Praise for Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, 3rd Edition
“A brilliant compendium of key action learning techniques that produce extraordinary results. This book is a masterful must-read for any organization that aims to optimize its creativity and resilience amid rapid shifts in this changing world.”
— Meliha Dzirlo-Ayvaz, Manager, Risk and Financial Advisory, Deloitte & Touche
“Action learning is a powerful cross cultural tool to improving effectiveness and efficiency of groups in corporate settings.”
— Dr. Mohammed Asad Al-Emadi, Chairman, Asad Holding, Qatar
“Action learning has become part of our culture and helped us be much more successful in our actions.”
— Howard He, Assistant Vice President, Aviva-Cofco Life Insurance
“The third edition of Optimizing the Power of Action Learning is a great, practical “How To” book for those looking to understand and apply the power of action learning.”
— Bea Carson, Master Action Learning Coach; President, World Institute for Action Learning
“In this third edition, the four co-authors share priceless new insights and strategies to build leaders and organizations through action learning. If you’re ready to fully unleash the power of creativity in your organization, buy this book!”
— Bill Thimmesch, Founder, US Government Action Learning Community of Practice
“The best approach to solving complex problems in complex organizations. A tool that is invaluable for any leader in an organization.”
— Tom Gronow, Chief Operating Officer, University of Colorado Hospital
“Dr. Marquardt and his colleagues have written a must-read thought provoking guidebook for anyone who doubts the value of asking powerful questions yet craves the capacity to solve pressing problems in this era of digital disruption. This book is timely! Learn from the best.”
— Dr. Sydney Savion, General Manager, Learning, Air New Zealand
“Positioned perfectly at the apex of research and practice, the third edition of Optimizing the Power of Action Learning illuminates a clear and concise path to maximizing organizational power through systematic and simultaneous learning and action.”
— Dr. Ron Sheffield, President and Managing Director, OrgScience, Inc.
“This revised edition shows clearly how action learning can be a magnificent tool for developing the skill of asking great questions for teams, for leadership, and for innovation.”
— Marilee Adams, PhD, Author, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Life; Founder and CEO, Inquiry Institute International LLC
“A must-read for anyone who wants to improve the effectiveness of people and organizations.”
— Doug Bryant, Vice President, Talent Management, Training and Recruiting, Sonic Automotive
“Action learning’s power reaches far into the learning profession. It’s a superb technique for demonstrating learning’s value, and this book is a vital resource for harnessing learning as an organizational performance
— Dr. Dave Rude, Chief Learning Officer, Global Learning Associates
This edition first published in 2018 by Nicholas Brealey Publishing An imprint of John Murray Press
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Names: Marquardt, Michael J., author. Title: Optimizing the power of action learning : real-time strategies for developing leaders, building teams and transforming organizations / by Michael Marquardt, Shannon Banks, Peter Cauwelier, Choon Seng Ng. Description: Third Edition. | Boston : Nicholas Brealey, 2018. | Revised
edition of Optimizing the power of action learning, c2011. Identifiers: LCCN 2017058663 (print) | LCCN 2018000144 (ebook) | ISBN
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Subjects: LCSH: Organizational learning. | Problem-based learning. | Active learning. | Leadership. | BISAC: BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Management. |
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
About the Authors
Emergence of the Power of Action Learning
Overview of Action Learning
Applying the Six Components of Action Learning
Questions and Reflection
Individual, Team, and Organizational Learning
The Action Learning Coach
Unleashing the Power of Action Learning
Introducing, Implementing, and Sustaining Action Learning in Organizations
ecently one of the authors conducted an action learning workshop for nearly 50 training directors from several departments of the
US government. Following a brief overview and demonstration of action learning, the directors formed eight randomly chosen groups and spent the next couple of hours working on problems introduced by members of the group. A volunteer in each group served as the action learning coach. To conclude the action learning workshop, he asked the problem presenters whether they had been helped. Every single one responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes.” The volunteer learning coaches were then asked to summarize the activity of their group, and each seemed to outdo the other with wonderful testimonials on how well the group had worked on the problem and the valuable learnings that were shared. Finally, a training director from a table at the front of the room asked the author, “Does action learning always work this perfectly?” The author’s response to him and to all readers of this book is, “Yes, it can!”
