Action Learning and the Role of the Action Learning Coach

book_greatSolutionsIn my last blog, I described how Action Learning becomes a much more complicated process after the initial session(s).  Before discussing how subsequent sessions differ from the first session, however, I need to explain more about the process of Action Learning and role of the Action Learning team coach (ALTC).

Action Learning as a Problem-Solving Process

From the start, solving difficult, complex, and urgent problems was the primary purpose of Action Learning. Action Learning is distinguished from many other experiential models of organizational, team, and individual change in that Action Learning teams work directly on a real problem and are expected and expect the resulting solutions will be applied to solve these problems. While learning is a critical and necessary ingredient for effective Action Learning, there can be no doubt that developing great solutions is the primary aim of the process. The individual, team, and organizational knowledge that is developed as a result is extremely valuable, and, if properly managed, transferable to other situations. The learning that can be captured through Action Learning is dulled and limited, however, if the team believes that it is engaged in an exercise rather than a critical and urgent problem. Because the experience of working effectively on a real problem is so critical to Action Learning, the ALTC needs to understand the problem-solving process in order to be effective. Later blogs will explore in more detail how to apply an understanding of the problem-solving process to the role of the ALTC.

How to Put the Learning in Action Learning

While great solutions are the product of Action Learning, effective learning is a necessary condition for achieving great results. At Learning Thru Action (LTA), we believe that the primary role of the coach is to serve as a catalyst for achieving great learning. I carefully avoided using the term facilitation in describing the role of the coach because, in our business, facilitation usually means task facilitation – taking responsibility for good problem-solving process by guiding, encouraging, and even directing teams. The downside to task facilitation is that, while good solutions can be achieved, team members learn little about how to become great problem-solving teams and most of the problem-solving expertise, unfortunately, walks out the door with the task facilitator.

Reg Revans, the acknowledged “father” of Action Learning, initially opposed the creation of a coach role because he was afraid that a coach would become just one more expert who would stifle learning and creativity in problem-solving teams. The best way to avoid this pitfall, is to limit the ALTC to only asking questions. This prevents the ALTC from “stepping into the problem” and hi-jacking the problem-solving process. When we are in the role of ALTC, we specifically tell the team that we will not take responsibility for the team’s success and will not facilitate, direct, or provide directive coaching. We make it clear that our role will be catalytic – stimulating reflection and learning without actually interacting in the team’s efforts to solve the problem. We further define the coach’s role by indicating that we reserve the right to intervene (with questions) when we believe that there is an opportunity for the team to learn so that it can improve its performance.

We believe so strongly in the power and importance of questions that we establish a primary ground rule for the team to follow – Statements can only made in response to questions. The purpose of this ground rule is to establish a culture of inquiry which we believe is critical to creative problem solving. Asking effective questions has the following benefits

  • promotes greater exploration of the problem
  • promotes fuller participation by team members
  • reduces defensiveness and openness to new ideas
  • allows for greater exploration of underlying assumptions, values, and cultural context
  • promotes examination of the way the team is working

At LTA, we believe that only two ground rules are necessary to begin Action Learning.

  1. Statements must follow questions, and
  2. The ALTC has the authority to intervene whenever there is an opportunity for learning or for improving team performance.

Other ground rules, procedures, and methods may be adopted by the team as it works on the problem but these are added based upon what team members believe (1) is working, (2) isn’t working, and (3) what needs to be changed.

Later blogs will discuss other aspects of the ALTC’s role, the rationale and explanation of the ground rules, as well as how this role is enacted throughout the Action Learning process. You will also find much more information about the topics discussed in this blog in our new book Great Solutions Through Action Learning: Success Every Time.

Skip Leonard

Master Action Learning Coach


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