Collegial Action Learning uses learner-centric design principles to enable professional knowledge workers to thrive in a world of wicked problems.
This article describes the flow of a kick-off session of a Collegial Action Learning initiative. We reframe the learning process by starting with the real interests and priorities of the learners. We then come back to those interests and priorities every time we introduce a new tool or concept. This disciplined focus on participant priorities enables a more personalized learning process for each participant, accelerating the application of new concepts and tools to the wicked problems learners go back to when they leave each session.
Collegial Action Learning posits that the best way to accelerate the conversion of learning into results is to take people through tight cycles of action and reflection. Thus, our top priorities for the kick-off session are to ensure that as many participants as possible leave with a couple of clearly-articulated action plans and that they are committed to at least taking a shot at actually enacting those plans.
During the initial stage of a CAL initiative (described in another post titled Leverage Autonomy, Purpose and Connection to Drive Transformation) we select themes that both the group and the organization consider important. Once we have clear themes, relevant research sets and target participants, we are ready to get people together and get the ball rolling.
Create a space that is welcome to reflection and sharing
CAL is a space for slowing down, taking stock and connecting with others through reflection on experience. We do not set pre-session homework; however, we might distribute a few reflection questions to help participants start framing their interests. We don’t expect the first session to lead to a sudden radical change for the individuals or organization; we just want to build connections among the participants, hone in on some interesting areas for experimental action and strengthen belief that interesting changes are actually worth pursuing.
- Start with a good chat to build a solid foundation of memory and empathy
These first conversations are intended to create something like a coffee shop vibe. We start with an icebreaking activity in which everyone talks about something unrelated to work.
Once people have had a chance to warm up a bit, we ask them a few questions framed to help them to think back on their recent work experiences in the context of the themes of the initiative. They make a few notes individually, then share stories in small groups.
We frame the initial reflection questions broadly enough to allow the participants to explore and describe the real issues they have worked on without worrying about whether they have something mind-boggling to say. To get them to tell real stories about challenges, what they have tried and what they have learned, we liberate them from the expectation that they must have something profound to say right from the start.
This initial reflection and sharing accomplishes two things:
- The participants begin to create word pictures of the issues that matter to them. They may not realize it, but these initial free-flow reflections often create a frame of reference that guides their thinking as they set objectives and action experiments later in the session.
- The participants begin to develop a sense of empathy and affinity. Nothing beats a good old-fashioned chat. In modern workplaces, talking with colleagues is sometimes treated as a waste of time because chatting usually doesn’t lead immediately to a measurable outcomes. Some employees even behave as though they are afraid that enjoying time with your colleagues will be viewed as unprofessional. Research shows, though, that social connection is necessary for physical and mental wellness as well as productivity. The simple act of chatting seems to have a powerful effect on people’s comfort and stress levels. In contrast, lack of social connections is one of the main reasons people give for leaving organizations. (For more on this, see Are you a Human in a Professional Suit?)
For some participants this is the first time they have been provided with a space at work in which they can talk with each other about things that they actually care about. At first, some participants are hesitant to let down their guard. But then something interesting happens. A colleague opens up with a story that sounds authentic, and there is always someone else in the group who jumps in with a related story. The sharing becomes contagious and eventually even the most reticent participants find that they sharing stories almost despite themselves.
Why do we start with interests rather than objectives?
I noted above that we don’t set objectives yet and there is a reason. While clearly-articulated, thoughtful objectives can be a driver of learning and productivity, poorly-articulated, superficial objectives can be counter-productive. Moreover, it is hard to set clear objectives in relation to a problem that you do not clearly understand.
Meaningful objectives emerge from genuine interests. It is important that the participants objectives emerge from a sense of purpose rather than a need for credibility. We want the participants to set objectives that resonate with their experience and aspirations, not just a set of targets that they think their managers or peers will approve of.
