An opportunity to receive questions.
‘Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.’ (Reg Revans)
You may have heard of Action Learning – a powerful tool used in organisations and between peers to learn in the context of action, and act in the context of learning. It typically involves one person presenting an issue, and then receiving critical questions from peers that enable them to think it through for themselves and reach their own solutions. In this sense, we could think of a conventional Action Learning process as a group-team of individuals providing coaching-consultancy to an individual.
I saw this idea turned on its head on a trip to Africa. An organisation was grappling with key strategic issues and invited leaders and professionals to form Action Learning sets to address them. Instead of one person presenting, however, the groups first spent time clarifying and crystallising their own issues. They then asked of themselves and each other: What are the critical questions that, if we could answer them, would provide us with strategic options? They finished by reaching agreement on solutions.
It’s the first time I had seen Action Learning used as a collective venture in this way. It was a a shared, relational process of inquiry, ownership and problem-solving wherein the group itself functioned simultaneously as both client and coach-consultant. I have seen similar patterns of approach used in Asia since. What strikes me is that this isn’t just a different, novel methodology or technique. It’s the product of a deep cultural mindset, belief and stance that sees, values and places the group first.
In my experience, there are corresponding benefits and risks to working in these different ways. An individual-orientation can develop personal insight, awareness and autonomy yet may lack ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ strength and cohesion in addressing change. A group-orientation, on the other hand, can bring the latter advantages to bear, yet faces its own risks including social loafing, conflict-avoidance or group-think. I’m curious, therefore: what have been your experiences of Action Learning?
I worked with a leadership team recently where we experimented with reframing statements from problems-focus to solutions-focus to see what would happen if we did. The team had been grappling with difficult issues for some time which had led some to the near-resigned conclusion that there was little hope of change. I wondered whether part of the challenge and resulting mood lay in the psychological-linguistic framing of the issues rather than, necessarily, in the issues themselves.
I was curious and invited the team to be curious too about how the issues were being perceived, construed and articulated within the team – a kind of team self-talk, if you like. If someone said, ‘X will not work because of Y’, we experimented with reframing the statement as a question instead, e.g. ‘Given Y, what would it take for X to work?’ It shifted the conversation from a definitive, closed end to an open, curious, exploration of new possibilities and ideas. It created fresh energy too.
I’ve worked with some clients where a person may comment that, for instance, ‘X is a good idea in principle but it would never work here.’ It’s often a response from someone who has worked a long time in the same place, has been around the proverbial block a few times or is starting to feel a bit jaded. I try to tune into the mood, acknowledge the underlying feeling and then reframe it: ‘OK, so what would work here?’ or, perhaps, ‘If X is a good idea, what would it take for it to work here?’
In my experience, solutions-focus works best when done in an open (e.g. prayerful) spirit, eliciting values (what matters to you – to motivate), creative visioning (what do you/we hope for – to inspire), appreciative inquiry (what’s working well – to build on) and affirming strengths (what are you/we good at – to draw on). Positive appraisal of the present with optimistic aspiration for the future lead well into: ‘So, what would need to happen for that to happen?’ and, ‘The next step?'
The team decided to work on clarifying its purpose, it’s raison d'être, it’s answer to the, ‘What are we here to do?’ question. It had been thinking about its ways of working, its team meetings, its mode of operation. It made sense to step back, at least one step, before stepping forward. As team coach, I stepped in briefly to suggest that they start by clarifying the questions they were seeking to answer. They settled on, ‘What is our optimal role?’ and ‘How can we add value?’
I asked again, ‘So how might you do this?’ A team member responded quickly, ‘Let’s discuss it and see what we come up with.’ The others nodded in agreement. As they turned to talk, I interrupted by pushing a metaphorical pause button, ‘And how else could you do this?’ They looked puzzled then one said, ‘We could each write down a purpose statement on a post-it note then compare and contrast what we’ve written?’ I repeated, ‘And how else could you do it?’
