The Learning of Dynamics behind Action Learning

In a recent Action Learning training session where I was involved, we worked as a team to solve a single problem.  This is a common problem that all of us has to solve together.  It is very much like problems in organizations.  In Action Learning, we call this a SPAL, meaning Single Problem Action Learning.

There were a total of 5 sessions (like meetings in our usual business settings), each session coached by one of us in turns.  After the first 2~3 sessions, there were no much progress.  We were still talking about the original concerns like the beginning, with inter-related complications.  We were talking about how the problem should be solved, what are the key elements to the solution.  But then somebody raised opinions of what is the methodology, the way of thinking that would lead us to the solution.  Somebody talked more or less the same thing, but in a different presentation and of course, everything sounded right.  But time was limited.  We were committed to come up with a suggested solution after these 5 sessions, otherwise we would fail.  It's just like the real business environment, we always need to have deliverables.

While getting more and more anxious about our own situations but knowing that we were making no progress, some ideas evolved:

  • After each session, we must come up with something solid, or some action items that can be carried onto the next session.
  • Even though we can't come up with a clear and solid action plan, we just hold on to a non-perfect plan and try.
  • Write something up on the board so that everyone can see.

Probably due to the time limitation, the commitment pressure and the situation where there were not much better ideas, something magic happened.  What I am trying to describe here is not how we solved the problem.  What I try to describe is the chemistry that I observed, which are good learning to share:

  1. Writing on the board is one of the magic.  Instead of talking and arguing, something written on the board becomes a consensus which also drew everybody's attention and focus, and kind of incomplete agreement.  Even though we all know that it is not going to be 100% agreed, there was nothing better.  We thought we can still come back and change it therefore a temporary commitment is not a problem.  Somehow this created a convergent effect to our discussions and get everybody focus to some intermediary results.
  2. We tried to stick to one methodology.  I guess no any one of us totally agree with it, but there was no objections because no one can have a better suggestion.  At this point, something happened magic.  Instead of the previous talking and arguing, everybody tries to make minor suggestions on the methodology, and continue solving the problem.  Suddenly everybody focused on the suggested methodolgoy, knowing it is not perfect, but together we can make it better on the way.
  3. During the previous sessions, the discussions and arguments were both positive and negative.  In other words, some were constructive, but some were destructive.  It was difficult to come to a consensus under that situation, and we were going nowhere.  Starting with the new session, everybody were focused on the new approach, and on the details written on the board, all suggestions became positive and constructive.

As a result, a solution with consensus came out in a surprisingly fast manner.  These Action Learning sessions lasted for 2 full days, and the real productive sessions were the last 2, out of 5.  Each session lasted over 1 hour.

What I wish to share is not how the problem was solved, but the dynamics and reactions under those 3 criterias which I mentioned above, which is a good learning by itself.  In fact, this is Action Learning - learning through actions and reflections.  This is my own version of learning.  Perhaps every participant in the course would have different learning, but that is not important.  What's important is that, everybody learned.  It is the learning that matters, which might change the way we think or do in the future.  This is a learning by experiencing, also the principles and emphasis of KMP - a platform for experimenting and experiencing.  This is how a senior management or a leadership can be trained.

Learning by experimenting and experiencing is a way to train ourselves to become professional, build our confidence and capacity, and train ourselves to be a true leader.  This is how we can bridge the gap between our lecture learning and applying in the real world.

Last but not least, thanks to Ms. Dorothy Tsui, Director of World Institute of Action Learning, who invited me to participate in this Action Learning course.  Her another area of expertise is Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a topic on which we organized a event last year where Dorothy was our speaker.