Action Learning And Reflective Practice In Project Environments That Are Related To Leadership Development

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Action Learning And Reflective Practice In Project Environments

That Are Related To Leadership Development
Peter A.C. Smith
PUBLISHED: Management Learning Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2001
The purpose of this paper is to share some observations from the author’s experience in attempting to facilitate the acquisition of reflective habits by individuals undergoing leadership development in business-related project environments. These are current beliefs, accumulated during the author’s ongoing learning journey, and as such form part of a particular evolving mindset; they are offered here to prompt and contribute to the reader’s own exploration of a complex topic.
First, the context for the author’s leadership development practice will be sketched out, and the relevance of reflection and action learning to this practice will be clarified. Then the action learning methodology itself will be defined and characterized as a sound setting for reflective inquiry. Next, informal means to embed action learning principles in the project-related tasks of those undergoing leadership development are explained. This is followed by a description of a reflective learning framework including some tools that are used by participants to frame and facilitate the action learning processes; the framework and tools promote reflection without the need to explicitly introduce complex self-searching cognitive procedures. The relevance of this action learning approach to building a learning organization and the development of leaders for such an organization is also discussed. Finally, a brief case study is provided to confirm that these various elements can be woven together in a real-life leadership development effort.
Contextual Discussion
The author’s practice typically focuses on executive and management leadership development, including progressing high-potentials. Clients are in the main hard-headed business people who already have more on their agendas than they can hope to accomplish. Adding capability development requirements to the workplace demands that they already face presents them with a very stiff challenge. Although high-potentials are predisposed to more readily handle such challenges (Peters and Smith, 1996) they need first to be convinced that the developmental effort will facilitate their progress. It has been the author’s experience that to attract and retain the attention of these various constituents, one must talk in very practical terms, making strong links between the leadership development approaches advocated, performance improvement, the bottom line, careers, and succession.
The author attempts to forge such links by pointing out to these managers, executives and high-potentials that as individuals, and in clusters and organizations, they are awash in assumptions; indeed, that they presume validity at their peril in contexts which are increasingly complex, ambiguous, pluralistic, and egalitarian. It is emphasized that if they are to learn to successfully address their multitude of diverse leadership aspirations, it is critical in their development- and work-related activities, that they continually explore and question their suppositions by surfacing their insights, and evolving fresh questions leading from their ignorance. It is further explained to them that this ability to think things through and de-brief experiences at non-trivial personal and contextual levels is called reflection.
The close relationship between reflection and learning has been explored and popularized by Kolb (1984), and by Honey & Mumford (1989), as part of their work on “Learning Cycles”. Reflection is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as: to cast back, think, cogitate, ruminate, consider, deliberate, muse, think carefully, hold up a mirror. One of the most influential theorists regarding reflective thinking was Donald Schon who is quoted by Kirby and Paradise (1992) as feeling that reflection entails "Diagnosis, testing and belief in personal causation. Diagnosis is the ability to frame or make sense of a problem through use of professional knowledge, past experience, the uniqueness of the setting and people involved, and expectations held by others. Once framed, the reflective practitioner engages in on-the-spot experimentation and reflection to test alternative solutions. Finally, the courage to act in situations of uncertainty...requires that the practitioner accept responsibility for action." Schon also emphasized the need for a Reflective Practicum - a safe environment in which Reflective Conversation could be held.
Mezirow (1985) also explored reflection in some depth, observing that it must involve the bringing of one’s assumptions, premises, criteria, and schemata into consciousness & vigorously critiquing them, rather than assuming the dictionary definition whereby people simply think back over what worked and did not work.
Hammer and Stanton in a Fortune article on “The Power of Reflection” state that “ ... successful organizations fail in many different ways, but they share one underlying cause: a failure to reflect” (Hammer and Stanton, 1997). Some specific reasons why today’s managers and executives might want to reflect are shown in Table 1 and it is not hard to find influential sources now promoting reflection as essential to leadership. For example, Kouzes and Posner treat reflection as indispensable in the 2nd edition of their well known book on leadership development (1995), although it is not mentioned in their 1st edition (1987). Sherman in a article on leadership concludes that in the fast moving new economy, one needs a new skill: reflection (Sherman, 1994). Warren Bennis is quoted by Wolfe (1993) as saying that “Leaders must model and take the time for development of self-awareness”; also: “‘Know thyself’ was an inscription over the Oracle of Delphi; unless leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses, know what they want to do, and why they want to do it, they cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word. Acquiring this self-knowledge demands reflection”.
Table 1


