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Action Learning: Developing Leaders to Harness Change

Tags:  (2017 Feb 28th - 3:40pm)

Nothing within an organization is as inevitable as change itself and 2017 will be no exception.  Many in the federal and private sectors believe change is good, though managing and navigating change is often harder as there are questions that must be answered to include:

  • How soon will the change take place??
  • Will the organization’s mission itself change?
  • Will the makeup of my work unit change in concert with the mission?
  • Will the funding for projects and people be the same?
  • What skills will my organization need to accomplish a new mission?
  • Will adding skills be possible if funding changes?

Change involves transitioning, which is often a process of letting go of past ways of thinking and doing business,  reframing challenges as opportunities and cultivating mindsets and behaviors that foster strong individual and organizational performances to create a new future.

Whether you are an individual contributor, supervisor, manager or organizational leader, having a clear set of values is a strategic advantage during periods of change and transition. A clear set of organizational values provides a framework to drive behaviors, , inform decision making and to create meaning for organizational members.  Embracing values that support change leads to behaviors that create, support and make visible meaning and culture, that is “how we do things here”.

Culture—the organization’s secret sauce—is closely tied to performance in times of both stability and change. High performance is also tied to positive employee engagement, which is, in turn, tied to lower attrition, increased innovation, enhanced problem-solving and greater satisfaction and motivation. However, a large body of survey research shows that fewer than 50 percent of staff members believe they have a way to engage with the organization. In my January 2017 HR News column, I outlined five ways to engage employees:

  • Putting the right people in the right job,
  • Ensuring consistent communication,
  • Building on strengths,
  • Creating a clear line of sight, and
  • Identifying the executive’s role.

With that in mind and before you read the rest of this article, consider these two questions from where you are in your organization:

  • What three skills do you and leaders need now and in the future?
  • How would you develop those skills?

I believe that most responses would include behaviors that engage others, such as active listening, building trust and creating a vision. This means that organizations must create conditions in which those behaviors develop, are modeled and rewarded. To develop those skills, most people would say education/training, developmental assignments, and executive coaching and mentoring as important pathways, and they would be right.

That said, in a change environment, every organization must check on the effectiveness of its approach to leadership development and talent management. In particular, leadership training does not traditionally incorporate the social, interpersonal or cultural aspects of an organization. While participants come away with tools, they do not always understand how to apply those tools in the context of the organization. In fact, a 2016 survey by SABA revealed that less than a one-quarter of employees believe that their company’s training equips them to achieve desired organizational outcomes.

The ultimate goal of leadership development and talent programs is improved performance, both for employees and for the organization l. When these programs do not drive performance by improving skills, advancing careers or increasing engagement and retention, a gap grows between how managers and employees view the programs’ effectiveness. In 2017, every organization could benefit from reviewing the goals of its talent programs and, then, assessing the programs’ success in improving individual, team and organizational performance.

A pivotal question must be “How can we develop facile leaders faster within the context of our organization and create a culture for performance?”  The answer lies in co-creating “learning leaders,” so they develop enterprise wide perspectives and networks, create the cultural norms for organizational performance and solve issues that are important for the organization to move forward . Action learning is one such opportunity to co-create learning in a context rich environment.

Action learning is team led, inquiry-based, peer to peer learning that brings together people with diverse perspectives and different functions to solve real, challenging problems that face the organization and which have no set and clear solutions. It takes advantage of inclusivity and diversity of experiences and knowledge, and it allows participants to own the problem while becoming committed to developing solutions.

Action learning team members become invested in solutions and can visualize how their work fits into the mission of the organization and their role. Members learn from each other and create the cultural conditions for performance, such as norms for how to interact respectfully, share information, leverage skills, provide feedback and be accountable. They also develop their own authentic leadership styles.

The 4 Elements of Action Learning and to Co-Creating Leaders

The Problem

The organizational problem has to be urgent, consequential, amenable to action and have several possible solutions that harness the power of the group. Important to the problem is that it must be understood by others. In other words, it needs to be legitimate so others can identify with it. Last, the proposed solution needs a champion who will be the individual who takes the lead on implementation.

Truly engaging workers to learn leadership skills requires putting them in positons where they learn from their experiences. What better way to do that than tasking them with solving a real problem that demands real action. In a recent action learning session I facilitated, one participant stated, “It’s real world, real times. The things we were talking about were actual problems happening now.” Another person said, “The issues I brought to the table were things I was working on. They weren’t sort of speculative issues or fantasy; they were real.”

The Group, or Action Learning Team

A group of 5-8 employees drawn from different parts of the organization who meet in person works best to bring diverse perspectives to the problem. Sitting around a table helps because leaning is a social process and being open to others’ points of view allows action learning participants to shift their frames of reference.

Convening a group that is familiar with the challenge is not always necessary. To be successful, an action learning team must be cohesive, open and trusting. Creating those characteristics requires allowing people to be vulnerable in asking and answering questions. In an action learning session, not knowing the exact right answer is expected, even if potentially uncomfortable, especially for people who hold leadership positions.