They looked confused and then thought hard. ‘We could split into 2 x 3s, work on one question each then compare?’, ‘We could brainstorm ideas on a flipchart?’, ‘We could share our visions of a team from hell, what to avoid at all costs?’, ‘We could draw pictures instead of writing words?’ They combined the final 3. Each person grabbed a coloured pen, stepped up and a provocative, vivid, collage emerged. Their chosen technique generated laughter, insight and great ideas!
The principle here is how to challenge habitual, default patterns of behaviour, how to pause and reflect critically and creatively before diving into action. Posing the simple question, ‘How else could we do this?’ can significantly enhance team energy, engagement – and effectiveness.
It’s tempting to think the world has gone crazy. A crisis in one place followed in quick succession by a crisis somewhere else. Yet situations and events that appear completely unrelated can look mysteriously connected once we pause, step back from the dramatic media rhetoric and look more deeply. ‘What is really going on here?’, ‘What is influencing what?’, 'What patterns and links are forming?'
McDermott & O’Connor in ‘The Art of Systems Thinking’ distinguish between: simple complexity (e.g. a car engine that is complicated because it has numerous parts - yet it parts interact predictably and in fixed ways) and dynamic complexity (e.g. human systems such as families, teams, communities, nations etc. where different parties not only interact but change and influence each other).
Dynamic complexity at a global level is being accelerated and amplified by technology and social media that enable people to connect, interact and influence each other faster than ever before. As Wheatley explains in ‘Leadership & The New Science’, however, this does not necessarily create ever-increasing chaos. It’s as if even complex human systems find their own equilibrium and flow.
So what does this mean for leadership, OD and coaching? Firstly, look beyond the issue itself to inquire into ‘what else’ is creating and sustaining the conditions for it to arise. Secondly, view human systems in terms of relational influence rather than mechanics. Thirdly, be curious and responsive to what and where energy is emerging and shifting. Fourthly, be ready to let go - and dance!
'The notion of choice lies at the epicentre of human experience.’ (Popova on Frankl)
The idea of choice, the ability to choose freely, lies at the heart of personal leadership. It can be profoundly liberating and empowering and, at the same time, carries with it genuine responsibility and accountability. It means that a person is an agent of his or her own experience, not merely a passive recipient. If I can choose, it means I have options. I can change things. I’m not fixed.
Take, for instance, ‘I have to go to this meeting’ or, ‘I have to complete this report by Friday.’ This language reflects and influences a person’s psychological framing of a situation and emotional response to it. ‘I have to...’ suggests the person’s decisions and actions are being driven entirely by forces external to them. It’s as if there is only one course of action available – and no choice.
Morgan says, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ So try instead with active voice, ‘I’m going to choose to go to this meeting’ or, ‘I will choose to complete this report by Friday.’ It can feel like a shift in ownership, an injection of energy. Choices have consequences - yet the action, the feeling, of choosing can move a person or team from passivity to proactivity.
In my experience, to raise awareness and stimulate personal leadership and choice, leaders, coaches, OD professionals and trainers can hold up mirrors and pose questions such as: ‘What words are you speaking to yourself?’, ‘What assumptions are you making?’, ‘Who or what is constraining you?’, ‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’, ‘What are you willing to choose?’
I did a coaching demonstration in front of a group of experienced mentors this weekend. In feedback afterwards, one person asked how I managed to (a) engage enough with the person to ensure they felt heard and understood and yet (b) remain disengaged enough to avoid being drawn too far into their situation with them. Another participant posed a similar question: how do I empathise and convey empathy to a person whilst holding a retaining a healthy and useful degree of detachment?
These are great and important questions for leaders, coaches and facilitators. Earlier in my career, I was working as an internal OD consultant and one of my client groups said they thought it would be helpful if I could know more about their work and become more embedded with them. I felt a bit concerned at hearing this (‘Are they saying I don’t understand them and, therefore, I’m not able to add enough value?') so spoke with my supervisor. He responded wisely: ‘Don’t play into that game.’
