In recent months, I have been fairly active in several of the LinkedIn groups that focus on Action Learning (International Foundation for Action Learning and the Action Learning Forum). Some of the discussions focus on very practical issues such as the how big AL teams or sets should be, how to market AL or other experiential methods, or how to get teams to engage and embrace AL. Other discussion start out with a practical question (e.g. what is a hybrid AL model) that stimulated much more philosophical discussions around what is and isn’t AL, what are the critical features of AL, and which AL model is best. These have been lively discussions that have allowed me and others share our views of about the goals, assumptions, and principles we are using when we design programs and enact the coaching role.
These discussions also got me thinking about how people learn the AL coaching role. Do we read books and try to follow the models and prescriptions of the authors? Do we watch and imitate people who have great experience and we believe have mastered the role? Do we apprentice ourselves to these “masters”? Do we take training courses that allow us to practice AL coaching skills and receive feedback? Do we hire supervisors with whom we can consult as we apply what we have learned through other sources. Most of us learn complex skills like AL through a combination of the methods available for learning. We find that each of these approaches have strengths but each, alone, isn’t sufficient in our quest to become proficient and even expert in a field such as Action Learning.
As I considered my experience as a learner of AL and as a person who has trained hundreds of people in the science, art, and craft of AL, I realized there is a general sequence of learning that I and others have found helpful in the process of moving from novice to expert as AL coaches. This process also helped me articulate more clearly how our up-coming program, Advanced Training for Action Learning Coaches, will help AL coaches become not only proficient, but also admired experts in the field.
Stage One – Orientation to AL: In this stage, we gain an intellectual understanding of the process by learning about
- the history
- philosophical underpinnings
- examples of how the process is used
- ethical and professional boundaries – where and when it is appropriately and used
Much of this information can be gained through reading books, articles, watching videos, and attending seminars where experts lecture and tell good stories about AL. It is also common in this phase to get a first-hand experience of the process by being a member of an AL process so that prospective coaches gain an understanding of what it is like to be in an AL team and how powerful a method for learning and developing great solutions AL can be.
Stage Two – Developing the Science of AL: In this stage, learners start to apply the theory that they learned in Stage One. This is a difficult step because what looked so simple from the position of a team member turns out to be much more difficult when they have to make decisions about what to say and do as a coach. In this stage, the method is simplified so the learner can practice the fundamental aspects of the technique before being challenged by much more complex (and realistic) situations. In this stage the learning coach receives “real-time” guidance and supervision from a more experienced training coach as well as feedback from the team about what worked for them and what could be improved.
Because of the amount of interaction and engagement between learners and “trainers,” the size of the classes is typically much smaller than in Stage One. In order to give learners an opportunity to get rich feedback from the trainers, the student/trainer ratio is usually low (no more than 8 to 1).
Stage Three – Developing the Art of AL: In this stage, developing coaches learn when and where to apply, and, more importantly, when not to apply the myriad techniques and tips that they have learned about in earlier training and practice. They learn how to use guiding principles rather than scripts and hard-and-fast rules to make decisions about what to say and do as coaches. They also learn how to apply the many other mental models that they have learned in formal coursework or through practical experience in making decisions as coaches. For instance, we often apply mental models and principles developed through research on team dynamics and problem solving to inform the questions that we ask through the problem-solving cycle (many of these models are presented in detail in our recent book, Great Solutions Through Action Learning: Success Every Time).
Another useful method for developing the art of AL is to become active in a supervision group of other coaches and a supervisor who meet (often virtually) on a periodic basis to present case material and receive peer and supervisor feedback. This is an excellent way to join a community of AL coaches who help can each other struggle and grow as coaches. I have been a member of several peer and professional supervision groups, some lasting over a dozen years, over my career.
Stage Four – Developing the Craft of AL: In this stage, learners have a sophisticated understanding of AL and have taken on responsibility for developing other coaches as well as the field of AL. Learners at this stage mentor others, join or start professional organizations, develop training programs, write books and articles, and present at professional meetings. The focus in this stage is learning through helping others to understand a complex subject or issue. As most of us have discovered, teaching a subject uncovers what we don’t know (but need to know) about a subject and reveals new mysteries to explore.
LTA’s program, Advanced Training for Action Learning Coaches, is designed for learners who are in stages 2 & 3. This course if designed for learners who have a basic understanding of AL and some experience as an AL coach. If this describes you and you would like to develop your skills in the science and art of AL, this program is idea for you!
Skip Leonard, PhD
Master Action Learning Coach