Action learning is a systematic approach that uses real-world
problems and opportunities as vehicles for professional
development. Because action learning programs generally introduce
very little new training content, they can be a perfect complement
to existing curricula. Presented below are fourteen factors that
will enhance the success of your action learning program for future
Do recruit compelling, high-profile projects for
teams to tackle.
This year's strategic plan is a great source of potential projects,
both opportunities and problems. Also look to customer satisfaction
data. Although process improvement projects are fine candidates,
don't overuse this category. If you anticipate an issue with
participants feeling underwhelmed by a project, consider developing
a pipeline of projects and allowing your teams to apply for their
top three choices in advance of the launch workshop.
Don't make the program a one-shot deal.
Just as learning never ends, neither should your best laboratory
for developing future leaders. The program should be ongoing, at
least twice per year, and participants should know that they will
be invited into it more than once.
Do require that the action projects all produce a
bottom-line business result.
There is no substitute for the learning that comes from having to
develop and implement a solution that actually achieves a desired
bottom-line result. The result can be costs saved, profits from the
acquisition of new customers, profits from the sales of a new
product, or some other economic benefit. But they should not be any
of the following: solutions developed, new systems implemented,
recommendations developed, or processes improved. If your finance
expert wouldn't show it in the financials, then it isn't a
bottom-line result. Don't give an action learning team a research
Don't let the projects stretch out forever.
Thirteen to fifteen weeks is plenty of time for the projects to be
completed. If a project needs a lot longer than it may not be right
for an action learning team. Or perhaps a piece of the larger
project can be carved out for the team as a demonstration of
capability. Remember that the projects must include implementation
in order to achieve bottom-line results.
Do provide each team with an executive sponsor,
and do hold those sponsors accountable for the developmental and
The executive sponsors are being granted the services of a team to
help them accomplish one of their strategic priorities for the
year. Thus sponsors are mutually accountable for the team results
or lack of results. A sponsor whose team fails because he/she
wanted to see how they could do on their own has not fulfilled the
sponsor role. Your future leaders deserve a strong example in
driving results. This is not to say that no teams will ever fail,
but it should not be due to a laissez-faire sponsor. And at the
same time, this is a learning program. Sponsors need to reinforce
the developmental side, as well as provide coaching wherever
Don't "teach" anything.
The action learning program is an opportunity for participants to
apply what they have learned in your other leadership programs.
Make this a learning pull rather than a push by assuming that
participants already know what they need to know to succeed in
Do keep all the teams in synch within each round.
Each round of the program should launch the teams all at once and
end the teams all at once. In between, a single midterm workshop
can serve to keep the teams updated on each other and on schedule.
This approach maintains the overall group atmosphere, including
both collaboration and competition. At the end, make all the teams
present at the same executive session.
Don't just let development happen.
Many so-called action learning programs are simply task forces from
which participants are supposed to learn. In real action learning,
participants should each be pursuing a specific, personal
development objective that can be woven into a task or role on the
project team. Although a lot of other learning may occur at various
levels, this is an active learning process. Participants' managers
should send them into the program with a short list of key
development objectives for them to try to work into the plan.
Do make feedback and coaching overdose the norm
during this activity.
Set the expectation that your participants are going to get lots of
feedback: from their normal work peers, from their action learning
team mates, from their team coach, from their team sponsor, etc. As
they take on unfamiliar roles and tasks on their team, their
learning must be accelerated over normal trial and error approaches
by heavy doses of coaching and feedback.
Don't let development take a back seat to the
Use tools like a development plan coupled with regular journaling
to keep this aspect of the program at the forefront for
participants. At the final presentation to executives, each
participant should describe how they used the program to prepare
themselves for a step up in responsibility in their next role.
Do make the teams visible at the highest levels.
The teams should present their final results to the highest level
executive group you can assemble. In talent management/success
planning sessions, executives should ask about the individuals'
performance in the action learning program. Have a top executive
appear at the midterm workshop and talk about leadership at your
Don't make the projects a full-time commitment.
Scope the projects at about 25 percent of participants' time. And
although a quarter of their time allows them to continue their
regular jobs, it also forces them to plan ahead and manage the
overload (a key learning objective for future leaders).
Do collect information for use by future
Your action learning teams can benefit from the insights of past
projects and participants. Build and fill a repository of lessons
learned so that current teams can tap into the experience of their
predecessors. Also consider developing a short case study of each
Don't forget to publicize your success.
Debrief participants to learn what worked and what could be
improved in future rounds of the program. Positive information
should be used to promote the program internally. Publish your
teams' results in your employee newsletter.
In addition, by using only bottom-line projects requiring actual
results and by drawing those projects from the company's strategic
plan, you are contributing significantly to your organization's
performance. You are only steps away from being able to publish ROI
results for your program. Your Annual Report on Learning and
Development should highlight these contributions.
2005 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.