Based on our collective experience with thousands of action learning projects over the past 25 years, we have become ever more confident that action learning has the power to always be successful. If the key elements of action learning described in this book are established and allowed to operate, action learning is amazing in its consistent capacity to:
Effectively and efficiently solve problems and challenges with truly breakthrough and sustaining strategies Develop the leadership skills and qualities needed by 21st century managers Develop teams that continuously improve their capability to perform and adapt
Develop powerful coaching and learning competencies Transform organizations into learning organizations
Although action learning has been around since it was introduced by Reg Revans in the coal mines of Wales and England in the 1940s, it is only within the past 10 years that it has begun sweeping across the world, emerging as the key problem-solving and leadership development program for many global 100 giants such as Boeing, Sony, Panasonic, Deutsche Bank, Toyota, Samsung, and Microsoft; for public institutions such as Helsinki city government, Malaysian Ministry of Education, George Washington University, and the US Department of Agriculture; and for thousands of small and medium-sized firms all over the world.
Throughout this book you will discover how these and other organizations have flourished with action learning and are discovering how to optimize the power of action learning.
Requirements for Success in Action Learning
Briefly described, action learning is a remarkably simple program that involves a group of people working on real problems and learning while they do so. Optimizing the probability of success in action learning, however, involves some basic components and norms (ground rules), which form the substance of this book. These components include an important and urgent problem, a diverse group of four to eight people, a reflective inquiry process, implemented action, a commitment to learning, and the presence of an action learning coach. Norms include “questions before statements” and “learning before, during, and after action.”
Action learning works well because it interweaves so thoroughly and seamlessly the principles and best practices of many theories from the fields of management science, psychology, education, neuroscience, political science, economics, sociology, and systems engineering. Action learning has great power because it synergizes and captures the best thinking of all group members and enriches their abilities.
Purpose of This Book
During the past 20 years, we have had the opportunity to work with thousands of action learning groups around the world, as well as the good fortune of sharing ideas and best practices with many of the world’s top action learning practitioners. The purpose of this book is to share what we have experienced and learned, the exhilaration as well as the challenges. Although action learning is a relatively simple process, the essence of which could fit on a three-by-five card, there are a number of key principles and practices that, as we have discovered, move action learning from good to great, that take it from being a solid organizational tool to a spectacular resource for transforming people, groups, organizations, and even entire communities.
This book describes each of the components of action learning and why they are necessary for action learning success. Through scores of stories and testimonials, the book clearly illustrates how many organizations have implemented and thrived with action learning. It also shows how any organization can simultaneously and effectively achieve the five primary benefits of action learning, namely, problem solving, leadership development, team building, organizational change, and coaching competence.
This book presents the basic elements and principles of action learning as well as the more advanced, more recent innovations within the field of action learning, including the role of the action learning coach, the balance between order and chaos for maximum creativity, and the step-by-step procedures for introducing and sustaining action learning within your organization.
Overview of the Book
Chapter 1 provides an overview of action learning, the six basic components and two key ground rules. It summarizes the five greatest challenges encountered by organizations in today’s environment and how action learning enables organizations to respond effectively to those challenges. Chapter 1 also highlights the major contributions of action
learning to organizations, groups, and individuals. Chapters 2 through 7 explore in detail each of the six critical
components of successful action learning programs. Chapter 2 identifies the criteria for an action learning problem, how it is best introduced and examined, and the differences between single-problem and multiple- problem groups. In Chapter 3, we explore the group, including diversity of membership, ideal size, continuity, roles, and characteristics. Chapter 4 introduces the reflective inquiry process and discusses the importance of questions as well as the group rule “statements only in response to questions.” The problem-solving, goal-framing, strategy-development action is covered in Chapter 5, and Chapter 6 examines the individual, team, and organizational learning achieved through the action learning process. In Chapter 7, the roles and responsibilities, authority, and questions of the action learning coach are described.
