If you are not failing, you are not innovating enough – Elon Musk
week I spent time reflecting on an interview I had with a participant
who had recently completed a management development programme that
included an action learning component. He mentioned to me that his
biggest regret was that he and his team ‘set the bar’ so low that they
did not experience the full benefit of action learning. This got me
thinking … Why did this action learning team have such low expectations
of themselves? The team was a group of senior managers who are well
qualified and could make an impact in their organisations, but they
never got out of the starting blocks. This was fascinating to me,
because I realised that if you don’t really start then you can’t really
Starting a management development
programme can cause anxiety in many participants. This anxiety can
prevent participants from achieving their personal and company goals, as
in the case mentioned above. Fear of failing, fear of not reaching
one’s potential, fear of not being good enough or being inadequate
compared to one’s peers are all reasons for feeling anxious.
the experience of this participant and his team unique or is that what
most participants really feel? In Deloitte’s 2014 Global Human Capital
Trends report it was recognised that employees were feeling
“overwhelmed”. Subsequently, in the 2015 Global Human Capital Trend
report it was acknowledged that there is a need to simplify work and
help employees to focus and relieve stress. Understanding these trends
can help action learning coaches, to help participants while working in
action learning groups.
Action learning is
about finding innovative solutions to ‘wicked’ problems in the
workplace. The joy of action learning is that it is not only about
solving complex workplace problems by harnessing the wisdom of a
community, but it also provides the team members with an opportunity to
gain a deeper level of learning. The participants are responsible for
one another's learning as well as their own. Thus, the success of one
participant helps other participants to be successful.
team members learn if they are feeling stressed and anxious? Herein
lies the paradox for those of us involved in working with action
learning teams: In order for learning to take place, there needs to be a
certain amount of eustress (good stress).
action learning coach has the power to coerce individuals in the team to
work on a business problem, but this may hamper learning. Action
learning has two components: ACTION and LEARNING. The power of action
learning lies in the complex relationship between the two, but sometimes
it is difficult for participants to understand how one impacts on the
other in practice. Action does not necessarily lead to learning. Both of
these constructs – action and learning – need to occur in the action
learning design. Revans(1), the father of action learning, argued that
“there can be no learning without action and no (sober and deliberate)
action without learning”.
allows participants greater flexibility in the way they control their
learning progression based on the guidance of the action learning coach.
As an action learning coach, I believe that the participants are the
experts in terms of their learning, not me. I believe they are able to
access answers to their wicked problem – they just need time to reflect,
to be exposed to constructive questioning and to be unfettered by any
judgment from me, so that they can think for themselves. Reflection
allows participants the opportunity to express their discomfort. In
addition, reflection helps to connect the action and learning
constructs, as it involves both cognitive and emotional aspects which
enable participants to be free of limiting mindsets. The only learning
outcome should be to learn with and from each other, and I can help by
creating an environment where it is safe to challenge and learn.
Edmondson introduced the notion of team psychological safety, where the
collective belief becomes one of safety regarding interpersonal risk
taking. If action learning coaches can help participants feel
comfortable with the paradox of not making the environment too safe, but
at the same time helping participants to deal with the anxiety of
action learning, then action learning teams will have real potential in
addressing the wicked problems back in the workplace and perhaps the
full benefit of the learning will be gained as the ‘bar will be set’
(1) Revans, R. 1998. ABC of Action Learning. London: Lemos & Crane.
is the executive director of the Greenfields Learning Academy and she
is a faculty member of USB-ED. Her areas of specialisation are people
management, human capital management, management development, employee
engagement and action learning.