o Natural element of learning

o Gain insight & understanding

o Foresee consequences

o Solve problem(s)

o Justify action

o Achieve control

o Improve decisions

o Increase options

o Clarification

o Detect errors

o Forced to do it

o Seek “truth”

o Explore mindsets

o Identify “right” problem

o Challenge norms

o Gain new perspectives

o Self-insight

o Self-development

o Personal mastery

o Overcome resistance

o Apportion blame

o Explore responsibility

o Increase self-confidence

o Get new ideas

o Part of thinking

o Conflict resolution

o Negotiation

o Cultural expectations

o Be more successful

o Enhance performance

o Gain multiple viewpoints

o Intuitive element in adaption

o Gain an edge

o Uncover discrepant reasoning

o Shift blame (distancing)

o Make tacit explicit

Unfortunately, reflection does not come naturally or even easily to most managers and executives that the author deals with. Indeed, in most case, explicit attempts to encourage adoption of learning and reflective practices through either logical explanations or development sessions have been largely unsuccessful. To address these concerns, and to provide an alternative to such formal approaches, the author utilizes action learning together with some aids to framing and facilitating the action learning process. Action learning is a sound process for the development of habits of reflective inquiry; however, in addition, these reflective habits can be developed as action learning participants practice the kinds of straightforward practical processes and tools described in this paper, rather than through involvement in the complex self-searching cognitive procedures of formal reflection.

Table 2

Some Notable Organizations Who Have Used Action Learning
Hewlett-Packard GE IKEA

Ameritech MCI International Sears

Corning Whirlpool Northern Telecom

Motorola Coca Cola TD Bank

Digital Equipment Cigna IPC CN Rail


Exxon AT&T Alberta WCB


Prudential Foster Wheeler Volvo
As David Garvin has said so perceptively: “Beyond high philosophy and grand themes lie the gritty details of practice” (Garvin, 1993). In attempting to develop reflective learning habits in managers and executives undergoing leadership development using the approach described in this paper, the author was faced with a number of challenging questions:
1. Was action learning really capable of providing a sound setting for reflective inquiry in leadership development contexts?

2. How could the quality of individual and collaborative reflection be enhanced in an action learning based project?

3. How could reflection become a continual “habit” outside of action learning based projects, embedded in individual and pluralistic community processes?
Based on experience over some fifteen years, the author contends that these challenges can be successfully addressed by familiarizing clients with an:
o Action Learning Process that includes a Personal and Group Learning Strategy