Chapter 8 provides the reader with detailed practical steps for unleashing the power of action learning in organizations and communities. We provide guidance for introducing, implementing, and sustaining action learning. Specific strategies for applying each step are offered. Two in- depth case studies (Essilor International and US Department of Justice) have been added.
Throughout the book are scores of case examples from groups around the world that have introduced action learning into their organizations. The challenges they faced as well as the successes they experienced are discussed. Finally, there are numerous checklists at the end of each chapter to guide readers in understanding and implementing action learning for themselves.
What’s New in the 3rd Edition
Since the 2nd edition was published seven years ago, action learning has flourished in many countries around the world and within thousands of new organizations. We have thus added new vignettes and case studies from countries such as India, the Philippines, Brazil, France, Kuwait, Ukraine, Thailand, Uganda, Cambodia, and the Caribbean. More action learning is occurring within community-based organizations, and we have
therefore included such programs as C&C in London and the United Nations Environmental Program in Kenya.
During the past seven years, the authors have continued to experiment with and improve the power and process of action learning. Leadership development has become much more integrated into action learning. In this edition, we also share the recent experiences we have had in introducing, implementing, and sustaining action learning in organizations (Part 3/Chapter 8).
The value of questions has become ever more critical for leadership and problem solving. In this edition, we have added more strategies and principles in helping teams and leaders become better at asking questions.
Finally, new advances in the social and physical sciences have enabled us to better increase our understanding as to how and why action learning works so well and so powerfully. We have added updated theories, particularly how the use of theories and principles of neuroscience can improve action learning.
Action Learning: The Power Tool for the 21st Century
Action learning is truly an exciting and awesome tool for individuals, teams, and organizations struggling for success in the 21st century. More and more of us have experienced the power and the benefit of action learning in our lives and in our organizations. It is my hope that many more will be able to share in the wonderful and amazing adventure of action learning. If you apply the principles and practices offered in this book, you too will see how action learning can, indeed, be powerful and successful every time. Good luck!
e owe a deep debt of gratitude to so many people not only for this book, but for the action learning opportunities and
experiences offered by them that made this book possible. First, we would like to recognize the founding pioneer of action learning, Reg Revans, who inspired each of us and thousands of others around the world about the power of action learning. Reg died in early 2003, and this book is dedicated to his memory.
There are many other giants in the field of action learning from whom we have learned so much, including Lex Dilworth, Charles Margerison, Victoria Marsick, and Mike Pedler. Special recognition also goes to colleagues who have guided us along the way, especially Marilee Adams and Thomas Carne for their insights on questions and collegial coaching. Boeing, Samsung, and Microsoft were important launching sites in developing the WIAL model of action learning, and we would like to especially thank Nancy Stebbins, Shannon Wallis, and Anita Bhasin for bringing us these opportunities.
We would like to thank the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) family of affiliates, partners, and certified coaches who have worked with us to expand action learning around the world. Special appreciation to the members of the board of directors who have guided WIAL over the years, especially Bea Carson, who now serves as chair.
Sincere thanks to the people at Nicholas Brealey Publishing, especially Alison Hankey and Michelle Morgan, who have patiently and joyfully helped in every stage of the writing of this third edition.
Finally, we would like to thank our wonderful spouses—Eveline Marquardt, Varunyupar Cauwelier, Serene Ng, and Richard Banks—for their support, love, and encouragement.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Michael Marquardt is Professor of Human Resource Development and International Affairs as well as Program Director of Overseas Programs at George Washington University. Mike is a co-founder and first president of the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) and currently serves as chair of the Global Advisory Board.
