Dilemma between Learning and Performance in Action Learning

[Regent Park in London, May 2017]

I am an advocate on action learning, or more specifically the practice of ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL)    I believe we learn most effectively when we reflect on real work with real consequence.   A recent experience pushed me to think deeper on how to put this philosophy into practice. To be more specific, the question is ‘how much should the coach intervene?’

I was one of the coaches for an action-learning type workshop.   In short, the learners have some 24 hours to work together as teams on a real challenge faced by their organisation.   During the event, I felt odd when I heard expectation to help the learners do better in their project.   It seems to me that we care more about (immediate) performance than learning.   The problem is that making things easier for them can compromise their learning.

I realise that my philosophy towards action learning has shifted over the years.   This is probably because of the work in business schools in the last 2 years.  More at ‘Rethinking Experiential Learning’.    The new paradigm is that I better just observe rigorously, let them fail and then help them learning from the experience (including the possible anger towards my ‘not-helping’)  Participants can still learn something even if their projects ‘win’.  But the learning from failure (with reflection by facilitation / coaching) can be deeper and better retained.

A further reflection then came – When I worked as an in-house L&D years ago, I cared a lot about the learners’ performance in the projects.   I also did things to enhance their performance.   Why?   I wanted them to look good so that I or my department look good in front of the CEO who was present with the project outcome!    After all, it is much easier to show case project outcome than learning.

If I were an in-house today, even though with the ‘business schools’ experience, I honestly could not claim that I am 100% prepared for the participants to fail in the projects.

So, how to reconcile the dilemma?   Or again, how much should the coach intervene?   As one can imagine, there is no straight-forward answer.   On reflection, I think the better we address the following factors, the more the coach can let them fail and learn from the experience.

Sponsor selection – From the learning perspective, the function of the sponsors / judges is basically to create consequence to the projects.   In general, the more senior they are, the scarier the action learning becomes.   The global CEO whom the participants can rarely meet will put them into the ‘Panic Zone’.  On the other hand, using peer as judges will leave them in the ‘Comfort Zone’.   We can thus dial up and down accordingly to pursue the ‘Learning Zone’?   In addition, we can module-ise the challenge e.g. first round with the country CEO and so on.

Sponsor relationship – Sometimes the tendency, if not obsession, to show case learners’ performance is out of sponsor’s impatience as well as HR / L&D own sense of insecurity.   (I have it myself)    A learning-oriented action learning thus requires mutual trust between the sponsor and the HR / L&D.   From the latter’s perspective, this means continuous effort to nurture the sponsor on the reality of learning and build own creditability.

Duration – Learning and performance are more likely to co-exist if the action learning is long enough.   Say, if the program can last for 6 months, the learners can transfer the learning from previous failure into enhanced performance in subsequent modules.   On the contrary, if we just have, say, 2 days, learning will easily be compromised assuming the need to show-case.

Reflection space – Related to the last point, a short action learning program may not allow enough time for reflection.   This hinders deep learning (from failure).   First, there is literally no time to talk.   Second, coaches would hesitate to challenge too much since there lacks space for the participants to ‘recover’.   I would say in general one day of action will need half a day of reflection for a small group (4-8) of participants.

Coaches – For action learning to yield deep learning, we need coaches who are at least conscious about own anxiety.  They also need to be skilful and resourceful in facilitating just-in-time learning.

What do you think?    How else or what other factors to consider in order to produce a great action learning program given the organisational realities?

10 Years Old

Like what I said in the 5 years anniversary, I would not imagine that this blog would last for 10 years when I started it in 2007.

I reflected on my professional development journey for the first 5 years of blogging.  See ‘A New Look’.   Along with ‘A New New Look‘,  it is now a good time to do the same for the 2nd 5 years through my blog posts.

I have continued my interests.   On technical aspects, my reflection on questioning continued.  For example, I reflected on various powerful questions I came across (see ‘A question to draw questions’ in Sep 2013 and ‘Useful Questions’ in Feb 2014)   But the reflection on questioning extended into more the executive coaching context (see ‘What story would you like to tell?’ In Dec 2015 and ‘A question on question’ in Sep 2015)

Another development is in the facilitation domain.   I reflected on particular technique e.g. ‘Sit on your hands and shut up’ in Oct 2014, physical set-up in ‘Physical Conditioning’ in Jun 2013, and even learning from a french teacher in ‘A facilitating French teacher’ recently in Mar 2017.   A particular aim of facilitation emerged as my new interest – a very pure form of facilitation for the purpose of collective wisdom (some called Hosting).  See the few posts on ‘Intended Messiness’ in Sep 2016.

