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…..

A facilitating French teacher

Further to my last 2 posts, here is about the teacher.   The French teacher is a great (learning) facilitator.   She can easily get a CPF from IAF!

From the technical perspective, she is very resourceful.   She used a ‘talking piece’ to direct attention.   She sat at different place in the circle to dilute the ‘teaching’ sense and encourage conversation among all of us, and thus self-discovery.  She fully utilized the space in the room e.g. conversation space in the circle, reflective / writing space on the desks.   She asked questions and threw back questions to the floor.   She paused without appearing impatient.   She knew when to use the blackboard to slow down discussion and give clarity.   And she wrote very clearly with structure.    Of course, she can do the above because she is technically competent with the language.

From the adaptive (mental) perspective, she impressed me with a strong inclination to work with the emergence.   She often started a session by inviting questions from the learners, and then she will build the entire session from it, instead of sticking to the pre-arranged material.   She always worked with ‘where the learners are’ rather than ‘ where she is with the material’.     Another indication of her ‘emergence’ mind-set, she was never disturbed by the learners’ late arrival and sometimes she even used the incident as resources.   For example, whilst we were making sentences using different verbs, someone came into the room.   Without sounding offended, she invited us to describe the action of someone entering the room.    She also stayed playful all the time.   She smiled and was ready to be amused by the learners’ remarks.

How did the institution manage to develop teachers like her?



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.




Unconscious Collusion with Learners

“I’ll say nice things about your workshop / coaching if you spare me the pain in learning about myself.”

I was reading an article, and there is a line like above (I modify it a bit).    The collusion we can get into unconsciously….  e.g. probably simply with an exchange of eye contact and smile.   The question is ‘Am I colluding?’   Or I should say ‘To what extent I am colluding?’    I think it is an important question to reflect on from time to time.   This is for everyone who is in the business helping others develop.

Intended Messiness – Part 1

Scenario – Along with others, you designed and ran a 3-day workshop.   For various reasons (e.g. flow design, learners’ composition), on Day 2 morning, a few participants criticized strongly and openly their workshop experience on Day 1.   It was a hard time for the facilitators to deal with the dynamics on spot, and adapted subsequently.   There were odd moments…  with a lot of emotions and uncertainties.   Somehow, the workshop ended reasonably well.    Now, you are about to prepare for the next workshop, how would you like it to be different?

It would be natural to find ways to avoid the odd moments e.g. to re-design some processes or to align better the participants’ expectation.  In fact, it was my thought to do so.   But I changed my mind after a learning reflection with a fellow facilitator.  I no longer want to kill all the odd moments.  In short, our reflection informed me that sometimes odd moments are good stuffs for learning.   This sounds a bit paradoxical.  Let me elaborate by going back to the reflection conversation.

I found the conversation very rich in learning for myself.  To begin with, we were very drawn to the opportunity to reflect because of the emotions involved in the event.   There were a lot of case-in-point which we could discuss how we could handle differently.   Pondering why, I believed the richness was largely because of the challenges in the workshop.  I suspected that if the workshop was smooth and things turned out as planned, I probably would learn less.

I then wondered whether it would be the same for the participants.   Well, it depends.   Most importantly, it depends on the learning objective.   If people come to learn about quality management or Health & Safety at workplace, odd moments in workshops probably do not help.   But when the learning objective is about collective wisdom (it is the case for us), odd moments is useful and in fact probably essential.  (Basically, using Ron Heifetz’s language, the former is ‘Technical’ in nature and the latter is ‘Adaptive’)

After all, learning how to tap into collective wisdom is largely about how to deal with messiness, emotion, uncertainties.

There is another reason why odd moments are good in learning collective wisdom.   Most people (especially those with ‘Technical’ professional background e.g. accountants, lawyers and bankers) resist the notion of collective wisdom.   Or to be specific, we (I was a banker before) hate the loss of control which often accompanies the process of collective wisdom.    Thus, some odd moments are good signs that the participants are entering their learning zone (i.e. outside their comfort zones).  Of course, hopefully they do not ‘check out’ as they go into the panic zone!

