The Millennium Group
46169 Westlake Drive
Sterling, VA 20165
By Dr. Bea Carson
Beyond its valuable problem solving benefits, Action Learning teaches:
- Strong teams to process more efficiently,
- Stagnated teams to revolutionize,
- Floundering teams to swim,
- Anxious teams to calmly find solutions,
- Dysfunctional teams to perform effectively.
A key component of the Action Learning process – it forces the group to fully understand the problem
before moving toward defining solutions. This dissection can lead either to resolution, or to realizing
that the dilemma presented is merely a symptom of multiple problems.
Action Learning synthesizes thinking. Not only does it
clearly demonstrate these skills in the Action Learning
environment, but also it molds participants’ attitudes in
their daily interactions with each other. It changes
communication tactics from making statements to asking
This shift converts talking at each other, to hearing,
comprehending, and caring what the other person has to
say. It forces individuals to listen to each other –
significantly increasing the comprehension experienced
during the discussion.
Action Learning sessions start with the coach explaining the process. For those already familiar with
Action Learning, this step reinforces the technique.
The two fundamental ground rules of Action Learning are:
- Statements can only be made in response to questions, and
- The coach has ultimate authority.
The coach must have this authority to insure that all learning opportunities are optimized.
Through these learning windows, the coach guides the dynamics that the groups use to
There are three basic types of learning opportunities:
- Early intervention,
- Process interventions, and
- Group dynamic interventions.
The coach uses the early intervention to be sure everyone is participating in the process. One of the
most difficult aspects of group processing is getting all attendees into the conversation.
Often, in typical problem-solving sessions, a few people with dominating personalities monopolize the
meeting, preventing the quieter participants from speaking. The longer it takes these reserved
individuals to get into the conversation the harder it becomes for the group to ever work as a unified
During this early period in Action Learning, it is imperative that the coach enables everyone to
participate. This short intervention serves the purpose of ending that silence; thus breaking the barriers
that make it so difficult for some members to speak openly.
Process interventions by the coach simply insure participants are
playing by the rules. The coach will re-focus participants who shift
into old habits of making statements or accusing. Additionally,
the coach will make sure the group has come to a consensus,
defining the problem before allowing the group to move to the
More often than not, the problem presented at the beginning of
the session is simply a symptom. Typically, as the group asks
questions to learn the nature of the problem, it becomes clear
that a deeper issue needs to be resolved.
Other times, during these process interventions, the group members begin to realize they are actually
talking about multiple problems: this can either be a conflict that exists at several levels or a situation
that is complex, touching many aspects. In either case, the participants determine how they would like
to attack the multi-phases:
- When the problem exists at multiple levels, they will decide whether to start with the local issue
then move toward the global – or start with the global then move toward the local.
- When the problem is complex, they will frequently use the first session to isolate the individual
components. This helps prioritize the list – using future sessions to resolve the individual
For the group dynamic interventions, the coach these behavior modifications into their everyday interaction, with all members of the organization – co-
handles both positive and negative learning
opportunities. During these openings, the coach will
ask questions – all in a positive vein – to determine
how the group could be processing better. The coach
never tells the members how to
handle a situation appropriately, but rather lets the
group determine what works best for the individuals
The coach takes the group to the deeper level of
understanding why the changes they are making in
their processing are more effective. By understanding
not just the “what” of this technique of processing,
but the “why” and “how” of making it better, the
participants carry over
workers as well as superiors – functioning more effectively and harmoniously.
A second aspect that emerges from these group dynamic interventions is a clearing of the air regarding
hidden issues. A trained coach recognizes when the group is harboring resentments that need to
surface. By exploring these issues and processing them, the group can then move ahead. Bringing
these issues into the open – some that have possibly been festering for years – the group comes to a
better understanding of each member.
WHAT IS ACTION LEARNING?
A dynamic process for problem solving, building teams, developing leaders, and changing culture, Action
Learning consists of six components:
1) The problem,
2) A group of 4-8,
3) A commitment to learning,
4) A process that encourages questioning and listening,
5) A resolution to take action, and
6) An action learning coach.