He was right. I order to add optimal value in that situation, I needed to understand and feel just enough of the client’s situation and experience to give them confidence that I was with them and, at the same time, to remain sufficiently detached to be able to bring fresh insight, perspective and challenge. The risk of being ‘embedded’ is that we become too immersed in the same institutional influences, agendas, cultural dynamics and personal circumstances that the client already is and feels stuck in.
So how to engage yet disengage? How to hold that creative tension without snapping in one direction or the other? Here are some ideas: 1. Be clear about your role in that situation – what it is you are there to be and do. 2. Pay attention to what you see, hear and feel when you are with the client, team or organisation – key headlines, themes, metaphors, intuitions and emotions. 3. Offer your insights as process observations - ‘What I’m noticing is…X…what I’m aware of is…Y’ How about you?
This was an HR team. A group of experienced professionals working hard but struggling, somehow. They felt together but separate. They invited me to meet with them, to help them create and sustain a greater sense of teamwork. We rented a room off-site and I marked a large outline of a person on the ground using white tape. It looked like one of those outlines police use to mark the position of a body(!).
The team arrived and, being from a Christian organisation, I opened by referring to the image of a body in the Bible, a metaphor that aims to convey the importance of diversity, contribution, care and interdependence. I then invited the team to stand on the ‘body’ on the ground in a place that best represented for them how they saw themselves and how they felt within the team and in the wider organisation.
One person stood on the head. Others stood on the arms, hands, legs and feet. After a moment, I asked them to look around and to say what they noticed, how it felt to stand where they were standing, what they noticed about others and what they noticed about the team as a whole. Everyone commented on how they found themselves standing instinctively on ‘doing’ parts of the body - hands, feet etc.
After a few minutes, the team leader, a deeply intuitive woman, looked up and spoke: ‘We’re all looking outwards. There’s no-one at the heart.’ It was as if something of profound significance had emerged in the room, in that physical space. ‘We are so busy supporting others outside of the team that we haven’t paid attention to what we need.’ ‘Let’s explore what a team with a heart would look and feel like - then let’s be and do it.’
I could feel a real shift in energy and insight. It was as if something had been released and a heavy burden had been lifted. Fresh awareness, hope and ideas poured into the room. Physical experimentation and movement had enabled something to take place that may not have happened, or at least with the same degree of experiential impact, through group conversation alone. Note to self: if in doubt, just do it.
Do your conversations ever feel dull, pedestrian? Do you find yourselves reaching agreement quickly but sense there’s a lack of inspiration, depth or stretch to what you’ve decided? There’s an idea in Gestalt coaching that involves experimenting with polarities. When exploring an issue or when people can’t think of useful options, try introducing opposite extremes.
I met with a leadership team this morning to look at talent management. Rather than opening with a proposal, a colleague and I sat at opposite ends of the table and role played a conversation in which each of us argued passionately for radically contrasting approaches. We invited the team to listen, to feel, to see what it evoked for as we played out the different scenarios.
Claire Pedrick uses a technique that involves opening the arms out wide to signify a polarity. ‘Let’s imagine this extreme (looking to one hand) involves doing nothing. Let’s imagine this extreme (looking at the other hand) is the ‘nuclear option’. What would the nuclear option involve doing in practice? Now let’s explore other options that lie in the space between.’
I sometimes use a polarities technique in leadership workshops. For example, if exploring directive vs non-directive approaches, I may walk an imaginary line across the room and explain at each end what that extreme represents. I then invite the group to stand along the line. ‘Where do you find yourself most of the time?’, ‘Where you would like to be?’
When using physicality like this, it can be very powerful to ‘do it’ rather than ‘imagine it’. So, if the group is standing along a line as above, I will invite them to move physically to where they want to be, rather than just talk about it. Then, ‘How are you feeling as you stand there?’, ‘What do you notice about where others are standing?’, ‘Have a conversation – where you are now.’
Another polarity technique is great for exploring the merits and risks of a proposal. Using a flipchart, I will start by inviting the group to brainstorm all the positive benefits. I will then use another flipchart and invite the group to brainstorm all the reasons why it won’t work. I use a final chart to brainstorm, ‘So, in light of that…what would it take to make it work?’
