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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Action Learning Components: The Group

Over this week, I’ll be presenting an in-depth review of Optimizing the Power of Action Learning: Solving Problems and Building Leaders in Real Time by Michael J. Marquardt (Davis-Black Publishers, 2004). CEO’s and Leaders—put this book on your MUST BUY list.

This is the FIFTH of several posts on Action Learning.

The Group: The Action Learning group has between 4-8 participants, who are willing to identify and work on a problem that doesn’t have either a simple or an obvious answer, rather a problem that will take work. Depending on the scope, complexity and type of problem or issue presented, the group members can come from the unit, company or even vendors or stockholders. The group helps re-frame the problem for the problem owner—thus allowing fresh insights/points of view and the opportunity to solve the problem when seen from a different angle—through the eyes of another. Remember this piece of sage advice I’ve used with students: When you look at the world like a hammer EVERYTHING looks like a nail! Here are just a few questions that Marquardt raises in this section of the book:

a. What are the criteria for membership in the action learning group?

i. Knowledge: One or more people should know something about or have experience with the problem.
ii.Diversity: Chose people from different departments and/or up and down the organization, depending on the nature of the problem. Perspective is important for complex problems. There’s a great story about how a pizza delivery guy helped solve a tough engineering problem.
iii. Selection: Should be done strategically focused on how best to solve the problem…not just based on who volunteers.

b. What about attendance and size? (I combined a couple of questions)

i. Attendance: The author is pretty clear…everyone meets at all of them. Commit up front to dates and times.
ii. Size: Four to 8 people.

c. Is there a balance between experts and non-experts? (Also, there are related questions about who should or not be involved)

i. Experts—for complex problems, organizational/group diversity is far more powerful than an “expert” who can intimidate members thus preventing them from asking “dumb” but very wise questions! Sometimes these experts push the notion that there is ONLY one solution to complex problem, and they’re more often wrong. Remember that groups ultimately have the power in tough, complex problems…not experts…and there are multiple ways to solve problems. For example, no two professional golfers putt exactly the same way.
ii. Problem Presenter: Should present a problem that is vital to her/him (something that needs solving) and be willing to ASK for help (not always so easy). Present the problem in a clear and concise way. Too much detail can bog down or side track the group. S/he must answer honestly and directly all questions and not be afraid to ask the group tough questions.
iii. Action Learning Coach: Concerned more with group learning and development than problem solving. The group solves the problem; the Coach focuses on what’s learned along the journey. Thus the name Action Learning. The Coach handles the coordination, admin issues, even connection to top management, or problem presenter if not present.

d. Other key questions in this segment of the model:

i. Do we have members from outside the organization—customers, suppliers, dealers, other organizations?
ii. What is the level of accountability and responsibility for the group’s results?
iii. What access to outside resource people will be available?

Note: The author asks a number of other very good questions in this read the entire text. Well worth the effort.

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