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Virtual Action Learning Using the “Classic” Method

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Virtual Action Learning Using the “Classic” Method

I’m writing this blog during the Covid pandemic, 8 months after the UK’s first lockdown. Many of us are now spending more and more of our time working virtually. At Action Learning Associates (ALA) we’ve been working with international clients virtually, as well as face-to-face, for many years. We recognise that the best way to develop and sustain our international connections and our virtual working practice is to continually refine and improve our virtual working offer.

With this in mind, and in the spirit of learning with and from each other, ALA offered “taster” virtual action learning (VAL) sessions to the Global Forum community. We partnered with 3 groups, and each group met twice for a 3-hour action learning session. GF members joined the sessions from Canada, the US, South Africa, India, Sweden, the UK, Italy, France and Germany.

Participants were invited to experience the “classic” method of AL and to think critically about virtual working. For anyone not familiar with this method, there are 3 roles in the set: a presenter or issue holder; a facilitator who acts as guide to the process, “holds” a non-judgemental, psychologically-safe space, draws out learning, and may also ask questions; and 5 or 6 set members whose role is to ask short, open and insightful questions that help a presenter explore his or her situation and, through this exploration, discover fresh solutions and new ways forward.

Perhaps the central principle of classic action learning is best expressed in the following quote:

‘The function... is not to give advice or “fix” people from the outside in but rather to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out.’
– The Clearness Committee, Parker J. Palmer
The writer himself is a Quaker, and action learning has roots in Quaker practice (see Y. Boshyk and R.L. Dilworth [eds.], 2010, Action Learning: History and Evolution).

Action learning encourages participants to develop a more acute level of listening. The listener is not listening and waiting to speak or listening to argue, contradict or force an opinion, but is actively listening to understand what is being said, and perhaps what is not being said. Listeners (the set members and facilitator) create space and time for a presenter to closely examine her or his own narrative, truths and assumptions. And, in making space and time, we scrutinise flawed beliefs and assumptions about self, others and situations, and we share the process of learning.

The practice also encourages us to discover and notice those questions that unlock new and fresh perspectives that reveal the truth, and that ultimately drive the changes that the speaker wants to make.

The collated quotes below are from the participants of all 3 groups. I leave the conclusion of this “taster” experience to the participants who so openly shared their zeal for learning, and who generously gave their time, knowledge, wisdom and collaborative spirit.

Comments on the classic method

‘In] very senior [leadership] programmes the thing they always say they learn the most from is the reflecting, and this space gives them that opportunity. The part they [senior leaders] struggle with is emotions, and so I think this is a space – if there’s trust – that would be phenomenal to use.’ Jane R

‘[Creating trust] has to do with you guys [i.e. the facilitators] facilitating and being part of the set, and not apart from it. That way, people don’t look at you as being more powerful. You are looking to have the group build autonomy, so I think that position invites trust and collaboration.’ Charles B

‘Ruth and John, you put yourselves at the same level as us. This makes the dynamic very different.’ Chantal

‘Coming from different parts of the world [and having] similar challenges creates some sort of extra trust because you are so curious. And, you can hear the curiosity in everyone and there is a connection between the curiosity and the trust that helped in this session.’ Gunnar

‘I feel lighter. I’m so happy I brought this up [i.e. presented my challenge]. I think the beauty of this method is that it applies to professional and a variety of settings. We will open up more in a setting like this, a safe setting.’ Sanjay

‘You asked people to keep their microphones open. It had the effect of feeling together all the time. We were engaged rather than being spectators. Closing down other apps while we are in the AL space is a wonderful discipline. You don’t feel distracted.’ Charles B

‘This is the first time I’ve heard x talking about himself. And I’ve known him for years.’ Chantal

‘AL is elastic. Whatever the group or situation, there is something when we take our time at the beginning [of the series of meetings], and when we take our time to help each other; it’s very positive.” Nicolas

‘I think that, as a group, we created a continuation from last week – a holding environment where the presenter felt comfortable sharing something that felt pretty raw and emotional.’ Michellana

‘We were really tuned in to when you [the presenter] were still thinking or still writing and we didn’t interrupt that reflection space.’ Ruth

‘From my perspective [as presenter] I’ll tell you how I experienced it. The cadence was right. It allowed for pause to happen the natural way without anyone trying to fill the void. No one was either overly eager to ask a follow up question or rephrase the question when I paused. That was really good. I think that once we’d practiced a couple of times that just seemed to become natural.’ Sharon

‘I think we created a space for learning for all of us, as well as for sharing.’ Kay

‘What was helpful to me was that you [i.e. the facilitators] helped me understand the rules of engagement and went back to the structure and process. It helped us navigate our own path within a structured framework.’ Rose.