The benefits of polarising in ways such as these can include: stretching the imagination, discovering new/radical ideas, surfacing diverse views and feelings, experimenting with courage, testing different experiences and approaches, releasing fresh insight and energy. If you have worked with polarities, I’d love to hear from you. What did you do? What happened?
ABC - Always Be Contracting. (Brian Watts)
A coach friend commented recently that he keeps annoying clients and is not sure why. He likes to challenge people’s thinking but they don’t always respond well. I asked, ‘Have you contracted first with your clients about how you will work together?’ Great questions at the outset can be, ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ It creates opportunity to discuss and agree what to focus on and what kind of relationship and ways of working will be most useful.
I had another experience where contracting proved valuable. I had joined an organisation as a new team leader and one of my team members led a presentation. Afterwards, she asked if I could give her any feedback. I asked with a smile, ‘Are you asking for affirmation – or critique?’ ‘I’m so glad you asked that’, she replied. ‘I’m really just hoping I impressed you as my new boss!’ That opened a very different conversation about how we would like to work together in the future.
What we are talking about here is similar to a counsellor establishing a 'therapeutic container’. It’s about creating psychological, relational boundaries, focus and ground rules together that enable honest, robust conversations to take place (high in support and high in challenge) without feeling threatened – because that’s what we’ve agreed to do in that context. We can renegotiate the terms of engagement as time or things move on or if the context for the relationship changes.
I worked as coach with a leadership team that was struggling with internal conflict. It felt caught in a vicious cycle and couldn’t find a way out of it. I invited the team to imagine a team meeting that, by contrast, felt incredibly inspiring and effective. They painted a vivid picture of a very positive team experience. ‘What were you and others doing that made the difference?’ They agreed behaviours, began to practise them and the team’s experience was transformed.
The core principle here is about making the implicit explicit. Rather than assuming that different people share the same underlying assumptions and expectations, raise them to the surface – especially if establishing new relationships or working with people from different backgrounds. ‘ I think a great outcome would be X. Is that what you think?’, ‘I see my role in this as X and yours as Y. How do you see it?’, ‘I’d find it useful if you would X. What would you find useful from me?’
If things feel tense or stuck, I find it useful to imagine myself speaking from an observing place, as if I’m standing outside of the room looking in, and comment dispassionately on what I’m noticing here-and-now. ‘I’m aware this conversation is going in circles without moving forward…and I’m wondering how we might approach this differently to get a different result.’ It invites insight from the other person too and opens opportunity to contract to solutions that will work for both.
I wrote a blog back in March called, ‘Goal, content, process and relationship’, based on coaching I was doing at the time with leadership teams. I’ve used and adapted this model since with various teams and have noticed some interesting results.
Firstly, some people found the word ‘process’ confusing because, in their cultural framework, it suggested formal business processes rather than creative methods (e.g. within a team meeting) that could work best for the people in the room. I now use the word ‘method’ instead.
Secondly, some teams found it helpful to substitute ‘why’ for goal, ‘what’ for content, ‘how’ for process and ‘who’ for relationship. This enabled them to include e.g. ‘vision’ under why, ‘activities’ under what, ‘processes’ under how and ‘behaviours’ under who.
Thirdly, some teams have found it useful to highlight warning signs against each of the model’s 4 dimensions, indicating what to look out for as red flags. Against ‘goal’ I write ‘dulled’, against content, ‘distracted’, against method, ‘disengaged’ and against people, ‘dismissed’.
The most striking observation for me has been how the model seems to easy in principle and yet so difficult to apply and sustain. This is because teams, like individuals, can struggle to break away from embedded preoccupations, patterns of behaviour and ways of working.
In light of this, I’ve found it useful to encourage teams to pause and notice their own behaviour, reflect honestly on what is influencing their choices, challenge themselves when they are drifting off track and be willing to face and address underlying dynamics.
If you have tried using this, contrasting or similar models in team development and coaching, I would be very interested to hear from you, e.g. what you have done, how you have applied it, what kind of response you got and what happened as a result.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! email@example.com