Learning / Learning Design is a key theme all along in this blog (see ‘More about learning… from the french class’ in Feb 2017 and ‘Rethinking Experiential Learning’ in Oct 2016)   But I find myself taking on more the organisational angle in the last few years instead of focusing on particular interventions (see ‘When a program has a life of its own’ in Oct 2013 and ‘Be careful about L3 and L4’ in Feb 2014)    In particular, this angle reinforced my inclination towards the ARL approach (see ‘Learning Sustainability’ in Apr 2012 and ‘Action Learning in Action’ in Jan 2014)

Another new development across my interest in coaching / facilitation / learning – I notice myself shifting gradually more from the technical i.e. ‘skill-set’ towards the ‘mind-set’ perspective.   For example, in ‘Rethinking Facilitation’ in Dec 2013 and ‘Never Perfect’ in Apr 2013, I examined the assumptions I was having when I facilitated.   Looking back, such interest actually started earlier, like in the post ‘Be prepared, and prepared not to use what you prepare’ in Oct 2011.    This was probably triggered by a few Leadership Development programs I started to facilitate in 2000 (see ‘Adaptive Leadership’ in Dec 2013) and some external learning experience (see ‘Immunity to Change’ in Sep 2013)

Along this path, I find myself losing interest in talking about highly technical domain like presentation skills, and definitely topics like using visual aid.

Another new area of interest in the last 5 years is ‘Leadership’.   ‘Leadership’ is a big concept like ‘Love’ i.e. can mean completely different things for different individuals.   To me, I am interested at a particular interpretation of ‘Leadership’ (see ‘Really…  what is leadership?‘ In Feb 2014) and ‘Leadership Development’ (see ‘Leadership Development’ in May 2014)    Like facilitation, this angle of ‘Leadership’ is more about mind-set rather than skill-set.   It can be illustrated by ‘Leadership’ on a gravestone’ in Mar 2014 and ‘The Paradox of Confidence and Vulnerability’ in Feb 2013.

I notice another interesting trail when I review my blog – scepticism on some training and facilitation work, including my own previous work.   I have highlighted in the 5 years anniversary my critics on training (see ‘Forget about Training’ in Jun 2011).  But it continued to other area like some kinds of meeting facilitation (see ‘Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up’ in Nov 2016)

What would be some emerging new path of interest going forward?   I mentioned above my shift from the technical to the adaptive perspective.  It started to extend into some deeper works as I moved to Switzerland.   The journey was highlighted by the Tavistock GRC (see ‘Tavistock Experience’ in Jan 2015, my own psycho-analysis (see ‘Drawing out thoughts and emotions’ in Jul 2016) and work in psychodynamics approach (see ‘Unconscious Collusion with Learners’ in Nov 2016.   This post did not exactly describe the work but gave some sense of what it is like)     Pondering on the crossroad between depth psychology and performance at work is definitely one of my on-going interest (see ‘Individuation, Abstract Art and Corporate Learning)

Having the above journey in front of me, I cannot help ponder on a question – To what extent does the blog name ‘Ask, Not Tell’ capture my growing areas of interest?   Or it no longer does?    Probably another blog post to reflect on…..

More about learning…. from the french class

This is further to the last post – Learning about learning in a French language class.   I cannot help note down a few more amazing design elements among all others, before I talk about how the French teacher facilitated.    The class really revolutionize the conventional ones where all just listen and repeat ‘Je mange, Tu manges, Il mange…….’

WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) – We were asked to write a short paragraph in French on why we want to learn French.   And there was another homework where we wrote our understanding on quotes about the benefit on learning new languages.   For example, the one I worked is ‘Apprendre une langue c’est comme le commencement d’une autre vie’ (Translation: To learn a language is like starting another life’)

Circle – In most language classes, you sit in your tables all facing the teachers and the black / white-board.   But in the UNIL class, we always sit in circles.   Everyone sees everyone.  We also did particular things by utilizing the circle.  For example, each took turn to make a statement using ‘Passé Composé’ but each had to repeat what all the previous statements.   This created people interaction and repetition.

Board game – We worked in pairs to create board games (like Monopoly) in French and about the French or Swiss culture.  This included coming up with questions on the ‘Chance Card’.  We then presented to all how the game can be played…..  again in French.   And, we really spent time playing games created by other pairs.   It was difficult but engaging.    Again, it subtly achieved repetition.

Poem – We worked in pairs to come up with a poem about learning French.  For example, here is the one by my group:

Écoutez une personne parler

Apprenez les sons du français

Répétez les sons tout le temps

Assistez au Cours de Vacances

Pratiquez sur le pointdufle.net

Lisez les règles de la grammaire

Si vous suivez notre poème

Vous parlerz mieux que nous bientôt

Skit – We worked in small teams.  We received a few pages of notes explaining different topics (e.g. sports, food) in French.   We then created simple dialogues using those information.   At the end, we acted out the dialogues in front of the whole class (of around 18 people).

