There are many ways to solve a problem, and a vast number of approaches your team can follow to come up with the best solution. Following ‘Action Learning Cycles’ is one such approach that we try to incorporate at Mobenzi.

What is ‘Action Learning’?

Simply put, ‘action learning’ is learning from experience. Every action has a result, whether positive or negative, and we can learn from this result and apply what we’ve learnt the next time we take a similar action.

Learning from experience is barely a foreign concept – we’ve actually been doing this our whole lives. For example, if you’re late for a meeting because you got stuck in traffic (action and its result), you’ll realise that there’s traffic at that time of the day (reflect and learn) and plan to leave earlier next time in order to skip the traffic and be on time for your meeting (plan and adjust your action).

However, we also know that this is easier said than done – time after time we make a mental note to do (or not do) something, just to forget again the next time we are faced with a similar situation. Although this learning can happen unconsciously as in the example above (you don’t have to work through an action learning cycle to come up with a solution for being late as a result of traffic), it often requires us to consciously set aside time to learn as a team or company, especially in a working environment where we’re constantly faced with change, stress, and deadlines.

The ‘Action Learning Cycle’ is merely a way of formalising the learning process, giving it direction and structure, and guiding us to implement our learnings the next time we take action.

Why is action learning important?

Action learning stands in contrast to being taught by experts. Although expert-led teaching is also useful and valuable, people often respond better to something that is more than just theory; something they can personally relate to through their own or someone else’s experiences.

The Action Learning Cycle


The Action Learning Cycle – Adapted from Taylor, J., Marais, D. and Kaplan, A. (1997), Action Learning for Development: use your experience to improve effectiveness: The Barefoot Collective (2011), The Barefoot Guide 2 – Learning Practices in Organisations and Social Change, p.161

Although action learning can take on many different forms, the image above depicts a typical example of the four steps of an Action Learning Cycle:

1) Action

Knowing you’re going to reflect on your actions causes you to become more aware of your experience while performing the action. You start to focus much more on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, how you’re feeling while doing it, and how others react to what you’re doing. It helps to write down a few things as or directly after something happens, while it’s still fresh in your mind. These can then be used as points to reflect on in the next step of the cycle.

Knowing you’re going to reflect on your actions causes you to become more aware of your experience while performing the action.

Questions to ask during the Action step:

  • What significant things happened?
  • How would you describe the events?
  • Who was involved and what did they do?
  • What picture emerges?
  • How did I/we feel?

2) Reflection

Confucius said: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” Sumit Sahni suggests that one can extend this quote with another line: “I reflect and I learn.”

This step asks you to think critically about the event or action performed. It’s natural to reflect in reaction to a crisis, but it’s more beneficial to reflect proactively to prevent things from becoming a crisis in the first place.

It’s more beneficial to reflect proactively to prevent things from becoming a crisis in the first place.

There are different methods you can use to reflect, including free writing and group discussions. Keep a list of questions to prompt reflections. 

Questions to ask during the Reflection step:

  • What was my approach to solving this problem?
  • What approach did other team members use?
  • Why did it happen / what caused it?
  • What helped and what hindered?
  • What did we expect?
  • What assumptions did we make?
  • What really struck us?
  • Do we know of any other experience or thinking that might help us look at this experience differently?

3) Learning

This is the part of the cycle that’s usually neglected most. Teams often reflect on the work they’ve done and come up with a list of ‘gone-wells’ and ‘need-to-improves’. They then close the document and never look at it again.

The fact that you reflected, doesn’t mean you’ learnt!

If you don’t make a specific, concerted effort and set time aside to learn from your reflections, you’ll  probably never find time for it.

The goal here is to generate core, generalised lessons from your reflections. You shouldn’t merely consider ‘what actually happened’, but also ‘what tends to happen as a result of such circumstances’. If you get stuck only on the former, your learning will be shallow, and probably forgotten the next time you’re faced with a similar situation.

