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Positioning AL for Success – It’s all in the set up

What makes Action Learning successful? In my experience how the Action Learning project or program is set up from the very beginning determines to a large extent how successful that program will be. One of the most critical elements is the program sponsor – your client.

Having the right sponsor – Powerful, Invested, Open
The sponsor may be the problem owner or a member of the executive team who has assumed responsibility for a particular organizational challenge. In either case it is important that he have sufficient authority in the organization, be invested in finding a solution to the problem and open to the process and creativity inherent in Action Learning.

The higher the level of the executives that choose the problems, the more important the Action Learning project will be perceived.  Just as strategy cascades down through an organization, so too a process for approaching the organizational challenges is expanded by the leaders that embrace that process. Word spreads when an executive endorses an innovative way to solve important organizational problems.

Sponsorship at the executive level also encourages greater risk tolerance and openness. Action Learning proposals often challenge currently accepted management orthodoxy. So visible support of an open environment by executive sponsors and champions encourages true inquiry and enhances the quality of the Action Learning process.

The sponsor must be personally invested in the issue and have sufficient power to dedicate organization resources to both the Action Learning process itself and to the implementation of the proposed solutions.  Although the problem may be (and hopefully is) “owned” by a number of individuals and groups, the sponsor’s passion to find a solution helps commit those organizational resources. Team members need organizational support to take the necessary time away from their ongoing commitments so they can participate in the process.  Without sponsor commitment, there is a danger that the team function will degenerate into a “task force” that merely makes recommendations.

Finally, it is critical that the sponsor understand the Action Learning process. While it takes a very short time to learn the fundamental elements of the AL method, it often takes much longer to fully understand its potential impact and power to transform the organization.

The sponsor must be open to fresh solutions and willing to embrace novel ways of approaching problem solving in order for the Action Learning project to be truly beneficial.

Two examples illustrate some of these points.

Example one in which the project was undermined almost immediately by a poor sponsor.
The problem was “how to reduce cost while maintaining quality.” The champion met with two members of the 6 person team and told them how he thought the problem would best be solved and charged them with implementing his solution. At t

Example one. The project was undermined almost immediately by a poor sponsor.

The problem was “how to reduce cost while maintaining quality.” The sponsor met with two members of the 6 person team and told them how he thought the problem would best be solved and charged them with implementing his solution.  At the first meeting the sponsor informed the team of these developments.  The team members were stunned. They became immediately demoralized, as demonstrated by their collective silence followed by a series of closed ended questions.  The team never really recovered – creativity and energy were limited and attendance was sporadic. Despite my interventions designed to illicit their concerns, it wasn’t until the end of the process that they openly spoke of their disappointment in not being able to tackle what they had initially viewed as an exciting challenge. They explained that because the sponsor was in a position of authority, the members of the team were reluctant to challenge him.  They believed that it would be futile to confront the sponsor and were afraid that they would face political consequences if they tried to do so. 

In contrast, example two demonstrates how a different kind of sponsor can influence the outcome of a project in a profoundly positive way.

The organization faced an enormous backlog of work representing millions of dollars of transactions. The backlog was growing daily. The problem was how to deal with the current backlog and prevent such a situation from recurring. The department head, who was the sponsor, confided to me that she already “knew” the solution and wanted to use Action learning to get buy-in from the staff.  However, when I challenged her to be open to an alternative solution if it proved to be superior, she agreed. She attended the initial meeting of the team to present the problem and made herself available to answer questions at subsequent meetings but allowed the team to struggle with the definition of the true problem, reframe it, and create their own solution.  When the team presented their results, she was quite surprised but readily agreed that it was of better quality than the one she had devised and immediately committed to its implementation.  The team then decided to continue to meet regularly after the end of the official Action Learning process to work on the details and to fine tune as necessary as they executed the solution. 

In the first example, despite the organization’s apparent support for this high-level group of professionals to address a complex problem, the analysis, problem solving and results were disappointing due to the sponsor’s limited opinion and fixed agenda. In contrast, when open-minded sponsors and champions give full support, an action learning team composed of mid-level staff was able to solve a serious problem that had hamstrung a large organization for years.

So I have learned my lesson, before engaging in an Action Learning project, I vet my sponsors very carefully.

Joanne Irving, PhD
Certified Action Learning Coach
Director, Internal Action Learning Programs

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