To avoid wasting the participants time in the pursuit of poorly-articulated “credible” objectives, we set aside plenty of time for the participants to discover objectives that they will consider genuinely worthy of their time and effort. This starts with the relatively safe and pressure-free excavation of personal interests. We only ask the participants to start thinking about objectives after they have done enough reflection and exploration on their interests to know what kind of objectives might trigger a sense of purpose. Even then, since the Collegial Action Learning process is cyclical, we stress that the first set of objectives should be framed to encourage experimentation to validate purpose and potential performance with an eye to later refinement.
2. Validate personal experiences by comparing them to relevant research
Once the participants have reflected on their own experiences together with their colleagues, they need access to something to help them to judge whether those experiences are significant. We do this by providing them with summaries of empirical research and/or models collected from a variety of relevant fields. As they read through these summaries, we ask them to make notes on whatever catches the eye. We then ask them to share which findings they found interesting and why.
Why don’t we just tell them what they need to work on or assess their capability?
Typically managers and learning designers assume it is their job to tell the learners what they need to learn. We assume that clear direction from an authority expedites the process and shortens the path from insight to action to results. This assumption is not entirely wrong, but it ignores the power of intrinsic curiosity and personal context to drive action and learning. Even without direct instruction from a learning authority, most participants naturally find linkages between the empirical research summaries and their own experience. These links to research serve as a relatively objective mirror against which the participants can take stock of their subjective experiences. The comparison of personal experience with empirical research gives participants more confidence that their own experiences are valid and common in addition to being unique and idiosyncratic. When participants know they are dealing with a real problem that may have a real solution, they often no longer need an authority to tell them what to change. The are capable of figuring it out for themselves.
3. Build list of possible themes then select the most meaningful ones for experimental action
Once the participants have considered their own experiences in the context of empirical research, they are often ready to move toward selecting a specific issue or objective they would like to work on. Sticking to our guns that experience and association are an underutilized source of ideas and action, we begin the objective-setting process through an exercise with a minimal level of structure. One easy way to start this process is to give the participants a sheet of paper covered with open circles. We ask the participants to take some quiet time to fill in the circles with keywords describing problems or priority areas that might be worthy of action. They supply as much or as little detail as they can at this point, but many of them find this pretty easy since they have already started this process in the initial group reflection. Once they have filled in most of the circles, we once again ask them to briefly share what they have written with a partner or two. As they describe their themes to their colleagues, their colleagues help them notice common elements or connections across the themes.
At the end of these discussions, we ask the participants to select 2-3 circles that raise the kind of sense of purpose that increases the likelihood of action. In a later session, we will start to think about longer term growth, but at this point it is more important to build the participants execution muscles by striking an iron that currently feels hot. Once a cycle of action has been completed, they will have more data to continue their search for patterns or cause-effect relationships among the themes.
4. A desired behavior should be framed as “rare” rather than “new”
When we are stuck, we often feel that the way to break out is to throw everything away and start over; however, this is more easily said than done. Even when our goal is to change something, it is often easier to achieve that change by leveraging elements of the past and present to construct a picture of the future. Rather than struggling to imagine ourselves doing something totally new and foreign, we can sometimes make more progress by building a plan based on the whats, wheres and whens of what we have done in the past. After all, we know we can do those things because we have already done them.
Appreciate your past successes
The planning process in a Collegial Action Learning program uses a methodology that might be compared with Appreciative Inquiry. Using a very simple mind mapping technique, we ask the participants to think back to a time when they had success in relation to the theme (or an analogous one). In learning ventures, there is a tendency to focus on identifying what is wrong and try to fix it, and when things are totally off track, this may be exactly what the doctor ordered.
However, the assumption that we need to fix something to make progress is tenuous at best. The fact that we are struggling with something now does not mean that we have always struggled with it. There are plenty of times when our best starting point is to remember a time when we were successful in a similar situation, then isolate the factors that enabled that success. With some adjustment, actions that have gotten good results in the past often provide hints about how to tackle our current challenges.
When you are struggling, it does not naturally occur to you to think about past successes. You are more likely to think, “If what I was doing back then was so great, I would have kept on doing it.” This kind of thinking reflects a misunderstanding of how we use memory to connect past, present and future.
