Action Learning – Organization Work as Learning

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December 1, 2015

I’m working with a group of leaders at one of the largest academic health systems in the US. This group of physicians, administrators and nurses are one tier below the C-suite, and this 9-month leadership development program is aimed at honing their skills for system-wide leadership.

One foundational element of the program is an Action Learning Leadership Project. Action Learning is a process for learning through the accomplishment of
real work. It combines two powerful drivers of adult learning: 1) Adults learn when the challenges of real work require them to stretch beyond their current approaches and 2)  Adults learn when they reflect on their experiences.

The core elements of an Action Learning process:

  • Cross-boundary team of peers
  • Crafting, carrying out, and transitioning a strategic project
  • Reflecting on and drawing insights from the team’s joint work
  • Guidance from an executive sponsor
  • Challenged and supported by a learning coach
  • Embedded in a leader development program

Criteria for Action Learning Projects – The projects should:

  • Require the team to make something happen, not just study something (for example: run a pilot, carry out an experiment, spread a best practice, form a new partnership…)
  • Require the team to engage actively with others throughout their organization (and beyond) – not just gathering information, but involving others and enlisting their support
  • Be beyond the core expertise for all team members (a stretch for everyone)
  • Focus on strategic issues and central concerns of the organization
  • Involve challenge and complexity
  • Contribute to the goals of the leadership development program

In setting up these projects we stress that the individual and team learning outcome is AT LEAST AS IMPORTANT as the outcome of the project work. This needs to be clear with organization senior leadership; if you’re only seeking collaborative project work, then go do that. If you’re seeking deep learning that changes collaborative leadership behaviors, then action learning is a very powerful way to learn things that people could not have learned otherwise.

Typically organization choose action projects that are strategically relevant to their futures. This way, the work done by the action learning team – even if it ends up being purely evaluative in nature – is work that must get done. The action learning teams make commitment to taking action on moving their projects ahead, on questioning and reflection during the process, on learning as well as results, and on supporting and challenging their teammates.

Action learning teams normally have organizational sponsors – people within the organization who can guide them from an executive perspective, open doors and make contacts for them, and provide input into the project plan to ensure strategic alignment. They are the technical advisors to the project.

We strongly recommend that the teams also have experienced action learning coaches to guide them in their work. The most experienced coaches are those who do this work regularly with teams. Their focus is on helping the team learn and use effective team processes. The coach is the process advisor to the team.

More on action learning leadership in subsequent posts.


BE BETTER NOW – A Leadership Call to Action – Take a moment right now to put your thoughts into action

  1. What is ONE ASPECT of your professional life that might benefit from more or different attention in this subject area (enhancing the impact you make on others)?
  1. What is ONE THING you could do TODAY that would move you more deliberately in this direction? The Behavior or action I could take (verb); I will…
  1. HOW will you ensure you are developing – WITH WHOM can you share this goal or add to your brain trust to hold yourself accountable?
  1. MAKE a 10 minute calendar appointment right now to check in with yourself on this topic next week (better yet – for each following week). Keep it practical – write brief notes on two questions only:
  • What clear steps did I take last week for my own development?
  • What will I focus on executing next week?

Need some thought partner time? – Call/email at 336.918.8415

Practical – Relevant – Immediately Useful