‘Being part of this group and experiencing classic action learning has been incredibly powerful. Being in a group like this is a powerful experience that reminds me how we need each other to learn.’ Kay

‘My experience is that it is really something in such a limited time [to create] a really deep and profound experience. Before doing it last week I didn’t know what was in there for me. It’s really the connection that you make in such a short time that is very deep.’ Maria-Christina

‘For me it’s going to be the tool that I use in my graduate training. I’m starting to think about how to teach my students to be better at coaching other students.’ Drew

‘My experience has been really positive. Last week’s session and this week’s session. I really love the immediate sense of community. I love the time that was afforded. As you speak through different aspects of your challenge it triggers other memories or thoughts. I thought that this was really powerful to provide that kind of time. I’m seeing more opportunity to think about this approach together with an established programme or maybe as a separate programme.’ Sharon

‘This extended format could reinforce the learning that they (i.e. participants on a senior leadership development programme) had from their programme. They could meet in small groups to reinforce the learning they had but they could also share challenges that they bring to the group.’ Michellana

‘I was really quite amazed by being with you all last week. As we were supporting x I left the session feeling supported myself. I found myself using the experience in my internal processes. I could see your faces and the questions you would ask.’ Kay

“I felt very energised.  It was a great experience engaging with you last week and talking about being stuck made me notice my stuckness all week.’ Michellana

 

Comments on working virtually

‘We were able to activate and stimulate someone’s thinking from several thousand miles away.’ Karl-Georg

‘I’ve loved the sessions because it gives you connectivity to people in different parts of the world. There’s a global perspective.’ Jane R

‘You took care to prepare us. You even sent a document about how to work on Zoom if we were not experienced. That’s a lot of care for how people come into group not knowing each other. I felt at ease right from the start with that level of care. You would have thought that working at a distance you would feel distant. But quite the opposite. It was close and I think that provides a wonderful environment for opening up and for perhaps being even more vulnerable with each other because of that closeness.’ Charles B

‘Coming from an IT background, I’ve been doing this [i.e. virtual working] for years. As far as action learning is concerned this is really effective. The reality is that the time has come for this classic on line action learning.’ Sanjay

‘This has encouraged me to use more virtual, to practice. This was excellent learning.’ Chantal

‘I find the virtual environment very supportive of this process. The process is so important as well as the content and for those of us who teach and deliver on line I think that understanding that relational and connecting piece is so critical to remember. I’m also appreciating the diversity we had in the room. There’s no way we could have been in the room together with the geographic diversity we have here.’ Kay

‘So one question or one thought that I had about the uniqueness of this VAL [virtual action learning] framework is that I wonder how when we are all virtual, we’re also in our homes or at least some place where we feel comfortable. Does that lend itself to a willingness to be more open and sharing than if we were in our office space or in a conference room or hotel? I’m just struck by the spaces because not only do I see you in a comfortable space and able to share, you’re also welcoming people into your homes and you are being invited into someone else’s comfortable space.’ Michellana

‘And, there’s a plus of this time [i.e. Covid] that people are at home. There’s a positive. People spend so much time in front of the screen and so much time on Zoom so then when you say ‘this is a 3 hour session’ they say ‘oh no’ and I think we’ve all experienced that it’s energising, nourishing because of the depth of connection but that’s quite hard to describe to people in advance. In the current context people think - I couldn’t possibly’ Ruth

‘It has made me more confident in moving my leadership development to a virtual platform and so I’ve included VAL in my programme.’ Rose

VALID 2 - Tomas Carlson

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The second Global Forum VALID took place on 21 May 2020. The discussant was Tomas Carlsson, a Global Forum community member, who spoke about lessons learned from transformation and turnaround experiences in critical times, including the pandemic. He is President and CEO of one of the largest construction companies in the Nordic region of Europe, based in Stockholm. Tomas is also a member of the Stockholm’s Chamber of Commerce committee of academics and business leaders tasked to recommend how to “restart” the Swedish economy.

