. At least that’s one way of this playing out.
David, Would love to learn more about this brainwriting technique. It sounds fantastic.
Like you, Karin, I’ve seen lots of great ideas and project wither away because of a lack of implementation resources.
I would add “follow-up” as a MUST for leadership to ensure that team members are not only reassured that the idea still has merit, but to make sure they have the resources they need to turn the idea into a successful project.
LaRae, YES, YES, YES! Follow-up is vital.
It’s like you were there for many of the failed projects I’ve seen. The SVP “empowered” our Directors to solve one of our greatest challenges. They put together a long deck outlining their thought process and solutions… turns out the SVP thought it sucked and flipped it onto my lap instead to fix the issue and toss aside their flawed thinking. I’m sure you can guess how that was received… and no surprise that more than one person on the team ultimately chose to leave the division.