How and why action learning “is truly the most powerful problem-solving tool of the 21st century”
Those who have read any of Michael Marquardt’s previously published books (notably Optimizing the Power of Action Learning and Building the Learning Organization) already know that he has an almost insatiable curiosity to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why in two separate but usually related fields: accelerated executive development, and, action learning. In his latest book, co-authored with Roland K. Yeo, the focus is on how to how to achieve breakthrough problem-solving with action learning.
To a much greater extent than ever before, in my opinion, problems in the business world occur faster and are more complicated. Therefore, Marquardt and Yeo assert – and I agree – that the process by which to solve problems, especially those that have great significance, must be completed faster and better than ever before. It must also actively involve more people. Efforts to solve problems — each best viewed as a precious learning opportunity — must “break through” complexity, bureaucracy, ambiguity, uncertainty, error, ignorance, and especially, resistance by those who fear the solution. In this volume, Marquardt and Yeo explain how.
They carefully organize their material within three Parts. First, in Chapters 1 and 2, they identify the need and the value of action learning during the process of solving complex problems. Next, in Chapters 3-11, they provide action learning mini-case studies of 31 quite different organizations (e.g. Microsoft and the Hong Kong Community Church, Lexus and HIV-Free Generation Partnership and Virtual City-Kenya) that demonstrate how action learning helped teams to solve real problems in real-world situations. Finally, in Chapter 12, they identify the key factors for success in breakthrough problem solving with action learning.
Here are a few key points of special interest to me:
1. Problems today in the business world have become much too complicated for one person or even a project team to solve.
2. Hence the critical importance of effective communication, cooperation, and especially, collaboration between and among those involved, within and beyond the given enterprise.
3. Problem finding as well as problem solving initiatives should carefully coordinated. Those who find them may not be best-situated to solve them…and vice versa. That said, everyone must be vigilant…and not only willing but eager to help wherever and whenever needed.
4. Action learning can provide metacognition and complex problem solving in five specific ways. (Please see Pages 35-37 for details.)
Marquardt and Yeo are to be commended on their skillful use of several dozen Tables throughout their narrative. These focus on key points and assemble essential information. Also, they will be invaluable for review later. Consider, for example, Table 12.11 (Pages 218-219) which juxtaposes entries in three columns (Breakthrough Elements, Common Challenges/Mistakes), and Corrective Actions) in a series of 10 separate but interdependent elements of the problem-solving process. Table 12.12 (Pages 222-223) should be frequently reviewed with 12.11. In fact, I think the two would be essential to the formulation of a game plan because they (a) identify most of the most important issues and (b) suggest how each can help increase awareness, focus on learning behaviors that will be most productive, and pose the questions that must be asked…then answered…during various stages of the process
McNair’s concept “The Wheel of Retailing” is one of his most valuable contributions. In essence, it suggests that there is a pattern or process, a lifecycle of retailing, that moves from an entry position with low prices to gain market share to eventually moving upscale with higher-quality products aimed at more affluent consumers. Japanese automobile manufacturers, for example, proceeded through this cycle after entering the U.S. market with inexpensive vehicles that captured market share and then gradually moved upscale with higher-priced vehicles (e.g. Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus) that offered higher margins to the manufacturers.
As McNair once explained, “It seems to me that there is more or less a definite cycle in American distribution…The cycle frequently begins with the bold new concept, the innovation. Somebody gets a bright new idea…[and] attracts the public on the basis of the [low] price appeal.” Over time, the retailer trades up, improves the quality of his merchandise, improves the appearance and standing of his store, attains greater respectability. Meanwhile, capital investment and operating expenses increase. “Now the once upstart has entered the mature mode of retailing. Rapid, often imprudent growth results in “top-heaviness, too great conservatism, a decline in the size of return on investment, and eventually vulnerability [to] the next fellow who has a bright idea and who starts his business on a low-cost basis, slipping in under the umbrella that the old-line institutions have hoisted.”
Keep in mind that these are a few of McNair’s comments about a business world he surveyed more than 50 years ago. The cycle continues today, suggesting that the best time to make a change is when you don’t have to. Although no one denies that, few abide by it.