Mike is the author of 24 books and over 100 articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization, and organizational change. More than a million copies of his publications have been sold in nearly a dozen languages worldwide. He served as the editor of the UNESCO Encyclopedia volume on human resources. He has been a keynote speaker at international conferences in Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, and India as well as throughout North America.
Mike’s achievements and leadership have been recognized through numerous awards, including the International Practitioner of the Year Award from the American Society for Training and Development. He serves as a senior adviser for the United Nations Staff College in the areas of policy, technology, and learning systems. Mike is a fellow of the National Academy for Human Resource Development and a co-founder of the Asian Learning Organization Network. His writings and accomplishments in action learning have earned him honorary doctoral degrees from universities in Asia, Europe, and North America.
Shannon Banks is managing director of Be Leadership, a modern
leadership development company focused on helping organizations, teams, and executives thrive in a digital, social, and networked world. She is a Master Action Learning Coach and a board member for the World Institute for Action Learning. Shannon holds a master’s degree from the University of Birmingham, England. She has completed an executive coaching certification with the NeuroLeadership Institute and is accredited as an ACC with the International Coach Federation.
In addition to her coaching, Shannon works as a consultant and facilitator for global clients across many sectors. As part of this work, Shannon often uses action learning to help create sustainable cultural change. Prior to Be Leadership, Shannon spent seventeen years with Microsoft in a variety of leadership roles across the business, with responsibilities managing globally distributed, multifunctional teams. Her work earned Microsoft a 2010 WIAL Outstanding Organization Award and a 2010 Workforce Management Optimas Award for Corporate Citizenship. Shannon also was awarded the 2011 EFMD Excellence in Practice Award for Executive Development and the 2013 Best Practice Institute’s Top Practitioner Award for Talent Management.
Peter Cauwelier helps teams learn, grow, innovate, and take ownership of their own and their company’s future. His Team.As.One approach focuses both on the team’s heart (the connections that support team dynamics) and the team’s hard (the business results).
Peter is a Master Action Learning Coach and a member of the WIAL board since 2014 and manages the WIAL affiliate in Thailand. In addition to action learning Peter uses other approaches to help teams become more effective. He is a Certified Professional Facilitator (IAF), Belbin Team Roles accredited facilitator, and Certified Team Performance Coach (Team Coaching International). He has 20 years of experience in operations management, with responsibilities with multicultural teams across Asia. He works with teams in English, French, or Thai.
Peter received a PhD in Knowledge and Innovation Management from Bangkok University, an executive MBA from Boston University, and Master of Science degrees from the University of Manchester and Ghent
Choon Seng Ng
Choon Seng Ng is the Managing Director of WIAL Singapore, the official international affiliate of WIAL. He is a Master Action Learning Coach and was a board member with the World Institute for Action Learning from 2013 to 2015. Choon Seng has conducted action learning programs for many organizations in Singapore and has also certified many action learning coaches throughout Asia. He was instrumental in establishing many WIAL affiliates in Asia. Through his leadership, WIAL Singapore won the WIAL Affiliate of the Year in 2015.
Choon Seng received his Master of Arts degree in Human Resource Development from George Washington University. He was also awarded the Leonard Nadler Leadership Award for his outstanding leadership, service, and professional and academic successes. Choon Seng is the author of What’s Your Question? Inspiring Possibilities through the Power of Questions.
In addition to his coaching, Choon Seng is also a Certified Professional Facilitator and Certified Assessor with the International Association of Facilitators (IAF). He is concurrently the Chief Facilitator and Process Consultant with Inquiring Dialogue, working with clients from all sectors to increase their organizational effectiveness and employee engagement.
A ction learning has quickly emerged as a tool used by organizationsfor solving their critical and complex problems. It has concurrentlybecome a primary methodology utilized by companies around the world for developing leaders, building teams, and improving corporate capabilities. Action learning programs have become instrumental in creating thousands of new products and services, saving billions of dollars, reducing production and delivery times, expanding customer bases, improving service quality, and positively changing organizational cultures. Recent surveys by the American Society for Training and Development indicate that two-thirds of executive leadership programs in the United States used action learning. A study by the Corporate Executive Board (2009) noted that 77 percent of learning executives identified action learning as the top driver of leadership bench strength. Business Week identified action learning as the “latest and fastest growing organizational tool for leadership development” (Byrnes, 2005).