Remembering is more like making a movie than watching one
First, let’s look at what happens when we remember past events. We tend to think of our memories as little movies of the past, providing a more-or-less accurate picture of what happened on such-and-such day in such-and-such place with such-and-such people. Research indicates, though, that memory functions more like an outline than a detailed script. When storing memories, the brain does not save detailed pictures, possibly because this would require copious amounts of space. To save space, the brain picks out certain points and images, organizes them into a rough story and lets go of details deemed less important. This outline is then packed away until some later experience causes us to remember it. At that point, our outline of the previous experience is combined with other inputs such as other memories or features of our current experiences to create the illusion of a movie-like memory of the past.
When we call up memories, what we actually see in our mind’s eye is sort of like a re-edited movie constructed by combining our current experiences, the outline of the past experience and whatever else the recall process repurposes to help fill in the missing details in the outline. Memories of people’s faces may be influenced by distinct memories of other faces that the brain has pulled in the reconstruction of the memory. Moreover, the emotional content of a memory is to some degree colored by the mental state we are in when we recall it. Whether we are feeling hopeless or hopeful, patient or irritable, energized or enervated has an impact on the shape our memories take during the reconstruction process. Every time we remember something from the past, we are to some extent creating a revised version of the past based on the other stuff that is floating around in our minds at the time when we do the remembering.
Memory is like a personal history that you can call upon in the interest of an agenda in the present, but it is also influenced by how you frame that agenda.
In science, the question one asks is said to have an impact on the data one finds and the answer that emerges from the data that has been selected. A similar principle can be applied when you try to access memories of past successes. Framing your search can help you find (or perhaps synthesize) the useful stuff hidden in your memories banks. When you call up memories of past successes in the service of present choices, you are sending cues to your brains to look for something useful and if often does just that. Sometimes you find something that directly applies. There are also times when you find bits and pieces of past experience that trigger useful associations and insights about the situation you are currently pondering.
Part of what makes this information particularly useful is the fact that it is already integrated into your mental world. The content of your memories can make it much easier for you to convert your ideas into action because you already are in possession of the images that can help you can imagine yourself taking that action.
As a tennis player, I can attest to the fact that it is much easier for me to copy and recreate successful serves I have hit in the past (as well as the various processes that enabled me to hit those serves) than it is for me to attempt to copy the serve of another player. Remembering past successes renders a visceral sense and first-person vantage point on what our new set of actions should be. We recall or create specific details, and these details can be brought back to life as an image of what we plan to do next, complete with many bits of the subjective experience that came with the past success. Concrete plans are easier to imagine and easier to implement, and the feeling of success can be just as important as the actions themselves. Learning from past success can be a process by which we leverage positive past experience to re-imagine our present and future in ways that support creation of a future that we actually would like to experience. (For more information on how stories connect with behavioral automation, see Making Behavioral Automation work for you instead of on you.)
5. Access the treasure trove of your colleagues’ memories
Why settle for one movie when you can have many? Once you have reconstructed a past success story you are almost ready to re-enact it, but it never hurts to compare notes before you commit to the script. Memories of past successes are grist for the problem-solving mill; there’s some wheat and some chaff, but it can be hard to judge on your own which is which. This is a great time to get another set of eyes on the problem.
After participants have reconstructed their past successes in mind map format, we ask them to describe the mind maps to each other in small groups. The participants ask each other questions about details of their mind maps. They help each other identify which elements of their past successes seem applicable and which seem like red herrings.
The added benefit of these dialogs is that they all get to listen to their colleagues’ past success stories and this adds more grist to each participant’s problem-solving mill. While each individual’s experience is unique, there are also parallels and similarities in the patterns of our experiences. Participants often find that their colleagues have come up with novel solutions to problems that are similar to their own and that some of these solutions can be adapted and re-purposed.
6. Action commitments should be simple and concrete, but commitment is more important than format.
We conclude the kick-off session by asking them to record how they will convert their past successes into action experiments. We provide them with simple planning tools and ask them to plan actions they can start immediately after the session. We have seen research indicating that clearly articulating the what, where and when of an action greatly enhances the likelihood that individuals will actually take that action, so we ask participants to describe what they will do, when and where they will do it, who they will do it with and what larger goal or purpose the action will support. Some participants create multiple detailed action plans, while others only create a rough outline of one or two actions. Detailed plans are generally easier to follow, but commitment is a higher priority than detail, so we are not particularly doctrinaire about the format.
