Design Autonomy, Purpose and Meaningful Connections into Action Learning Initiatives

The following is a rough overview of factors I have considered in the design of initiatives using an action research methodology called Collegial Action Learning.

Collegial Action Learning combines individual reflection, ideation and experimentation with collaborative reflection, learning and ideation to spur additional individual action. In an CAL initiative, professionals refine and test their own ideas as well as those of their colleagues so that all parties emerge better equipped to address challenges that are meaningful to both the individuals and their organization. CAL initiatives establish a foundation for collegial action in the workplace, enhancing performance and purpose in organizations and making them more resilient in a world full of wicked problems.

Preparation should be just that:  preparation, not a choreographed solution.

We have introduced Collegial Action Learning as a way to address a problem that the client has already tried to solve through traditional learning or management approaches. In the initial stage, our biggest challenge is often helping the sponsors and their stakeholders become comfortable with a learner-centric approach. To those who are accustomed to centralized control of learning and change the CAL approach can feel perilously unstructured. We show them that there is a logic and structure to the CAL process but that the process is designed to draw out the insights and ingenuity of the group rather than to show them the “right” solution.

We try to keep the preparation process as simple as possible.  

Scan for problems and opportunities that people really care about – Before we engage the target audience in an actual program, we work with our stakeholders to figure out what might be the pain and gain points that would be most engaging for potential learners. We try to find answers to questions such as the following: What is the organization trying to achieve? What themes are most likely to resonate for the employees who contribute to achieving those results?  Who is most likely to have a reason to proactively take action on those themes?  What do they care about? What research or stories can we leverage to help the participants see that this initiative will help with something they actually care about?

Conduct research on how to frame these opportunities to appeal to potential participants –- Our stakeholders provide us with their description of the problem or goal, but we do our best not to assume that we have the a perfect description of what the solution or even the problem is. We collect information on the current state in relation to the desired state using typical approaches such as focus groups, interviews, and surveys.  We look at the organization, culture, engagement, confidence, challenges and other themes that seem relevant. Our goal is to find a few keywords that will resonate enough with learners to quickly and organically generate reflection and dialog.

Frame program in a way that makes it easy for participants to start with real experience – We consider the framing of a program to be a combination of art and science. Based on the information we collect, we settle on one or more themes for the initiative. We’’ve had particular success with themes that have a strong personal experience element, such as individual and group productivity, work-life balance, and quality of work experience, but we have also conducted programs with themes relating to organization improvement or business strategy. The initial themes are intended primarily as a starting point for reflection and dialog. The real points of interest tend to be a bit different for each participant, but the general theme makes it easier for the participants to start talking with each other so that they find common elements in what initially seem to be unique problems and goals.

Whether the initiative theme is externally or internally focused, CAL posits that many of the elements of a solution already exist in some form within the minds of people in the organization. We help the participants covert their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, so it can be mixed with the knowledge of their peers and translated into workplace action experiments.

CAL combines reflective and interactive elements. Themes often – but not always – Have a collaboration element. We’ve worked on cross-functional best practice sharing, creating networks for innovation, developing stronger ties between branch and home office and similar themes.

Look for participants who have the potential to become passionate about the topic –- We have run programs with as few as four participants and as many as several hundred.  We have worked with groups of managers, whole divisions, participants from throughout an organization and teams.  We prefer that the our client find people who are already either quite frustrated or excited about the theme to be worked on.  We welcome people who are frustrated or perhaps even actively disengaged as long as they are not so jaded that they have already checked out from the organization. Those who have a genuine sense that there is a problem can be difficult to manage, but they also turn out in many cases to be the biggest contributors once they are engaged in the CAL process.

Have ALL participants start from personal experience – There is one principle we encourage our clients to follow when selecting and preparing participants for a CAL initiative.  We encourage all participants to engage as individuals, regardless of their rank within the organization. We often ask even executives to start by considering the theme from an individual rather than managerial perspective.

