Challenging the Status Quo with Action Learning Coaching

On March 21, the New York Public Library opened its doors to the ATD New York Chapter Coaching SIG to give an insight into how they have adopted action learning within the organization.

When Craig Senecal, Director of Talent Development and Engagement joined NYPL he found individuals inherently conflict-averse. This avoidance became a key driver for choosing Action Learning over other methods, because it provided an opportunity to address these issues. There is no place for conflict in Action Learning. Instead, the method emphasizes self-managed problem solving. Rather than becoming entrenched in your own position and adopting the attitude of “right vs wrong” which fuels conflict,  the rules of NYPL’s action learning process ensure that participants share different perspectives and use the diversity of views to generate creative solutions.

Only two ground rules are set:

·         Statements may only be made in response to a question.

·         The coach’s role is to guide process and intervene when they feel there is an opportunity for

This means that anyone can start a conversation in the group by asking a question, but they may not start out with giving their opinion, or telling a story, or putting forth information; these would all be “statements”.  It forces the group to start conversations by asking questions; anyone can pose the first question and anyone else can respond to it (by making a statement or by asking further questions).  Participants (even trained coaches) find this difficult to start with and conversation is a little stilted until everyone gets used to the pattern.  

Each participant in the group is asked to select a development area to focus on during the session. With that, the coach states the problem and hands it to the group by asking “who has the first question?”.

Mies de Koning, Learning and Development Partner at NYPL and Craig then ran a demonstration of an action learning group using two of NYPL’s certified action learning coaches, two volunteer coaches from the audience, Craig as the facilitator, and a person who brought the problem.  The person with the problem was me.  And what an experience it was…..

First, I was reminded how vulnerable you feel when you put a problem that is genuinely taxing your own brain out in the public domain.  Even in a safe space of other coaches, I was aware of the small part of me that wondered if I sounded stupid, incompetent or if my problem was so simple the group were wondering why I found it challenging at all.  Imagine then how people who are not trained in such processes feel when their defenses are up and their organizational title requires them to “be right” and “have answers”. 

Second, I was fascinated by how powerful the process was at helping me rethink my own problem and start to see new solutions forming that I had not seen before.  Just 30 mins of participating in the group was enough to help. 

Third, I was excited to see how others reacted to the experience.  It was easy to see how and why NYPL have used this as a bottom-up method for culture change. The very act of participating empowers you to own and solve problems and rewires your brain to truly listen and contribute positively to the team. 

At NYPL, action learning sessions are usually 90 minutes long with a minimum of two sessions: one run in the late afternoon and the second run the next morning.  The overnight break is crucial and the positive effect it has on moving the group forward was highly praised by Craig and Mies. 

The problems that are brought to action learning sessions vary widely but are always a real organizational challenge that needs to be solved.  

NYPL’s groups consist of 6 – 8 participants with a certified action learning coach to guide the session.  Groups are sometimes formal teams and sometimes they are strangers to each other. Multi-disciplinary action learning groups are encouraged: “the more diverse the better” says Mies de Koning.

At NASA, an action learning group became “stuck” while trying to solve a particular problem. At that moment, the pizza delivery arrived and the group asked the delivery person to join them.  Sure enough, he solved the problem!  Don’t underestimate the power of a fresh pair of eyes and the view of someone who is totally disengaged from the problem and the setting. They can ask naïve questions that the people involved in the situation simply don’t ask.

If you are interested in finding out more about action learning please contact me.