The problem: This must be real - an urgent situation. Even during training sessions, where Action
Learning is being introduced, only actual problems are used. Participants engage much more
enthusiastically when they know the problem they are considering needs an immediate and innovative
Problems are sometimes confused with puzzles; puzzles have only one solution. Action Learning is not
an appropriate tool for puzzles; however, it is a powerful tool for problems.
A group of 4 – 8: Action Learning groups work best when there are 4 – 8 members. With fewer than 4
members diversity is too thin to unearth truly innovative solutions. With more than 8 members, the level
of interaction increases vastly, becoming unwieldy. The more diverse the group, the more powerful the
solutions. Ideally, one person should have little or no knowledge of the problem. This person, known as
the Pizza person (see Action Learning in Action by Michael Marquardt), asks all the “dumb” questions, the
ones everyone knows the answers to, but once the questions are voiced each discovers a different
understanding of what the answer really is. New hires make exceptional pizza people; they have a
plethora of questions that they need answers to and the Action Learning set is the perfect environment
for these questions. This brings novices up to speed without taking deliberate time for it. Including
individuals from other functions within the organization has the side effect of cross pollinating – bringing
a better understanding of the entire organization to all departments.
A commitment to learning: During the Action Learning set, many opportunities for learning will be
addressed. Before beginning the process, members agree they will be open to these learning
opportunities. The long term advantage of Action Learning is the development and extension of these
learning interventions. Participants take these techniques and continue to apply them in all areas of
their work. Capitalizing on this provides a geometric impact that the organization feels, in addition to
the immediate solution of the urgent problem.
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater,
long-term, expanding benefit is the learning gained by each group member – as well as the group as a
whole. Subsequently, these learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.
Thus, the learning that occurs in Action Learning has greater value strategically for the organization
than the immediate tactical advantage of early problem correction. Accordingly, Action Learning places
equal emphasis on the learning and development of individuals and the team as it does on the solving
of problems; the smarter the group becomes, the quicker, better quality of its decision-making and
A process that encourages questioning and listening: Action Learning requires questions and
reflection; statements and opinions are secondary. By focusing on the questions rather than the
answers, Action Learning fills the gaps in one’s knowledge rather than showing off what one knows.
More important, beyond encouraging this openness to asking questions, Action Learning makes it safe
to ask questions. Participants discover that through questioning they expand the base of their own
knowledge. This growth allows them to find much more innovative ways of addressing every day issues.
This shift can be overheard in conversations in the hall, and seen in the change of tone in e-mails.
Participants discover the true power of questions over statements.
A resolution to take action: The most powerful learnings take place when the action is implemented;
through doing we solidify the notions of what we heard. Action Learning sets must not only be
empowered to take action on the problem they are resolving, they must be required to take action. In
some instances, the actions that come out of an Action Learning set may simply be to gather additional
information needed to solve the problem. In other instances, it is a full-fledged change initiative that will
set a new course for the organization. Because the group must be empowered to take action, it is
imperative that at least one person in the group have the authority to approve the actions before the
group disbands. Groups that have to send their solutions for approval after the meeting are less
inclined to put their best effort forward.
An Action Learning coach: The Action Learning coach’s primary role is to focus on the learning. The
coach looks for learning opportunities and uses them to ask questions that will cause the group to
determine better ways to function as a team. Through the use of questions, the coach is able to lead
the group to reflect and determine the best ways for them to process. Additionally, the coach works as
helmsman – keeping the team focused on solving the problem at hand. The coach also enforces the
ground rules – particularly in terms of being responsible for the learning. The coach focuses only on the
learning – not the problem at hand – reminding the group that the learning is equal to the problem, in
Action Learning is a powerful method of building mutual respect into an organization’s training program.
It teaches people to continually question, creating an environment where “because that’s the way we
have always done it” becomes an unacceptable answer. It empowers employees to handle the
permanent white water that is part of everyday life. It sets the process in motion that allows strategies
to be continually flexible.
Action Learning is effective for solving dilemmas of all sizes. It is most powerful for solving problems that
require creative, out-of-the-box solutions. Senge describes a need to get away from institutional
training and generate a learning environment; Action Learning creates this environment. It teaches
people to question and think about how to do it better, rather than blindly continue the old way of
ACTION LEARNING IS EFFECTIVE
Cultural Change: The problem presented was that we need programs to create a positive work culture.
