To many, the answer to business success lies in action learning, a process in which employees accomplish a discrete business goal while learning new leadership and business skills. Action learning holds a powerful promise. Delivering on that promise requires attention to some vital factors.
We believe these seven critical factors to success are:
1) Well-crafted, challenging projects with strong links to real work and current business goals
To ensure ongoing commitment from across the organization, projects should be relevant, timely, and important to both individual learners and to the business. Project requirements, deliverables, and success measures must be clearly stated, and participants urged to make explicit contracts with their project sponsors and/or their thinking partners/peers to define the deliverables they will be accountable for producing.
Getting commitment from across the organization can be very difficult. But it is much easier if projects are relevant, timely and important to both, individual learners and to the business. Goals should be SMART, and there must be clarity on project requirements, deliverables and success measures. Participants should be encouraged to make explicit contracts with project sponsors / all stakeholders and define the deliverables that they will be accountable for.
2) Visible buy-in and support from senior management
The most effective leadership development efforts are typically led from the top. The same is true for action learning. Visible senior management support contributes to the quality of the overall effort and the project results by:
Encouraging selection of important business-issue- related topics for team-based projects
Reinforcing the connection between leadership development and business results for all project work
Ensuring accountability, in the organization and the individual leader, for taking action and delivering results from projects
Making participants visible to senior management
3) Active, visible sponsorship by participants’ direct managers and/or project sponsors
It is imperative that participants’ managers understand and visibly support the demands that action learning commitments put on participants. This requires a deliberate communication process. Failing to communicate will result in managers failing to reinforce (or worse, undermining) participants’ ability to apply the skills they are learning, and fully engage in and complete their project work successfully. Managers who either do not see how the program helps to build new capabilities to perform, or who do not see how the program can realize direct and tangible benefits, can create conflicting priorities.
4) Accountability for project execution and results
The most effective action learning initiatives have multiple methods of driving accountability built into their fabric. Examples of these methods include:
Public commitments to projects
Communication of project topics to senior management
Use of “thinking partners” (that is, peers who provide support and advice) in project execution
Use of coaches in project execution
Use of periodic progress-reporting devices, such as web- based communication tools
Presentations of results to peers and senior management
Follow-up communication processes that keep the learning “community” networked and connected after the formal development program ends
Formal communication of implementation plans for project results and follow-up processes to ensure implementation proceeds as planned
5) Coaches who encourage applying skills and tools participants learn in workshops, and who create a clear balance of action/reflection and work/ development
The most successful action learning projects create opportunities for participants to make clear connections between their workshop-based leadership learning and their on-the-job activities. In addition, the best projects require participants to strike a balance between action and reflection-and also strike a balance between accomplishing the task (focusing on producing the project deliverables) and team and/or personal development.
6) Encouragement of personal learning involving stretching and risk taking
Encouraging participants to take risks with the personal learning aspect of their projects contributes to the potential richness of the overall experience for them, and, ultimately, for the organization. Projects should be stimulating and engaging, so that participants can look with a broad lens at their leadership role, their department, and possibly even the organization as a whole.
7) After-action review, reflection, and continuous improvement
The most successful action learning initiatives are engineered for continuous improvement. That is, they ensure each round of action learning is debriefed from several angles-those of the individual learner, the project results, and the administration of the initiative. Lessons learned from these debriefs are fed back into the planning process for the next action learning initiative, ensuring that each round of participants learns from the experience of rounds that came before it.
AchieveForum’s experience has consistently shown that, with these critical success factors in place, action learning initiatives (whether team-based or individual) will be “risk-proofed” and can be implemented effectively, delivering real traction in learning for participants.