Eliminating hierarchy from the learning process cues a kind of interaction and idea exchange that is often difficult to achieve in a normal work setting. When everyone approaches the process as an exchange of personal experiences and perspectives, the managers gain access to information that their team members might not normally share with them. Likewise, when the managers openly share stories of their own concerns and challenges, the more junior employees gain a sense of empathy for their managers as people.  Participants have reported that these personal dialogs evolve into connections across boundaries and organizational layers that lead to faster problem-solving and decision-making.

Assume that people DO have relevant experience – CAL initiatives are organized around individual (or group) experimentation periods interspersed with group reflection and planning sessions.  We consciously do NOT assume that people are starting with a baseline of zero knowledge. Rather, we assume that many of them probably have a lot of great, partially-developed ideas that might turn out to be great, average or terrible when validated through action and reflection. The participants have probably already participated in training or read books on the theme, and they may have even tried some unplanned experiments, but they usually do not feel confident that they have a reliable solution to the problem. In some cases, people have given up on solving the problem and have resigned themselves to trying to work around it. You might say they have developed a FIXED mindset about the problem. They don’t believe that they or the organization are capable of changing.  In some cases, though, it only takes a bit more effort or a better process to get better results. 

Provide empirical data to validate the experiences of the learners –  Our first goal in a program is to help the participants see that the problem they are facing in a new light. We want to help them move from a FIXED mindset to a GROWTH mindset in relation to the problem.  We have found that one way to help people break out of the FIXED mindset is to expose them to research that reminds them of their own experiences.

We search for empirical research that is relevant to the theme of the program. We then provide snapshots of this research in the form of short summaries. When participants read these summaries, they realize that their problems are neither unique nor insoluble. Many people become more willing to try something new when they see research showing that the challenges they face are common and that there is a record of others taking action to overcome similar challenges.

Provide data and tools, but not answers – It is important to note that we neither provide nor even develop a set of recommendations for the participants based on the data. We expect them to form their own hypotheses and action plans based on what they have learned by comparing their own experience to the data and stories integrated into the design.

It is only natural for clients to expect that the consulting organization to provide “answers or at least a clear POV”, and we usually do have our own ideas about the potential solutions to the problem the organization is trying to solve. Nonetheless, we have found that providing a process by which the participants can do this analysis and planning for themselves increases their engagement and ownership. Even if there is a limited range of solutions the participants are likely generate, the engagement and ownership that comes with developing a solution for themselves greatly increases the likelihood that they will take action based on their analysis.  Sustained action is often the key driver of learning that eventually leads to real results.

While we do not provide specific solutions to participants as to how they should solve their own problems, we do sometimes share personal stories of how we have overcome a similar challenge.  The purpose of this sharing is not to provide an actual solution so much as to demonstrate the kind of thinking and experimentation process the participants can use to solve their own problems for themselves.

There are a few other design features that make Collegial Action Learning effective, but these features are easier to describe in the context of a CAL kick-off session. I have described the outline of a kick-off session in a separate post.

Resources:

For an exploration of the concept of natural experimentation, a concept that shares many traits with CAL, see: What Coronavirus Researchers Can Learn from Economists, By Anupam B. Jena and Christopher M. Worsham, nytimes.com, 6/30/2020

For an exploration of the surprising efficiency of learning through trial and error, see: TED Talk – Tim Horford: “Trial and Error and the God Complex”

For a presentation of how X, a world leader in innovation integrates experimentation and learning from mistakes into their development process see: TED Talk – Astro Teller: “The Unexpected Benefits of Celebrating Failure”

For an exploration of wicked problems and related concepts:                Range:  Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World“, Chapter 2, “How the Wicked World was Made”

For an exploration of loneliness, social isolation, their impacts and what to do about them, see:  https://freakonomics.com/podcast/loneliness/

© Dana Cogan 2009,  2017-2020, all rights reserved.

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