The organization only has forty employees; split between two divisions. The divisions happen to be
located on separate floors. The level of animosity between the two divisions has reached a destructive
level. Something needs to be done to create a positive culture.
The team tenaciously started asking questions - it was clear they were avoiding something. After a few
learning interventions they started peeling back the onion. They started identifying the groups of
employees that were not part of the problem. Tensions started to rise as they were getting close to
naming the problem employees.
I intervened …. asking “How are we
doing as a team?” The angry response
was “Great! Until you interrupted!”
Our conversation continued –
“What are we doing great?”
“We were just about to identify
who the problem is!”
“Is that important?”
“Would the behavior be acceptable
from someone else?”
This was followed by silence, then a more subdued “No. The behavior would not be acceptable from
With this, I let them continue with defining the problem. It wasn’t long before they concluded there
were only two people that were feuding. However, the battle was so intense that it was infecting
everyone. Within minutes, they realized the real problem was - we don’t deal with conflict. The
remainder of the set was spent identifying unacceptable behaviors; and how they would be addressed.
Shift Schedule Change: The problem presented was that the group needed to determine better shift
schedules without increasing paid overtime. The site needed coverage 24 hours a day, six days a week.
At that time, to cover the six days - they were running three 8-hour shifts.
During the process of understanding the true nature
of the problem, the real issue surfaced. One of the
members of the team had been at the plant when it
went from a seven-day week to a six-day week.
Covering seven days allowed longer shifts over fewer
days – employees worked four days and had three
days off. One of the benefits of using Action Learning
techniques, the group heard from an ordinarily quiet
participant. They learned the issue was twofold.
Many of the employees commuted over an hour to
get to work: shifting from four days to six days a
week added a heavy toll to travel time.
However, the deeper issue that surfaced was that the site went to the six-day schedule without
consulting the employees. They simply were handed the new schedule.
If, during the problem solving, we had simply come up with a new schedule, the issue of consulting the
employees still would not have been addressed. Consequently, the team proposed three different
schedules. The employees were then able to choose the work schedule that best fit their needs without
the company incurring additional cost.
Two for One: The problem: We have more problems than we have time to address. How can we
prioritize them and start addressing them?
The whole group decided a core cadre would prioritize the list. We would then split into two teams, each
taking one problem at a time to work through to completion. The teams would then report on the
actions they had evolved. Everyone in the whole group would abide by the actions determined by the
team working the problem.
The core cadre identified eight problems that needed to be addressed, and set them in priority order.
The group seemed ready to split into teams and start working the issues. At that point, we hit our first
snag of the day. Both teams wanted to be responsible for the item that was given the first priority. It
was not that each wanted to be the hero in tackling this issue, it was that neither wanted to trust the
results that the other team created.
A key element of Action Learning is that only one team works on a problem. If multiple teams work the
same problem, the same level of effort is not applied towards it. In such circumstances, each is aware
someone else is working the issue, so the urgency to find “the solution” is lost. Members of Action
Learning sets need to know the problem they are working is real and that they will be responsible for
taking the actions, and implementing the solution.
The group consisted of too many participants to allow them to work as a single group. A lively discussion
ensued. The most vocal remark was, “I can’t let THEM decide for me.” As the Action Learning coach, I
finally opted to trust them. I allowed the group to talk me into letting them work the same problem. I
had strong reservations about permitting them to do this, but the level of distrust between the
participants in the room was so strong that we decided this was the best course of action. We left
ninety minutes at the end of the session to allow each team to report, and then consolidate the issues
into a single list.
Not surprisingly, the number one issue that had been identified was their communication issue. This
group was made up of members from multiple companies. They had a situation where each company
had its own interest to worry about, in addition to the interest of the project. Sometimes these interests
were in direct conflict with each other. Developing successful means of communicating were imperative
to the success of the solution.
These groups worked for several hours, and worked hard to understand the basis of their
communication issues. From listening to each other, they generated next steps, including specific actions
that they would be taking. Each team generated about a dozen concrete action items that would be
taken to improve the communication across the companies.