He outlined his key operational approaches in leading transformation. He drives profitability improvement and growth in a sustainable way with a focus on developing organizations fit for people and fit for purpose. On assuming the leadership at NCC in 2018 he took time organize the “right team”, to make sure they achieved sustainable growth well above the average. Today, two-thirds in the top team are “new” to the company.
His second operational objective was “effective “governance”. He wanted an empowered team that would lead and implement the three thousand ongoing projects in NCC. He also set up a special task force on the pandemic, spending time every day discussing and helping them implement recommended actions.
The third pillar was “the right allocation of capital” and fourthly, and certainly not least, “communication”.
There were several questions focusing on these topics as well as how he views the future of his industry and the company’s eco-system. His personal leadership goals and advice to other leaders are to always be looking ahead, be consistent with one’s leadership values and practices, and stay updated and “keeping perspective”. When asked how he does this, he replied that he tries to spend time reflecting, taking a full day once a month to do so. And his “yoga” is cooking to clear his mind and refocus. As a “thirsty learner” he reads a great deal, both non-fiction as well as fiction. Participants very much appreciated Tomas’ discussion and thanked him accordingly.

For more details and to listen to the recording of this VALID please login first please and click here [link].

VALID 1 - Drew Boyd

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Constraints Lead to Creativity!

On May 14th , during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global Forum-Action Learning Team organized its first VALID—Virtual Action learning International Discussion-- The aim: to keep provide a forum for our community to continue in its learning and networking mode, and deepening our reflection on “The Future”.

Drew Boyd, our own “Mister Innovation”, launched us into our VALID discussion series with a session entitled “Creative Lessons from A Pandemic”. Listening to Drew is always a pure moment of entertainment, as he embeds profound lessons within a truly memorable story.
What is creativity? It is the sudden collision of two previously unrelated themes. With a few photos, Drew illustrated the definition, notably drawing our attention to the way in which the popular television show “MacGyver” served as an example of accessible creativity.  
Three Key Principles of Creativity:

  • The Principle of Constraints. You lack something and replace it with something else more readably available.
  • The Principle of Fixedness. You become stuck in thinking about your available resources narrowly, even though many options are available to you. Go beyond the obvious and anticipate that the unusual can happen.
  • The Closed World Principle. Prioritize the resources around you; proximity is the solution.

What a moment of self-awareness! Reflecting on a recent personal experience, compensating for the lack of availability of professional painters, I became painter. I painted the forged iron fences around my house. Because every gesture was new to me, I had to create and invent the best process for doing this work. I hesitated. I referred to the DIY manuals. I was out of my comfort zone, but I was so pleased to see the result.

What about you?  How have you successfully used the principles of creativity?

Postponement 2020 - Filippo Martino

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Dear Yury,

We are well so far and looking forward to remain fit. 

We where all unprepared, so we’re still in a learning process and, as everybody, we’re hopeful to see the end of this fairly soon and star the recovery.

Not everything will be the same. My hope is that, along with many uncertainties something good could come out of this global crisis. Among many:
- (unplanned!) learnings on smart working and distance learning wich are now used on a large scale in almost every job and service:
- a wiser national and international attention to unknown pandemics both to address research but also to be ready with structures and tools (masks, etc). In fact, its a strange situation: just in the meddle of debates such as returning to the Moon and planning to reach Mars or investing in AI for safe self driving, we discover population of the First World exposed to very old stile diseases! 

I’ve received notice of GF 2020 postponement (the first ever) as a consequence of the unprecedented situation affecting also our community. 
Let's be hopefull that before summer the pandemia will be over and soon after we could even find a time and a place where a few of us could convene and talk and reflect about this happenings. 

Best also from Olimpia, to Nadia, your family, the Gf team and colleagues,

 

Filippo Martino

Changing Our Communication

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Covid-19 is changing our communication – no doubt!

What for years has been a dragging business in our offices is now experiencing a huge boost. Our communication becomes more and more virtual. But there is no need to repeat the mistakes of those who have been gradually virtualising the digitalisation of their communication behaviour for some time now.
A good example can be found in an article in the Harvard Business Review, which Fiona Steward has drawn our attention to. The rules of conduct listed here are in line with our experience and could also be a valuable guide for you.

Read it yourself [link]

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