Learning from Action Learning

Photo of trees against the sky

Sometimes you need to look up to get where you are going.

I became aware of action learning as a participant in an executive leadership program. Just this year as I returned to action learning as a team coach, I realized that action learning has something to teach me as a project manager. Here are some quick ways you can use action learning into any team project.

Action learning gives a small group of students a real-life problem to solve. The group works together to learn about the problem and, by reflecting on their work and progress as they go, they also learn about working as a team, self-management, communication, even learning—and any number of other life and management skills. If you’d like to read more about how the collective web defines action learning, Wikipedia offers a good overview and background along with a long list of books and articles on the topic.

While I was in the process of action learning for a 5 month-long project culminating in a presentation to people much more powerful than me, I remember being focused intensely on the problem at hand. What was the root of the problem and how could we solve it? Over time, the project began to interfere with our day-to-day jobs and with home lives. The differences in work styles, communication styles, and individual priorities caused friction—both small and large. This was an intense time, partly by design, that had the group under pressure.

If you’ve been on a project team for a large project—a complete website redesign, for instance—these pressures will likely sound familiar to you.

The wish to “get it right” is intense for many project teams. Participants in your project team may start already impassioned about the problem you are trying to solve. Your colleagues outside the team can be impassioned, too. Your result is often on display for the entire library–even the entire world–to see.

The time pressure is there, too. Participation on a project team is almost always on top of your regular work in a library. A few lucky team members may have anticipated the project and the workload and cleared their schedules of extra commitments. Most, though, will not have that luxury. Members of your project team may feel the pressure of a broken server that they need to rebuild (now!), a class that they need to prepare to teach (tomorrow!), or the emails that are piling up in their inbox (always!).

The action learning model tells you to look at the process—the group dynamics, the part you play in the group, the act of learning—so you can improve your performance both now and in the future. A group project without reflecting on the process isn’t action learning—it’s just a group project.

There is no reason that you can’t adapt the reflection piece of action learning so that your project can also become a learning experience. Ways of doing this include:

    • At the beginning of a meeting, ask each person to state their expectations for that meeting. Adjust the agenda as a group or discuss as a group if all the expectations can’t be met. This helps you to move forward at a pace that your team wants to move—not just what is comfortable for the leader.
    • At any point in a meeting, pass an object hand to hand, giving each person holding the object the floor to voice their opinion without interruption. This talking stick model is a simple method with which many people are familiar. It is ideal for when you have some voices that are louder and some voices that are quieter.
    • If you come to an impasse during a meeting, ask each person to share their answers to the following three questions:
      • What do you observe happening? Depending on comfort with conflict, you may discover that only a few people in the group think that the group has actually hit an impasse.
      • How do you feel about that or what are your guesses about what is really happening?
      • What should the group do next? This model is commonly called “What, So What, Now What?”
    • Schedule time for the end of each meeting as “check in.” Ask any of the following questions to create an awareness of others’ needs, or surface feelings that, unaddressed, will grow into serious challenges to your project. Schedule a discussion about the serious challenges for the next meeting or work through problems outside the meeting time with email or one-on-one.
      • Do you see anything else we should be doing right now?
      • How do you feel about our progress?
      • Do you have any concerns to share with the group?
      • How is your work load right now?
      • What one word would you use to describe our project?
    • At the end of the project, ask each team member what, if anything, they gained from serving on the project team. As the project manager, you may be surprised by the responses and can use them to improve your own leadership skills.

originally posted in a different version in Web Project Management for Academic Libraries blog

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