Since Reg Revans introduced action learning in the 1940s, there have been multiple variations of the concept, but all forms of action learning
share the elements of real people resolving and taking action on real problems in real time and learning while doing so. The great attraction of action learning is its unique power to simultaneously solve difficult challenges and develop people and organizations at minimal costs to the institutions. Rapidly changing environments and unpredictable global challenges require organizations and individuals to both act and learn at the same time.
Global Leadership Development with Action Learning at Boeing
The Boeing Company, the world’s leading aerospace company, is a global market leader in missile defense, human space flight, and launch services, with customers in 145 countries, employees in more than 60 countries, and operations in 26 states. Boeing adopted action learning as the methodology for its Global Leadership Program, since action learning enabled the company to build critical global competencies while solving its most critical problems. Results from a comprehensive assessment of the program indicated that action learning has been remarkably successful in developing a forum for senior-level executives to learn while being challenged with real corporate issues related to the international environment in which they were placed.
What Is Action Learning?
Briefly defined, action learning is a powerful problem-solving tool that has the amazing capacity to simultaneously build successful leaders, teams, and organizations. It is a process that involves a small group working on real problems, taking action, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organization while doing so. Action learning has six components, each of which is described below and presented in greater detail over the next six chapters of this book.
The Six Components of Action Learning
A problem. Action learning centers on a problem, project, challenge,
opportunity, issue, or task, the resolution of which is of high importance to an individual, team, or organization. The problem should be significant and urgent, and it should be the responsibility of the team to solve it. It should also provide an opportunity for the group to generate learning opportunities, build knowledge, and develop individual, team, and organizational skills. Groups may focus on a single problem of the organization or multiple problems introduced by individual group members. An action learning group or team. The core entity in action learning is the action learning group. Ideally the group is composed of four to eight individuals who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. The group should have members with a diversity of background and experience to acquire various perspectives and encourage fresh viewpoints. Depending on the problem, group members may:
Be volunteers or be appointed Be from various functions or departments
Include individuals from other organizations or professions Involve suppliers as well as customers
A working process of insightful questioning and reflective listening. Action learning emphasizes questions and reflection above statements and opinions. By focusing on the right questions rather than the right answers, action learning groups become aware of what they do not know as well as what they do know. Questions build group cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results. Leadership skills are built and implemented through questions and reflection. Insightful questions enable a group first to clarify the exact nature of the problem before jumping to solutions. Action learning groups recognize that great solutions will be contained within the seeds of great questions. Actions taken on the problem. Action learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is working on. Members of the action learning group must have the power to take action themselves or be assured that their recommendations will be implemented (barring any significant change in the environment or the group’s lacking essential information). If the group only makes recommendations, it loses its energy, creativity, and commitment. There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on, for one is never sure an idea or plan will be effective until it has been implemented. Action enhances learning because it provides a basis and anchor for the critical dimension of reflection. The action of action learning begins with reframing the problem and determining the goal, only then determining strategies and taking action. A commitment to learning. Unless the group learns, it may not be able to creatively solve a complex problem. And although solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company, the greater, longer-term, multiplier benefits are the long- term learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization. Thus, the learning that occurs in action learning may have greater strategic value for the organization than what is gained by the tactical advantage of solving the immediate problem. Accordingly, action learning places the same emphasis on
the learning and development of individuals and the team as it does on the solving of problems, for the smarter the group becomes, the quicker and better will be its decision-making and action-taking capabilities. An action learning coach. Coaching is necessary for the group to focus on the important (i.e., the learnings) as well as the urgent (i.e., resolving the problem). The action learning coach helps the team members reflect on …