o Action Framework and Subset of Reflective Tools

As this paper will attempt to demonstrate, these two bullets are consistent with both facilitating reflection, and with learning as set out in current learning theories. For example, Vygotskian theory relies on learning through interpersonal contact and subsequent internalization based on a “zone of proximal development”, plus scaffolding and modeling (Vygotsky, 1987). Constructivism posits learning by interaction with the environment in a problem anchored, and student centered sense (Perkins, 1991). In distributed cognition theory, learning is said to take place through interaction with individuals, the environment and cultural artifacts, facilitated by tools (Dede, 1996). Cognitive flexibility theorists believe that learning takes place by constructing multiple interpretations in ill-structured domains much like “hypermedia” linking (Spiro et al, 1988). Cognitive apprenticeship/coaching relies on the learning of cognitive strategies as the learners take action in teacher-supported groups (Wilson and Cole, 1994). Situated cognition theory assumes one can’t separate cognitive tasks from social tasks, and that learning is facilitated through communities of practice (Perret-Clermont, 1993). Metacognition theory emphasizes learning about learning (Flavell, 1976).
It is proposed that the action learning approach described in this paper is consistent with the overall thrust of these learning theories, and it has indeed proven effective in developing habits of dialogic as well as analytic reflection. This conclusion is based on the author’s own case studies; for example, behavioral changes in Set participants involving development of reflective approaches to business problems (Smith and Day, 2000). Some authors claim that reflection can be measured directly (Hunt et al, 1973; Van Mannen, 1977; Sparks-Langer et al, 1990; Costa and Garnston, 1994); the author does not currently routinely use such methods with Sets, although it is hoped to have this as the focus of future research.
Action Learning as a Sound Setting for Leadership Development and Reflective Inquiry
As noted above, the chief focus of the author’s practice is management and leadership development. Success as a manager or as an executive depends on far more than acquiring technical knowledge and management concepts. It comes from an understanding of, and a feel for such factors as organizational politics and culture, the art of influencing others, the ability to delegate, the skills of timing, presentation and selling ideas, not just having them. These are the qualities we expect from organizational leaders, and without a developmental strategy for gaining them the emergence of effective managers and executives is a hit-and-miss affair.
Action learning was originated by Professor Reg Revans in the 1940’s (Revans, 1945) and is used by many notable organizations as indicated in Table 2. Action learning according to Revans (1945) embodies an approach based on comrades in adversity learning from and with each other through discriminating questioning, fresh experience and reflective insight. Although not explicitly mentioned by Revans in any of his action learning treatises, his approach implicitly offers the opportunity to integrate “rule based knowledge (P)” with “experiential knowledge (Q)” through reflection. Indeed, this seemingly very simple methodology has demonstrated in innumerable cases that its practitioners can affect the complex and often inscrutable processes of natural learning through personal and collaborative reflection.
Action learning is a win/win individual and company approach to learning and development, that at the same time is capable of resolving significant business, organizational and social problems. It is a form of learning through experience, “by doing”, where the job environment is the classroom. It is based on the premise that we can only learn about work at work, just as we can only learn how to ride a bicycle by riding a bicycle. It permits risk taking within a psychologically safe environment, much like the safe practice area we choose when learning to ride a bike. Again like riding a bike it emphasizes personal responsibility for learning, although supportive but challenging learning partnerships are made available.
Nothing else feels how action learning feels. No traditional training program can prepare a person for the first time they fire someone, or are blocked by a politically motivated colleague, or are confronted with an angry customer. In the end, we can only learn about it by doing it, and then thinking over carefully what happened, making sense of the lessons, and working through how the learning can be built on and used next time around.
It is well known that experience itself is a very slippery teacher; most of the time we have experiences from which we never learn. But even so, experience, albeit combined with a deep understanding or requisite theory, is the only valid teacher. Action learning is such an experience-based group learning process that provides this mix of practice-field experience using real issues, combined with a drawing-down of theory where appropriate. In this way it accelerates learning and personal development whilst providing on the job leverage of participants’ competencies.
Action learning has a framework designed to capture and build on what is, rather than operate in a pure, detached, analytical and rational world of what should be. It maps over existing structures and development plans, and supports the aspirations of non-traditional managers. By promoting cogitation and insightful inquiry with perceptive partners in situations where solutions are not always obvious, and by leaving responsibility for implementation of the solution in the participant’s hands, it is particularly suited to enhancing leadership capabilities.
Action learning programs are built around the points shown in Table 3 and generic benefits drawn from the author’s experience are presented in Table 4. A program starts with syllabus determination, rather than a given syllabus. The syllabus can only be the key issues facing an

organization and an individual within it. From there, people are encouraged to draw from the

body of knowledge: books, journals, other people, company literature, other firms - appropriate, targeted and contextualised information. This approach is elicitive, in that it elicits relevant information, rather than disseminates what a trainer or designer thinks is good for the participants.
Table 3

Typical Attributes Of An Action Learning Program
o Tackle real problems in real time in a tight learning community

o Executives and/or managers sponsored to a small stable group called a “Set”:

- each Set may be facilitated by a “Set Adviser”

- each Set holds intermittent meetings over a fixed program cycle

o Set members who:

- are challenged to resolve a “sponsored” individual or a group problem

- target the realities at their own field level

- must take action to resolve the problem

- are exposed to appropriate risk and “stretch”

- work in the Set in a supportive social process

- proceed via questioning, conjecture and refutation

- can take advantage of training and other interventions as the need arises

- report final results to the sponsor(s)

o Defined and accidental learning

Table 4

Benefits of Action Learning Programs
- Programs designed to suit the organization