Once participants have recorded their plans, we have them describe them to each other. The verbal repetition of the plan helps to raise commitment to the actions and it also introduces a sense of accountability. Once they have told each other what they plan to do, many participants feel a sort of positive peer pressure to at least make an effort to put the plan into practice.
7. Extend connections into the workplace
We often do one more thing to help people remember to take action in the workplace. We have the participants match themselves up with chatting partners, and we ask them to set an appointment 1-2 weeks after the session to exchange notes on what actions they have taken and what results they have gotten.
This is where the rubber hits the road. The primary purpose of the sessions is to prepare the participants to take action. If they don’t take action between sessions, they miss most of the value of the program. One of the great weaknesses of typical training is that participants often feel that their job is done when they leave the room. In contrast, our clients have found that the majority (often in the 80% range) of Collegial Action Learning participants take some action after the first session. The high commitment to action seems to stem from a sense of ownership for plans they themselves have built based on their own experiences and reflections as well as those of their colleagues.
Rather than doing what someone else told them to do, they are taking actions based on their own analysis and agency. Starting with the will to learn leads to more action, more learning and better results.
What happens next?
A week or two later, we bring the participants back together to compare notes on their experiments, so they can decide what to continue, what to change and what to stop. This process leads some people who have already quit to start again and it allows those who have continued to validate their experiments and cement them in memory as stories. Some participants also choose to copy each other’s experiments as this saves them the time of having to come up with a new experiment from scratch.
Now that they have started taking action, the next challenge is to continue until the new behavior becomes automated. To assist in this process, in our second session we provide the participants with research and suggestions on how to start converting their successful experiments into automated behaviors (a.k.a. habits). I’ll describe how this works in another article.
What is Collegial Action Learning?
Collegial Action Learning is an Action Research intervention. CAL posits that people learn as much if not more from their own experience than from the teaching of experts. CAL 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.
For an exploration of peer-based learning based on an approach called “copy/paste” prompts, listen to:
For an exploration of the power of weak social ties to bring us new opportunities, see: “LinkedIn Ran Social Experiments on 20 Million Users Over Five Years” by Natasha Singer on nyt.com on Sept. 24 2022
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 research on the idiosyncratic process of memory construction, see: “Did That Really Happen? How our Memories Betray Us” on Hidden Brain, Dec 16th 2019
For illustrations on the pervasive nature of negative framing simple techniques to increase positive framing, see: TED Talk -Alison Ledgerwood: “A simple trick to improve positive thinking.”
For research on the mechanics of habit construction, see: “Creatures of Habit: How Habits Shape Who We are and Who We Become” https://www.npr.org/2019/12/11/787160734/creatures-of-habit-how-habits-shape-who-we-are-and-who-we-become
For an exploration on how our ability access other human beings’ minds is a key ingredient to the success of the human species, see: TED talk – Yuval Noah Harari: “Why humans run the world”
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 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 loneliness, social isolation, their impacts and what to do bout them, see: https://freakonomics.com/podcast/loneliness/
For an exploration of how practices similar to a RIP cycle, see: “We Get, and Give, Lots of Bad Advice. Here’s How to to Stop“ by Adam Grant, nytimes.com, April 2, 2020
For an exploration of how collaborative reflection and ideation helps turn “slow hunches” into eureka moments, see: TED RADIO interview with Steve Johnson titled “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” @ https://www.npr.org/2014/06/27/322920914/where-do-good-ideas-come-from
Gary Hamel provides a nice introduction to the principles of experimentation @:
For research on the impact of small positive interactions with people with whom you have weak ties on your own well-being and the well-being of others, listen to this interview with Gillian Sandstorm on Hidden Brain:
Action Inquiry, Bill Torbert and Associates
Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux
The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz
The Power of Story, Jim Loehr
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