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
Marquardt is Professor of Human Resource Development and Program Director of Overseas Programs at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. He also serves as President of Global Learning Associates, and Director of the Global Institute for Action Learning. He has held a number of senior management, training and marketing positions with organizations such as Grolier, American Society for Training and Development, Association Management Inc., Overseas Education Fund, TradeTec, and U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He has trained more than 75,000 managers in nearly 100 countries since beginning his international experience in Spain in 1969. Marquardt is the author of 18 books and more than 90 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change. His published works include Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, Building the Learning Organization, The Global Advantage, Action Learning in Action, Global Leaders for the 21st Century, Global Human Resource Development, Technology-Based Learning, Global Teams, Leading with Questions, and most recently, Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations.
Here is a brief excerpt from my interview of Marquardt.
Morris: By what process should an action learning program be formulated and then implemented?
Marquardt: Based upon my experience and research over the past 10 years with hundreds of organizations, I have discovered that the full power of action learning requires six components.
1. A problem (i.e. project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task) should be significant, urgent, and be the responsibility of the team to solve. It should also provide and opportunity for the group to generate learning opportunities, to build knowledge, and to develop individual, team and organizational skills. Groups may focus on a single problem of the organization or multiple problems introduced by individual group members.
2. An action learning group or team (ideally composed of 4-8 individuals) who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. The group should have diversity of background and experience so as to acquire various perspectives and to encourage 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. The focus is on questions because great solutions are contained within the seeds of great questions.
4. In order to take action on the given problem, 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). If the group only makes recommendations, it looses its energy, creativity and commitment.
5. 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 member as well as the group as a whole, and how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization but only if there is a commitment to learning.
6. An action learning coach is necessary for the group to focus on the important (i.e. the learnings) as well as the urgent (resolving the problem). The action learning coach helps the team members reflect both on what they are learning and how they are solving problems. Through a series of questions, the coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions.
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If you wish to read the entire Marquardt interview, please click here.
Mike cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites: