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The Upside of Conducting Action Learning Virtually

Recently, Carole Lyles Shaw and I delivered a one hour webinar entitled Best Practices in Virtual Action Learning. The inspiration for this program was a successful Action Learning (AL) program we conducted last summer for a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company which was delivered largely virtually. Although all of the coaches had begun their coaching careers working in face-to-face sessions or meetings, we accepted the necessity for conducting the Action Learning sessions virtually – most teams had members from several continents and the program spanned 4 months. The cost advantages greatly outweighed the misgivings we had about holding virtual problem-solving sessions. Our reservations included:

  • Reduced information about individual and team processes. Communications research informs us that up to 60% of the information available to coaches and team members is nonverbal: motoric behavior, gestures, timing, sequence of events, and presence or omission of data or detail. Coaches and team members simply have less information to work with in conducting complex problem solving when they are conducting work session using an audio-only communication channel (in our experience, the most common approach to virtual meetings).
  • Reduced presence of the coach. Because the AL coach does not actively facilitate or direct the team’s process or activities, the coach may have some difficulty maintaining a presence in the minds of team members. Again, this difficulty is more pronounced with audio-only meetings.
  • Because of the reduced presence of coaches, their ability to develop a working relationship with the team is often reduced. While Action Learning coaches need to be careful not to facilitate or become active in analyzing or developing solutions for the team’s problem, they do need to develop and maintain an good working relationship with the team within the agreed-upon role of the coach. Although the team has agreed to allow the coach to intervene to improve performance or increase learning, team members may subtly resist or ignore the coach’s interventions if the coach hasn’t built a good working relationship with them.
  • Coaches may feel at a disadvantage during team meetings because they are less familiar and adept than team members at using the technology employed by the team. Team members will naturally want to use technology, usually provided by the corporation, that they are most familiar with. In many cases, the coach is not familiar with how to use or best leverage the technology used by the team.

As the coaching team on this project periodically shared what we were doing – what was and wasn’t working, and what useful methods or actions coaches were discovering – we began to realize that we were overlooking some of the advantages of virtual coaching and missing some opportunities to mitigate some of the clear limitations in typical virtual meetings. For instance, one of the coaches described using the chat function available in most virtual meeting platforms to ask questions instead of stopping the team’s discussions to intervene. This simple method of intervening had not occurred to most of the other coaches. We quickly saw that using the chat function provided advantages that weren’t available in face-to-face meetings. For instance, coaches could provide observations and ask questions that caught the attention and grabbed the awareness of the team without actually stopping the process. With this information, teams can seamlessly made adjustments in behavior without stopping their conversations. This was a big insight and breakthrough for the coaching team.

With this discovery, our team of coaches proposed other features of virtual learning platforms that can be leveraged by Action Learning coaches:

  • Common blackboard or flipchart. It is common in many face-to-face meetings to have one person take charge of the group’s flipchart as the team scribe. The team scribe can exercise a great deal of power and influence by deciding how to describe what is being said and filtering what ideas are placed on the team’s record of work. In contrast, many virtual meeting platforms allow all team members to write on the blackboard. This is a more democratic process. It is also more apparent when only a subset of the team is contributing to the problem-solving process. When sub-optimal team participation is noted by the coach, the coach can write on the virtual blackboard, “I notice that only a couple of people are contributing ideas or thoughts on the blackboard…why do you think that this is occurring?”
  • Easy access to other digital applications. In face-to-face meetings, considerable effort is required to transfer PowerPoint slides, emails, spreadsheets, etc., to a computer/projector or to print out copies from these applications in order to make them available to the team for its work. These materials are much more easily accessed and distributed within a virtual meeting environment. In addition, it is much easier for team members to annotate a digital document in a virtual medium. Because these additional methods and tools are readily available, the coach can note when teams are working in a sub-optimum manner in leveraging these advantages.
  • Using the chat function in new and novel ways. In face-to-face Action Learning, it is common for the coach to ask team members to write down what they think the realproblem is. In virtual action learning, the coach can ask team members to write their definition of the problem in the chat box but instruct them not to send it to the chat board until it is their turn to share. This discourages team members from changing their definition of the problem based upon previously expressed viewpoints.

We are quite confident that we are only scratching the surface of the possibilities to improve our coaching effectiveness when we use common virtual meeting platforms. For instance, most meeting platforms allow teams to record team meetings. How can this feature be used to improve team performance? What areas of team sub-optimization can be addressed by leveraging this feature? Many of these features provide opportunities for coach creativity to create advantages that we haven’t yet contemplated.

So, there are many upsides to working virtually that we, as coaches, need to be aware of and take advantage of. Here are some additional tips and suggestions for working in a virtual environment:

  • Whenever possible, encourage the team to use visual and well as audio channels. In our experience, many teams resist enabling video transmission – if they are joining the meeting at 7 in the morning, they don’t want to change into work clothes, put on makeup, comb hair, etc. The loss, however, of valuable information is considerable and can lead to significant sub-optimization of behavior and process.
  • Encourage the organization to include some face-to-face meetings (e.g. kick-off, middle, and prepping meetings for project presentations) to facilitate the development of team member to team member and team member to team relationships. It is simply easier to build and sustain effective relationships when they are initiated by face-to-face meetings.
  • Become fluent in the virtual technology of the virtual meeting platform before the Action Learning process begins. Learning while the team process unfolds inherently puts the coach in a one-down position with the team.
  • Perhaps most importantly, bring a positive attitude to working virtually to your work as an Action Learning coach. Look at what you gain as well as what is lost.

Working in a virtual environment is a new frontier for many AL coaches. Let me know about insights about virtual coaching and/or methods that you have found to be useful or think could be helpful when working virtually.

Skip Leonard, PhD
Master Action Learning Coach
Managing Director, Learning Thru Action
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