Action Learning: A Recipe For Success


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via by Marshall Goldsmith on 11/3/08

This week’s question for Ask the Coach:

Other than your own coaching, if you had to recommend one leadership development process what would it be?

I have observed one leadership development process that builds leaders and helps companies make money at the same time – action learning. After seeing how action learning worked at GE and IBM, I am surprised that more companies don’t do it. My friend, Chris Cappy, has spent years in GE, IBM and other major companies implementing action learning. I will let Chris describe the basics of how this process works:

The essence of action learning involves working through real problems, reviewing both the results achieved and then analyzing the process by which these results were achieved. Action learning is a structured process with four essential elements:

  1. Creating an experience that engages learners – that ‘stretches’ the leaders involved in the process and adds real value to the company.
  2. Debriefing the experience – reviewing what happened both from a ‘results’ and ‘process’ perspective.
  3. Generalizing from results – understanding not just what happened, but knowing what the results mean for leaders and the company.
  4. Transferring lessons to the future – applying key learnings in a way that helps the participants in the process become better leaders and the company become more successful in meeting related challenges.

The validity of the action learning process is well-grounded in research on how adults learn — which is predominantly via on-the-job “real-time” experiences. Sound action learning design provides a stage upon which behavioral performance dynamics can be observed and critiqued, and from which new choices and behavioral improvements can emerge.

In the past, there has been a continuum of applications for leadership development under the “action learning” banner, ranging from experiential challenge simulations to design of business-based performance projects. I have seen the impact that comes from using ‘real’ business challenges. When participants deal with serious business issues, there are real consequences for failure. They realize that this is not ‘just a game’ and get serious about what they are doing. The more relevant the challenge – the higher the stakes – the more leaders are stretched – the more they learn!

If developing talented leaders were viewed a cooking school, and action learning were a recipe, here would be my basic list of ingredients for our leader-learners to be and do better:

  • Find a real, substantial project that is “in plan” and important…there are visible consequences if failure occurs.
  • Add in some individual performance feedback that’s relevant to the company/context in which they work.
  • Bring together a group of learner-leaders and help them to know each other as colleagues and brothers/sisters in arms who can support one another.
  • Provide ample time for their work to “cook,” and check on their progress periodically. Use online support aids to keep attention.
  • Add in some simple tools for leading change and judiciously sprinkle in some coaching to help them play their parts well. Keep the lights up. Having other leader-actors to provide coaching is remarkably effective when the stage has been properly set.
  • Now and then, stir the pot with some executives or Board members or key customers who can tell their stories as a way of supporting the show.
  • Stage a grand finale performance where results are served up and shared…something like the Iron Chef of leadership development.
  • And, of course, you season to taste, and cook until done — as with all recipes, there are many examples of action learning designs, ranging from quite mild to very hot!

When you combine these basic ingredients, you can really help people to be and do better. Beyond the knowledge gained, we also see relationships formed that significantly support cross-boundary collaboration that are positioned to address whatever business opportunities and challenges emerge.

If you want to know more about action learning, you can contact Chris Cappy here.


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