Inter-group dynamics – We were also asked to video-record the above-mentioned skits.  At the end of the 3 weeks, the videos were shown to whole UNIL classes.   (The whole UNIL class composed 60-70 participants in total, and were separated into different classes by level of command in French)    The inter-group dynamics motivated us to produce, record and listen to the works…. in French.

Video clip + Recollection & Imagination – We were shown a funny short video clip – a French speaking lady walking on the street with her goldfish.   The teacher then asked each to make a statement to describe what happened….  of course in Passé Composé.   She wrote down each statement on the blackboard clearly.  Further, she asked us to imagine what would happen in the scene….. in Futur Simple.

Learning about ‘learning’ in a French class

I have recently started a 3-weeks French class with the University of Lausanne.   I am amazed not only with my newly learnt French but also the learning design.   It is very well designed and in fact, much better than quite a lot of workshops I experienced in the corporate world.  Just look at the photo – the room set up is already so different from those traditional learning classes.   The circle encourages conversations which is necessary for learning languages.   When we need to write, we can move to the tables on the side.

Overall, the learning experience addresses very well a lot of the adult learning principles.

Here is a piece of the experience as an example.   In a session, the teacher asked each of us (18 of us) to write on a small card 4 French adjectives to describe ourselves (not physical attributes).   She then asked us to write on the back the adjectives in the opposite gender form e.g. ‘sportive’ into ‘sportif’.   She then grouped us into pairs and correct each other.   At the same time, she walked around to offer help.

In a subsequent session, she asked each of us to draw a flower with 5 petals on a flipchart paper.   On each petal, we wrote down a number which is important to us e.g. # of years in Switzerland, # of siblings.   We then took turn to take the stage and guide the others guess what the numbers stand for.  Of course, the conversations were ‘en français’.   She also facilitated the process it e.g. drawing the silent ones to try.

After that, she asked us to post all the flipcharts on the wall.   She then gathered us around the wall with all the adjective cards posted up, and asked us to guess which card belongs to which flipchart. Anyone with an idea was asked to just take the card and stick on the corresponding flipchart.   After all done, each flipchart owner walked around to check and make correction.

Here I see the above experience as an outstanding learning design (more though for technical topics instead of adaptive ones like leadership):

Fun… and safety – We had a lot of fun in the guessing activity.  Some started to make jokes on the number e.g. saying ‘107 must be your age’.   It engaged us into the process, and made us feel more safe to take risk in speaking up.   As most said, the key to learn a new language is to speak more.

Human Connection – The guessing activity motivated us to practice the new language by leveraging our inclination to connect.   After all, language is to connect people.   In addition, the resulting better understanding among each other created a better community for us to take risk in the class overall.

Repetition – One of the adult learning principles is to repeat.   By the above process, without noticing (and feeling bored), we repeatedly visit the adjectives a few times.   Moreover, since most put on numbers of same nature e.g. # of years in Swiss, we practiced repeatedly making similar statements.

Self-concept – Adult learners need to be autonomous and self-directing.    In the traditional language class, students read along following the teacher.   Yet, in the above-mentioned process, we basically discovered the learning ourselves.   The teacher is more to create the environment and answer questions.

Problem-centred – Adults are motivated to learn so they can perform a task or solve a problem.   All those statements we made in the guessing activity are those we will use in daily life e.g. ‘Vous avez 2 frères’ (= You have 2 brothers).

Learning styles – The whole process addresses different learning preference.   Taking VARK as a framework: Visual – Drawing the flipcharts; Aural – Guessing and chatting; Read / Write – Reading and writing the adjective cards; Kinaesthetic – Standing up to present and moving around to match the cards and flip charts.

There are numerous other parts of the program which are so well-designed.   Just too much for me to write about here.

There is however one thing other than the program design which amazed me.   This is something more subtle.   It is how the French teacher facilitated.    I will write about it in the next post.

Secondary Source of Income



A recent conversation with a fellow coach came to something rather interesting.   Our argument is that in order to the job well, a practitioner (on people development e.g. coach, OD consultant, facilitator and even therapist) need to have some kind of secondary source of income. He / she cannot rely solely on such developmental work e.g. coaching.  The side-business could be something like trading of marker pens, workshop venue rental, etc.  Ideally, the business is not face-time dependent and generates relatively stable income across the time.

