Michael Marquardt: A second interview by Bob Morris
Michael Marquardt is Professor of Human Resource Development and International Affairs at George Washington University. Mike also serves as President of the World Institute for Action Learning. He has held a number of senior management, training and marketing positions and has trained managers in over 100 countries since beginning his international experience in Spain in 1969. Consulting assignments have included Marriott, Microsoft, Motorola, Nortel, Alcoa, Boeing, Caterpillar, United Nations Development Program, Xerox, and Nokia as well as the governments of Indonesia, Laos, Ethiopia, Zambia, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Jamaica, Honduras, and Swaziland.
Mike is the author of 24 books and more than 100 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change including Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, Leading with Questions, Building the Learning Organization (selected as Book of the Year by the Academy of HRD), Action Learning in Action, Global Leaders for the 21st Century, and Global Teams. More than one million copies of his publications have been sold in nearly a dozen languages worldwide. His latest book, Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning: Concepts and Cases, was co-authored with Roland K. Yeo and published by Stanford University Press (2012). He has received honorary doctoral degrees from universities in Europe, Asia and North America for his work and writings in the field of action learning and leadership development
Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Marquardt: My mother certainly had a great influence on my love of learning, my joy in asking questions, and my commitment to making the world a better place for others. No one in any part of our family had ever gone to college, and yet my mother pushed us all to get a college education – 3 of her children got doctoral degrees and 3 obtained Masters Degrees. Whenever we came back from college to our family farm, she would ask about everything we learned. We used to feel sorry for the person sitting next to her on an airplane as she would spend the entire flight asking about everything that person knew. And she wanted us to get into professions that helped others – 2 of my sisters are nurses, another sister was a social worker. One of my brothers ended up being a doctor and the other one is a fellow professor.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Marquardt: I would say Len Nadler and Reg Revans. Len Nadler, my professor at George Washington University, is considered the Father of Human Resource Development (HRD) and inspired me to do global HRD work. Reg Revans, considered the Father of Action Learning, inspired me to make action learning the passion of my life.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Marquardt: After 20 years of global work with a number of government agencies and global companies, I became a professor at George Washington University in 1994. The first course I was asked to teach was “Action Learning” as the position I was filling had taught this course before she retired. I did not even know what action learning was, and yet I needed to prepare and deliver this course to 25 senior executive who were part of GWU’s Doctoral Executive Leadership Program. With some trepidation, I prepared the course as well as I could – using the existing syllabus and a Revans textbook. I created 5 teams of 5 students, and asked each team to identify a problem in one of their organizations which they were to solve during the semester. Fortunately, the course turned out well for the students, but I quickly became convinced that action learning was the greatest problem-solving and leadership development tool out there, better than anything I had seen in my previous 20 years of using scores of different tools for training leaders or developing organizations. I have become a devoted advocate and practitioner of action learning ever since.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Marquardt: I believe all of my formal education has enabled me to understand and appreciate action learning, as action learning is built on a wide array of disciplines that are integrated and generate its power. Thus, my undergraduate degree and studies in philosophy and economics, my master’s degree in education and group dynamics, and my doctorate in HRD that included psychology, management science and adult learning have all been valuable in re-creating action learning.
Morris: Briefly, what are the core principles of action learning?
Marquardt: Simply described, action learning is a dynamic process that involves a small group of people solving real problems, while at the same time focusing on what they are learning and how their learning can better solve the problem, develop leadership skills, build the team and change the organization.
Action learning program derives its power and benefits from six interactive and interdependent components. The strength and success of action learning is built upon how well these elements are employed and reinforced.
1. A problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
Action learning centers around a problem (be it a project, a challenge, an issue, or task), the resolution of which is of high importance to an individual, team and/or organization. The problem should be significant, be within the responsibility of the team, and provide opportunity for learning. Why is the selection of the problem so important? Because it is one of the fundamental beliefs of action learning that we learn best when undertaking some action, which we then reflect upon and learn from. The main reason for having a problem or project is that it gives the group something to focus on that is real and important, that is relevant and means something to them. It creates a “hook” on which to test stored-up knowledge.
2. An action learning group or team
The core entity in action learning is the action learning group (also called a set or team). The group is composed of 4-8 individuals who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. Ideally, the make-up of the group is diverse so as to maximize various perspectives and to obtain fresh viewpoints.
3. A process that emphasizes insightful questioning and reflective listening
By focusing on the right questions rather than the right answers, action learning focuses on what one does not know as well as on what one does know. Action learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action.
4. A requirement of taking action
For action learning advocates, there is no real learning unless action is taken, for one is never sure the idea or plan will be effective until it has been implemented. Therefore 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 obvious lack of essential information).
5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term, multiplier benefit, however, is the learning gained by each group members and how the group’s learnings can be applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization. The learning that occurs in action learning has greater value strategically for the organization than the immediate tactical advantage of early problem correction. Action learning places equal emphasis on the learning/development of individuals the team and organizations as it does on solving problems and developing successful action strategies.
6. 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 both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. Through selective interventions and insightful questions, the coach enables group members to improve their performance and develop their leadership skills. The learning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
To check out his faculty page at GWU’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, please click here.
To learn more about the World Institute for Action Learning, please click here.
For Mike’s Amazon page, please click here.
To watch a video, please click here.
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