The groups came back together with their lists in hand; each ready to defend why their
recommendations were the RIGHT actions. We only had about ninety minutes to reconcile the lists, so
there was a bit of tension in the room, whether we could accomplish that.
The lists were posted in the front of the room, guarded by the team’s spokesperson. As soon as the
lists were up, each group started scanning the list produced by the other team. A disbelieving silence
fell over the room. Then the murmurs started. It was with totally amazement that everyone realized the
lists were virtually identical. The same folks who had voiced their distrust of the other team spoke up
again – “I guess I CAN trust them.”
Roles and Responsibilities: The problem was that it is not clear that the current structure works for
understanding what the roles and responsibilities within the organization are. The group worked
diligently for several hours attempting to clarify the meaning of this problem. Ultimately, what they
decided was that they had a much bigger problem that needed to be resolved before they could even
begin to address the problem of roles and responsibilities.
No reorganization would work until they addressed the communication issues. The team continued with
the Action Learning process; as they proceeded, they realized there were three dimensions to this
They persisted for many hours; recognizing the perceptions and attitudes that were flowing from each
side of each of the communication paths. Each person was free to express his or her perception of what
was occurring. In exchange for being allowed to express one side of the issue, they openly listened to
the other side. Through questions, each of the communication issues was re-evaluated. Each situation
was looked at from both views, from how it made the recipient feel, to what the transmitter’s intent
was. The team decided on specific actions to prevent the same situation from arising again.
Typically, these communication issues are addressed during the learning portion of an Action Learning
set. However, this group decided their issues were so deep that they needed to be worked head on.
This group learned the lessons about communication issues that all Action Learning teams learn -
leading to the development of the Communication Code of Conduct.
COMMUNICATION CODE OF CONDUCT
The Communication Code of Conduct cards were designed to be a constant reminder of the rules of
engaging in communication. They are wallet size so they can be carried conveniently. At some point,
these simple rules emerge in every Action Learning set. Because of this linkage, the Action Learning
rules are printed on the reverse side of the Code of Conduct rules.
The sessions where groups have decided to attack the communications issues head on tend to hit on all
of these issues in a single session. These groups will frequently come up with dozens of actions to be
taken as a result of their set, however, as they examine each of them, they come to realize they fall into
one (or several) of the items identified in the Communication Code of Conduct.
Communication Code of Conduct:
Assume Noble Intent
Most of us do what we do because we believe it is the best thing to do. Within “societal
structures” we base our actions on what we believe is best for “the whole,” whether in the
boardroom, or the factory. But our altruistic actions sometimes appear questionable to others.
However, if we start from the assumption of noble intent we are more likely to approach the
situation with an open mind.
Use the power of questions
The many faceted effect of the “power behind questions” becomes a tremendously long list. For
starters, by asking questions, we can:
- Uncover information about the things we do not know.
- Express an interest in what the other person has to say.
- Draw the other person into the conversation.
- Make it clear we are not making assumptions and are open to possibilities beyond our
Questions allow us to uncover the underlying causes rather than simply looking at the symptoms.
Questions encourage multiple perspectives.
When we ask someone a question, we force him or her to listen to us. It is only through listening
that he or she will be able to respond to the question. Because questions indicate we care what
the other person has to say, trust and openness increase. Perhaps most important, questions
help us reach a common truth.
Simply put, we cannot come to a common understanding if we do not truly listen to each other. It
is through the cycle of listening and questioning we get to the root of the situation.
During discussions, we sometimes allow ourselves to be sidetracked; those additional facets of
the subject might be interesting, but they prevent us from getting closer to understanding the
current situation. Sticking with the subject at hand allows us to get to the root cause, and remedy
the problem so that it will not need to be addressed again.
Build on each other’s questions
Asking a question is great, but if a haphazard approach is used, the focus will be lost and Respect the perceptions of others
discussions will need to be repeated. By building off the previous question, a train of thought can
be run to complete clarification before diverging to the next element of the discussion. These
questions force us to investigate all elements of the original question, thereby analyzing it
completely. This fleshing out approach to asking questions insures none of the elements is
missed. Even if no one in the group has the answer, the question is captured for future follow up.