Feedback from one group I worked with indicated that action learning team members enjoyed listening to different perspectives from people who could relate to their issues. The diversity of the group was important, as was having peers who were able to participate in a level of conversation that was readily identifiable to the others around the table. Group members asking questions in nonjudgmental ways built trust, and participants felt safe to raise and explore new ideas.

Questions and Reflection

“Inquiry over advocacy” and reflection form the core of action learning. Asking questions makes the act of learning a continuous process grounded in the experiences of a diverse group of people.

The inquiry over advocacy approach is one way that action learning differs from other problem-solving and decision-making techniques. When members ask questions from their own perspectives, the team hears different points of view that are not available to them through their own paradigms. As one action learning participant said about group diversity, “The wide range of questions from folks of different perspectives and backgrounds allowed me to see things differently.”

This is an important step toward understanding a problem instead of merely proposing a solution. Open inquiry encourages team members to reframe the problem according to the different perspectives, which lets them imagine it differently.

Reflection consists of the time needed to think about how the questions and responses relate to what we know, our assumptions and our experiences. Reflecting allows action learning groups to uncover assumptions and perspectives and then develop shared meanings and common norms to move forward.


Taking action validates the work of the group, creates a sense of urgency and engenders commitment to organizational performance. It also gives rise to a recognition that one part of the system impacts every other part. Understanding how each work unit within the organizations is coupled is key to leading a nimble, innovative organization.

Getting team members from different parts of the organization to ask each other questions and share perspectives helps each other see how and what they do connects to what everyone else is doing. . This realization makes many action learning participants more willing to experiment with and implement ideas. As one person in a group I facilitated said, “Anytime you lay out a situation, then you have people coming back at you with more questions. …. You’re not facing the challenge because of any one thing you did to create it yourself. These are things that come up and affect the workplace” as a whole.

Individuals become engaged as they share their own perspectives, recognize their own habits of mind, learn from each other and derive the benefits of solving problems in innovative ways. Going through this process ultimately changes the way one sees the world and the organization. People become empowered to embrace the values of diversity and inclusion, which is necessary to reach organizational performance goals. Engaging with others also helps individuals recognize assumptions held about the workplace and to openly share unique perspectives, which ultimately shapes the way in which people work together.

One action learning group member said, “Some of the things I learned about myself had nothing to do with the challenge—they had to do with me.” Another said, “I’m actively more thoughtful about what might be behind the situation other than my own basic assumptions.”

Leadership Development

Because action learning is grounded in the inquiries of diverse perspectives working on complex problems, it challenges existing ways of doing things and can prevent individuals from becoming stuck in outdated paradigms. Asking questions sparks creativity, integrates insights through shared dialogue and perpetuates values and their corresponding behaviors, such as being inclusive and welcoming diversity of thought. These behaviors lead to the co-creation of knowledge.

Action learning requires we actively listen.  In doing so, the peer to peer process cultivates the values needed to develop and drive leadership behaviors that engage others. Within an action-learning organization, each manager coaches team members by asking questions, thus promoting engagement at all levels. A value that leads to performance.

A leader’s behavior demonstrates her values, which employees take as cues for their own behaviors. Since the words and behaviors of individuals who hold positions of authority carry more weight and influence than those of people who do not, it is incredibly important for organizational leaders to demonstrate their commitment to creating and maintaining a culture of action learning.

Demonstrating this, senior leaders who participated in a series of action learning sessions shared the following observations regarding changes in how they actively approached problem solving and modeling values, especially inclusiveness:

  • I’ve been relying on my instincts, so I had to slow down, ask thoughtful questions, ask for other people’s input. And this had some real value to me. There are lessons to be learned from people doing different things in different places and ways.
  • Once you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, ... you start thinking about how they might be looking at it from their lens.

For action learning to fulfill its potential for turning values into visible behaviors, participants must think about their organization and the behavioral cues they observe and follow, like being open to questions, offering ideas and contributing across functional lines. Putting a value like inclusiveness into action means individuals will behave in ways that engage others and enable teambuilding and to co-creating knowledge. Incorporating the value of diversity helps people develop a broader vision of what the organization does and can accomplish.

As we progress through 2017, let’s reframe how we see leadership training. Developing leadership skills is not about completing courses, but about engaging others and improving performance. Modernizing development opportunities requires creating situations in which future organizational leaders learn continuously within the context of what the organization and co-workers do in order to give rise to the norms that make optimal performance possible. Carrying out a leadership development modernization effort also requires focusing on increasing engagement and better defining performance-based outcomes for individuals, teams and the organization as a whole.

Offering quality action learning opportunities takes time, but the investment is worthwhile for providing chances to demonstrate what we want from our current and future leaders. These qualities are the ability to communicate, take in different perspectives, engage and actively listen.

Andrew Rahaman, Ed.D., has worked nationally and internationally with leaders and organizations of all sizes in the public and private sectors, including 26 years in federal government. He is an executive in residence at American University, where he teaches graduate courses on organizational learning for the university’s Key Executive Education Programs. Rahaman is also on the staff of the Center for Creative Leadership and past-chair of the U.S. affiliate of the World Institute for Action Learning. He currently runs his own consulting firm specializing in executive coaching, onboarding, organizational culture assessment and delivering leadership development programs. He can be reached at or