- Brightest people challenged to solve critical problems

- Contributions are visible, practical, and active

- Emphasizes getting things done in the organization

- Leadership is naturally developed

- New hires and seasoned individuals develop together

- Mentoring and nurturing skills develop instinctively

- Network of current and future leaders is matured

- Diversity is addressed naturally

- Capability/career assessment is based on real results

- Development is rapid

- Whole person development

By these means, action learning seeks to throw a net around slippery experiences, and capture them as learning, i.e. as replicable behavior in similar and indeed differing contexts. An action learning program of development forces consideration of both explicit and tacit information. The individual makes sense of an experience by conceptualizing it and generalizing the replicable points; and plans for future actions based on the learning gathered. The Set provides the forge in which an individual’s actions are shaped through their own personal contemplation and the questioning insight of fellow Set members.
A key point is that actions and outcomes still remain the responsibility of the individual participant. Action learning provides the safe environment or “practice field” for reflection and learning to occur, whilst recognizing that real responsibility lies outside any classroom environment: it lies with the participants who must own the business outcomes. What is more, in using the organization itself as a learning laboratory, it does not require any special set of

conditions to be in place before it can be effective. It does so because its whole ethos is learning about the surrounding context, and learning to be effective within it, thus leveraging the prevailing culture to its own advantage.

As a result, the development needs of the organization’s managers, executives and high-potentials are satisfied through activities that are focused on the articulated significant current and future needs of the organization. This leads to the justifiable charge of action learning as a narrow (but deep) learning agenda, rather than a broad but superficial one. This is development addressed as a business service provision; geared to provide in a precisely targeted way what is required, when it is required, where it is required, in the form in which it is required.
The distinction between an emergent, elicitive syllabus and a trainer-directed one is a profound one, going deeper than a change of tone. In designing action learning interventions we admit that we do not hold all the answers. In this sense we become one with the business climate of today. The job of the skilled action learning architect will be to create the conditions for learning to take place which delivers the expectations of both individual learner and organizational client. However, in the end, learners themselves must adopt, own and ultimately live with the consequences of their program. Irrelevance does not exist within the well-designed action learning intervention, albeit learners can (in some circumstances) create irrelevant outcomes for themselves, of their own choosing.
Action learning recognizes that future managers and executives must develop self-direction and self-reliance. At the same time, action learning programs always work with groups in which participants are encouraged to discuss, share, pool their ambitions and experiences, and therefore create something else, a gestalt, where the group yields a better result than individuals could.
It is probably fair to say that the majority of practitioners today conduct more complicated process variants on the original action learning method if for no other reason than to address praxiological concerns (Smith, 1998). Indeed, in the spirit of action learning, it may be healthy for action learning itself be the object of such questioning and revision (Botham, 1995). However, care must be taken that the power and simplicity of Revans’ original method are maintained (Smith, 1997a).
The author believes that this proviso is satisfied when, for practical reasons highlighted in the introductory sections, rather than introduce action learning in the formal fashion discussed above, it is introduced to program participants as an easily grasped personal learning and reflection strategy for performance improvement; this practical strategy is illustrated in Figure 1. Managers and executives readily comprehend the similarity to Deming’s quality approach (Shirkenbach, 1986), and accept that the quality of their role performance in achieving a given project outcome can be improved through iterative continuous cycles. At each stage of the cycle, to better focus their thinking and help them reach conclusions of practical significance, participants may apply the Action Framework and Subset of Reflective Tools explored in a later section. It is a short step then to Figure 2 where participants accept that the thinking (reflective) components of the cycle will be improved through intermittent collaborative inquiry in action learning Sets. The author’s experience (Smith and Day, 2000) is that action learning becomes embedded in the business processes in this way, and becomes a matter of habit.
Action Framework and Subset of Reflective Tools
The Action Framework that is introduced to program participants is a readily grasped, tried and true, three-element performance model (Smith, 1993a; Smith & Saint-Onge, 1996). This outcomes-driven approach provides a practical framework for introduction of a variety of up-to-date methods that facilitate reflection. It should be noted that this approach remains consistent

with the original aims of Professor Revans which were to set up conditions in which comrades in adversity can learn from and with each other through discriminating questioning, fresh experience, and reflective insight (Revans, 1991).

Figure 1

Personal Learning & Reflection Strategy

Figure 2

Collaborative Learning & Reflection Strategy

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