Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Learning from Action Learning

I became aware of action learning as a student 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 web project manager. In this blog post, I will offer some quick ways you can incorporate 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 whole group under pressure.

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

The desire to “get it right” is intense for many web project teams. Web projects are frequently high-impact in a library; academic library employees use the public website every day as a core part of our daily work. Participants in your project team may start out already impassioned about the problem you are trying to solve. Your colleagues outside the team can be impassioned, too. Your end result is frequently on display for the whole world to see.

The time pressure is there, too. Participation on a web 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 examine 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 web 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 you.
  • 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 you never seem to hear.

  • 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—just the facts?
    • 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 referred to as What, So What, Now What? 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.
  • Schedule time for the end of each meeting as “check in.” Use that time to ask one question that gives everyone a chance to share their perspective:
    • 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?
    This can simply create an awareness of others’ needs. It can also 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.
  • 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.

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