The alternate income source is not only to diversify risk, but also to make the developmental work better.  There are 3 other reasons why so:

Helping by Not Helping – Our work is a lot about pushing people out of comfort zone.  Real learning (especially on self-awareness) comes with some pain.   Yet, if our living relies solely on the work, we are vulnerable to collusion.   It is well illustrated by a quote mentioned in my earlier post ‘Unconscious Collusion with Learners’– I’ll say nice things about your workshop / coaching if you spare me the pain in learning about myself.    Or when we are not finally desperate, we can turn down facilitation work which is actually a cover-up to deeper organizational problem.   See another post ‘Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up

Capacity Constraint – From the business perspective, the only asset is ourselves.   The scale of this business is constrained by nature e.g. there is only 365 days in a year we can work.  It is not scalable.   On the other hand, there is a huge key-man risk.   I knew a facilitator who suddenly lost his voice.   The problem lasted for a few months.   He got to cancel all his workshops, arrange substitutes, negotiate against possible compensation…. without jeopardising client relationship…  and his voice!    And at least equally important, he did not have income during that time,

Time Out – This is especially important for those practitioners doing deep psychological work like therapists.   When they are going through life trauma e.g. divorce, loss of important person, it is not useful for them to continue the work.   A secondary source of income can definitely help here.

Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up

img_5403I was shown in a facilitation learning event a short video clip.   It is about a retreat for 50+ people in an organisation design and facilitated by a facilitator   It is the kind of upbeat video with delightful music which showed the smiling faces, colourful wall-charts, fun activities, etc.   There were captions indicating how much the participants happily connected, enjoyed the event, praised about the organisation, etc.

A big question mark came to my mind after I watched the clip – “What really did the event do to the organisation?”    I asked for the objective statements and have to say that the event seemed to meet the objectives e.g. ‘to have a fun, engaging, high energy day’    There were probably also ‘practical outputs’ contributing to the organisation’s strategy and purpose.

But from the clip (and in particular its mood), I questioned whether the event is actually a cover-up to any organisational issue.   Is it actually a dis-services to the organisation?

This post is not a critics to this piece of work.  In fact, if it is a critics, it is a critics to myself.    I have done similar events producing lot of fun and energy, and lot of flipcharts with long list of bullet points.   Well, those events produced what the sponsor wanted…  sometimes perhaps exactly a layer of cover-up.   But is it what the organisation needed?   How much I should and can push the sponsor to spend the resources on addressing the issues under the cover-up?

Well, this is very much related to my last post re my reflection on collusion.




Intended Messiness – Part 3

The 2nd question to reflect on is ‘What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?’    By ‘bad’, I mean those odd moments which are not conductive to the learning objectives.   As such, the answer to this question is really ‘it depends’.   On one extreme, if the learning intervention is about topic like group dynamics or self-awareness, I think all odd moments are learning-friendly.   In fact, the odder, the better.   A classic example is the Group Relations Conference which basically provides white space for assumptions to be surfaced.   See my earlier posts – Tavistock Experience and Tavistock Experience – Learning Design.

How about the workshop I mentioned in the beginning i.e. learning objective around collective wisdom?   Most odd moments are still good for learning so long as the learning transfer mechanism is in place.   See my thought on question 1.

On the other hand, though messiness can help learn collective wisdom, it is probably not a good idea to start a workshop by saying ‘Welcome to the workshop!   We the facilitators have prepared nothing and let’s see what we can learn together in the coming 3 days.   By the way, we only booked this room till 10am.  [silence]’    It probably forces people out of the Learning Zone into the Panic Zone.

Your thought?


Intended Messiness – Part 2

Following from the argument from the last post, there are 2 questions

  1. How to assist the participants to learn from the odd moments instead of just staying in the ‘complaint’ mode in those moments?
  2. What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?

Capitalizing Messiness – To the first question, the first and foremost thing is how centered the facilitator is.   It is about how well he / she can rise above the emotion – to observe self, pause and then use rather than be consumed by the moments.  Practicing EQ helps here.   Without such consciousness, the first question is not relevant at all.

Assuming the facilitator is able to find space to consider this question, there are different ways to approach it depending on the situation.   In the scenario described above, I would probably hold a fish bowl i.e. facilitator team in the inner circle and participants in the outer circle.  The facilitators basically hold a design team meeting in response to the participants’ feedback.    The benefits are that:

  • It makes the participants feel heard
  • It transits the energy in the room from ‘I do not like that….’ to ‘what can we do about it?’
  • It allows space for the facilitator team to work on the feedback
  • It demonstrates how to tap into collective wisdom (among the facilitators)

After some 20-30 mins in fish bowl, all go back to one big circle and work on the question ‘What can we ALL do together to make the remaining 2 days a good experience?’ with the input from the design team meeting.    Lastly, I would leave some 10 mins to jointly reflect on the question ‘What can we learn from the experience this morning so far?’

My thought on the 2nd question to follow…..