Action learning programs provide multiple beneficial outcomes, including:
• Team effectiveness.
• Analysis of the leadership capabilities of individual team members.
• Individual leadership development.
• Problem-solving and planning on a real-time business issue.
Offsite team building programs are increasingly unpopular with many business leaders who want to spend their team’s time on more immediate work matters. Employees seem to agree: A recent study by mobile phone company Vodafone UK and market research company YouGov found most employees believe that team-building exercises are a waste of time and involve embarrassing exercises that fail to build morale and engagement.
In the past, team building experiences were often scheduled activities using simulation, game play and immersion experiences to help a team develop awareness and better communication and partnering skills. Many learning leaders encouraged these activities believing they would jump-start success in the office. But the days of “trust falls” and multiple-day adventures in the wild are over.
Andrea Weinzimer, vice president of human resources at publishing company Hachette Book Group, said, “there is not enough long-term benefit to justify the financial spend. It’s hard to measure its success and correlate it to the business.”
“Today’s context requires that the business see more immediate and tangible value from an offsite [event],” said Judy Jackson, chief talent officer of Digitas, an integrated brand agency. “We need to remove all the clutter and show the ROI of the efforts.”
Further, only including a portion of the workforce can hurt engagement for employees not involved. It also sends a poor message when a few employees get to go on expensive retreats and the workforce is dealing with declining salary increases.
Instead of pulling a team out of work to build collaborative skills, leaders can use offsite meetings to do real work on strategic planning, problem-solving or other long-term needs that require in-depth thinking.
Action learning provides an opportunity to combine the real work objectives of an important offsite event with the beneficial outcomes of a reflective team-building experience. Many companies such as Goldman Sachs, UBS, IBM and GE also use action learning for high-potential employees as part of leadership development initiatives which include other elements such as 360s, executive coaching and MBA programs. This high potential-focused action learning also may include real-time project assignments focused on company business with time built in for reflection on how the participants perform as leaders in high-pressure, problem-solving environments.
Jackson employs action learning for high potentials at Digitas to “give them an opportunity to influence and have their voices heard on something important to the business, while building a community of partners in the learning process.”
How to Conduct Action Learning for Teams
Action learning for teams can be especially effective if a team’s leader is looking for multiple outcomes from an offsite meeting beyond the defined business goals. These might include better team communication, more effective partnerships between team members, more team synergy and agreement between members in conflict.
If key business challenges are the focus — such as realigning a sales process, integrating a new acquisition or fixing a client service problem — the core business goals which precipitated the need for an offsite meeting become the central problem-solving element of the action learning process.
In this context, the team is taught to approach the work assignment differently. For instance, most teams will move quickly into a brainstorming process when an issue is presented. When brainstorming, individuals drive forward with a degree of certainty negotiating their perspective. With action learning, the team moves forward with curiosity, wanting to uncover the best approach by asking great questions. The question before statements approach of action learning can drive higher-level strategic work.
Lynn Pinkus Lewis, executive vice president and global managing partner at Universal McCann, an advertising agency, used action learning for an important offsite event focused on planning a client initiative. “We accomplished very strategic work at a higher level than anyone anticipated,” she said.
The question-based approach to problem solving invites participants to probe deeper and ensures that they think through the implications of their decisions. Bill Guerin, senior vice president of sales, marketing and strategy at Prudential Group Insurance, used action learning as a management consultant. “[It] gets people to think differently and break old habits by forcing them to look at an issue from many new perspectives. This helps to reinforce trust within the group because a participant sees the other members of the team stretching themselves. This gives him or her permission to stretch too.”
Through this process, team members learn to communicate their individual perspectives to the other participants and build on their partners’ ideas. The work process includes reflection on the quality of their communication, questions and listening while evaluating the work process. The team also analyzes how well members are partnering as a team and fixes gaps as the work continues.
This reflection occurs during the process, providing more meaning to each participant since the feedback from peers and a coach is in close proximity to the expressed behavior. Individuals learn and grow in self-awareness while the team develops techniques to improve its effectiveness.
Building an action learning team typically involves the following steps:
Set the team challenge: The team leader designs an opening question or problem statement for the team’s action learning process. The challenge should be a real business issue that impacts the participants so they feel engaged and concerned about the outcomes. It is important that contextual analysis occurs so the facilitator understands the organization’s strategy, culture and leadership gaps.
Conduct pre-session learning planning and assessment: Each person participates in an assessment process, typically through psychometric tools, and meets with the facilitator to discuss individual learning plans. This orients participants to reflect upon their style vis-a-vis the team. At the same time, the facilitator gathers information about the team’s effectiveness to prepare a team assessment report to be shared at the meeting. This team analysis will include specific development goals for the session, and it should help to expose any team issues.
Create an action learning program: The process typically is managed in two days broken into specific steps. The steps include:
• Restate the problem statement. The team vets the presented challenge for relevance, importance and accuracy. The principle here is to ask the right question to get the right answer. Guerin said, “This process moves away from a typical deterministic view that occurs at offsites. It offers a place for innovation and helps people confront areas of personal weakness.”
• Determine assumptions behind the issue. The team outlines the assumptions behind the challenge to determine if there are any hidden risks that need to be exposed and considered before moving forward.
• Set goals that would solve the issue at hand. Learning how to create goals is a key dimension to the action learning process. The goals provide an opportunity to identify the desired end state.
• Set specific tasks to realize the goals. The team identifies specific, clear tasks needed to be accomplished to reach the desired end state.
• Create an accountability matrix. The list of tasks is placed into an accountability matrix, which includes enumeration of each task’s owner, partner, resource, next step, date for next step and date for total completion of the task. Then the team is given clear assignments, which include sub-teams partnering to drive the group forward to the desired end state.
Offer post-action learning feedback: Once the program is completed, each participant should sit with the facilitator or coach for feedback. This in-depth feedback reveals potential blind spots and offers coaching on how to better interact with this team and in team settings in general.
The team leader should participate in the entire process. Unlike action learning for high potentials where an executive sponsor delivers the assignment at the beginning and receives a presentation on the team’s work at the end, the leader of the intact team stays engaged as a total team member from start to finish.
Leadership development consultant Peter Prichard shared an experience where action learning benefited a team leader who habitually rescued his team in challenging times. “In this process, he learned how to not step in and save the group when they were struggling with the exercise,” Prichard said. “This forced him to be comfortable with silence and learn to trust that the team could end up delivering the output together. He stepped back, and they were able to step up.”
At the end of the process, the team leader takes ownership of the accountability matrix, making sure the team’s activities are well managed and completed in light of agreements made at the offsite event. All of the follow-up steps can be measured by the leader who can clearly determine if the offsite event delivered positive outcomes. The leader also receives post-session aggregate analysis from the facilitator about the team’s needs and how the leader can best manage each member. This additional information creates opportunities for the team leader to act as a coach.
Sustainability is the key to this learning process. Because active reflection continues throughout the process, which takes about two full days, the team learns how to perfect its working relationship, which can be used when members return to their offices or gather again for significant decision-making moments.
With action learning, busy teams that cannot step away for team building interventions can still produce multiple ROIs from one offsite program.
Paul Gorrell is founding principal of Progressive Talent Partners LLC, an executive coaching, team effectiveness and leadership development firm based in New York City. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.