Everyone looks at each situation through his or her own lens. We all do it – especially adults
reflecting back on childhood. Whichever sibling you ask in a family, he or she was the one who
had the toughest time growing up. It was all because of this “tough childhood” that each is so
successful – or dysfunctional.
In the work place, we see it almost on a daily basis. When someone does something that is out
of synch with our thinking, our immediate response often is that he/she is doing some evasive
fancy footwork, or back stabbing, or sucking up into position for promotion.
Once we accept that there could be another side to the story we open ourselves to the possibility
of agreeing on a common truth.
Keep responses short
We all know one – a person who gets on a soapbox and just never stops blathering. The drone
goes on and on and on and on until everyone has tuned out the bore. Unfortunately, since the
orator is unwilling to relinquish the floor, nothing else can be discussed. By staying focused and
simply answering the question, much more communication can take place. It is very rare that a
person needs more than just a few minutes to answer a question.
Again, simply answer the question. If someone wants more details, you will be asked.
Remember, you will learn much more by asking the questions that allow you to broaden your
knowledge. You move further ahead! Your trying to show off every minute detail of your
knowledge can leave you in quicksand.
Even worse than those who try to show off knowledge, are those who tout opinion as fact.
Draw others into the conversation
Multiple perspectives allow for the shifts in paradigms that facilitate the out of the box solutions.
In terms of benchmarks – if it is “benchmark-able” someone else can do it better. It is relatively
easy to improve on the current standard. To really get out ahead of the competition, processes
need to be changed to establish new targets. To achieve these changes, those closest to the
process need to step back. They need to allow new eyes to look at it. They must encourage these
eyes to ask questions. By thoroughly probing the process from different perspectives, the current
blinders, which are focused solely on the current way of doing things, are lifted.
Living by this Communication Code of Conduct, organizations are experiencing a shift in culture.
Graduates of the program respond to what was previously an upsetting “non” communication, situation,
by approaching the other person. No one is considered a guilty party, because by assuming noble intent
and accepting that there is another perspective it makes the person approachable. By simply going to
the other person and asking a question it becomes quickly apparent there was no malicious intent –
just overworked people who missed keeping everyone informed. They realize the deep problems they
thought they had, no longer exist. They realize the people they used to think were “out to get them,”
like themselves, are simply trying to get their own job done.
Even more powerful than the problem solving that emerges from the Action Learning session, the long-
term positive effects spread to many facets of the members’ lives.
Participants of Action Learning sessions quickly learn the power of questions. They discover that, by
incorporating more views into their problem solving, they are able to achieve far more powerful
solutions than they ever imagined. By seeking out the views of others, they easily engage all
participants into the conversation.
Team spirit within the organization deepens. These discoveries become a part of a new culture that
emerges in the organization. On a day-to-day basis, the way people interact: whether it is water cooler
talk, hallway conversations, or email; whether committee meetings, or major boardroom consultations,
these new communication and comprehension skills are quickly and effectively empowering all.
Dr. Bea Carson, TMG Senior Consultant, is a certified Master Coach by the World Institute for Action
Learning (WIAL). As a co-founder of WIAL, she has been led various efforts to develop methods and
standards for training Action Learning Team Coaches. Dr. Carson has consulted with government, non-
profit, and commercial organizations throughout the United States including Constellation Energy, Triplex,
NASA, Rotary International, and Special Olympics Maryland. Dr. Carson has been an invited lecturer at
American University and the George Washington University. Bea is also a member of the board of Special
Olympics Maryland and the Annapolis Rotary.
© 2006 Carson Consultants
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Argyris, C., 1977. Double Loop Learning in Organizations. Harvard Business Review, 55(5): p. 115.
Barnard, C.I., 1938, The Functions of the Executive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Freire, P., 2000, Pedagogy of Freedom. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.
Need to Solve a Difficult Problem?
The Amazing Power of Action Learning
- statements can only be made
in response to questions
- the action learning coach has
the power to intervene
whenever he/she sees an
opportunity for learning.
© 2006 Carson Consultants
Communication Code of Conduct
- ASSUME NOBLE INTENT
- Use the power of questions
- Really listen
- Stay focused
- Build on each others questions
- Respect the perceptions of others
- Keep responses short
- Draw others into the conversation