Questions to ask during the Learning step:

  • What would we have done differently?
  • What did we learn and what new insights did we get?
  • What was confirmed?
  • What new questions emerged?
  • What other theories help us to deepen these learnings?
  • What guidance do we get for the future?

4) Planning

Planning is a key link between past learning and future action. Once you’ve reflected and identified the key learnings, they must be turned into actionable items and incorporated into your plan for the next cycle. Teams tend to spend a lot of time on planning, but without incorporating learnings into their plans, these plans are merely a formality and not worth much in the long run.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” 

Anon

Action learning encourages regular re-planning. Planning is often seen as a step that happens up front, gets ticked off, and is then never considered again. In between operational issues, time pressures, and report writing, you seldom stop to reconsider if you’re still on the best path in an (inevitably) changing environment. Re-planning is seen as a low priority you never seem to have time for. However, re-evaluating your plan from time to time can save you from going down sub-optimal, time-consuming and costly paths, and only realising it at the end when it’s too late to change anything.

Planning is the key link between past learning and future action.

Of course, re-planning does incur overheads, so the cost-to value ratio should determine how often it makes sense to re-plan.

Questions to ask during the Planning step:

  • What does this mean for practice?
  • What steps will we use to build these new insights into our practice?
  • What do we want to do, to happen?
  • How?
  • What are we going to do differently?
  • What do we have to let go of or stop doing?
  • How will we not repeat the same mistake?

Finding the balance

All elements of the Action Learning Cycle are equally important. Since people have different learning preferences, the danger exists that your team might focus on only one or two of the steps – those that come easiest and most naturally. This can result in one of the following so-called ‘resistances to learning’.

Resistances to learning:

  • The Activists (Action)

Learning and reflection are seen as a waste of time. Activists prefer to ‘get things done’, and if something goes wrong, they attempt to correct it by acting instead of taking time to analyse what actually went wrong.

  • The Navel Gazers (Reflection) 

Every detail of the plan or the action gets analysed, argued, and debated, but as a result very little actually gets done.

  • The Easy Learners (Learning)

Easy earners want to get to the bottom line as quickly as possible and tend to jump to solutions without proper reflection. As a result, learnings are usually shallow and not internalised by the team.

  • The Blueprint People (Planning)

The plan seems to be the most important part of the process, and most of their time is spent on developing it. When the plan gets implemented (if they ever get to the point of implementing it) there is very little flexibility, making it quite challenging for others to adhere to.

It’s important to identify the steps of the cycle where you and/or your team tend to focus most, and then to deliberately shift your focus to the other steps during your next action learning cycle.

Closing thoughts

Action learning is a continuous learning process – it is never ‘complete’ and the end of one cycle is also the beginning of the next. If we’re more conscious of how we learn, we can improve personally and assist others to learn more effectively.

If we’re more conscious of how we learn, we can improve personally and assist others to learn more effectively.

The Action Learning Cycle values the experience of the learner above other forms of learning, and teaches people to always question what they’re doing and why, so that they can no longer answer,  “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”. This is directly aligned with one of Mobenzi’s core values: continuously learning and improving, and always striving to be better.

Resources

  • The Action Learning Cycle – Adapted from Taylor, J., Marais, D. and Kaplan, A. (1997), Action Learning for Development: use your experience to improve effectiveness: The Barefoot Collective (2011), The Barefoot Guide 2 – Learning Practices in Organisations and Social Change, p.161
  • The Action Learning Cycle As A Tool – Adapted from Barefoot Guide Collective (2009) The Barefoot Guide to Working With Organisations and Social Change, p.108-110, Second Barefoot Collective (2011)
  • Action Learning With Impact – Sumit Sahni, Harvard Business Publishing (https://www.harvardbusiness.org/action-learning-with-impact/)
  • The Action Learning Process – Bea Carson, Association for Talent Development (https://www.td.org/newsletters/the-action-learning-process)
  • Image adapted from SeeChange Consulting: http://seechangeconsulting.com.au/leadership-skills/