It then leads to 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?

What are your thoughts to these 2 questions?    I will share my thoughts later.

Individuation, Abstract Art and Corporate Learning (Part 2)


The question I raised in my last post is ‘What is the implication of the individuation concept to corporate learning?’ The individuation is the ultimate developmental work (psychologically).   Ideally, a more self-harmonious and self-aware individual would contribute better to the workplace.

My first thought to the question is that most corporates would not really care.   In my experience, corporates expect return on investment in learning (in fact any other areas) in a relatively short period of time, with high certainty of success and value directly applicable to work.   The ideal is like having a Microsoft Excel workshop with what a participant can then use the Project Tracker template on his product development project the day after the workshop.    So, the challenges are:

  1. Time – Work on depth psychology takes time. Psycho-analysis or therapy takes months.
  2. Certainty – Some argue that the degree of ‘success’ varies. At least, it seems to be less scientific than traditional developmental interventions e.g. coaching, training, which are already difficult to evaluate
  3. Value – To individuate, becoming more ‘whole’, is not regarded as ‘valuable’ at work in most corporates. The quote from Henry Ford illustrates the extreme ‘Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’

And 2 more challenges come to my mind:

  1. Branding – Concepts like ‘Depth Psychology’, ‘Dream Analysis’ are generally associated with mental illness – not exactly an attractive ‘branding’ for corporate executives as most are (or would like to be seen as) tough-minded.
  2. Preparedness – Learning professionals are generally not prepared for and told not to step into the Psycho-analysis or therapy area. Instead, some companies engage external counselling services for those who needs help.    (Again, work on depth psychology is associated to be something ‘negative’.)

In short, it seems unlikely corporates will one day run interventions dedicated to work on depth psychology e.g. a workshop called ‘How to individuate’ (!).    Yet,

  • Teal – There are movements in the world which embraces ‘wholeness’ as researched and described in the book called ‘Reinventing Organisation’.   See the summary in this Strategy+Business article.    In short, such Teal organizations encourage people bring all of themselves to work – their moods, aspirations, uncertainties.   So, point 3 above is less an issue.
  • Different Form – In fact, some Jungian theories have penetrated into corporate learning very successfully….. not in the form of psycho-analysis or therapy.   MBTI is an outstanding example (though under a lot of scrutiny these days).   It is said to be used by about 80% of Fortune 100 companies.    See Forbes article here.   We individuate as we attend to our inferior functions in MBTI.
  • Design Consideration – I think it will still be beneficial to take into account the individuation process in designing developmental interventions in corporates.   First, it is about how middle-age (35-45) learners develop themselves, say, compared to the late 20s / early 30s.     With the individuation process, the middle-age learners are likely more receptive to open reflective space rather than content-filled experience.   In fact, they may even need the reflective space.   They would also be more receptive to work on self-awareness and mindset (way of thinking) rather than skill-set (way of doing)

Overall, I sense that there are other things going on between the depth psychology world and corporate learning / development.   I am curious.   What do you see?    And what do you think is possible?

Improv Theatre and Emergence

I normally find it hard to enjoy stage performance / show normally but the dinner performance in the IAF EMENA conference in Stockholm was indeed amazing, even inspiring!   They did improv theatre. I find them to be very creative in how to improv e.g.

  • Randomly started a conversation between 2 actors. Another actor called ‘pause’ anytime and replaced any in-action actor by himself / herself, and carried on the conversation
  • Asked audience to shout out a scene to start with.   Started a random conversation among the players.   Whenever an audience threw a flower onto the stage, the player who just spoke would sing a song using the words he / she just said.   They called it ‘Feel like a song’
  • Two players stood together and moved like one individual. When they spoke during the play, they looked at each other and spoke at the same time. Funny words and meaning came out.

In doing the above, they achieved quite a few things.   They interacted with the audience and kept them engaged.   In fact, they co-created the ‘stories’ with the audience.   And they managed to keep the ‘stories’ entertaining.

Most importantly, apart from being entertained, I saw emergence.   They created the environment where new stories could emerge – stories which even the actors did not know before the show.   I am most amazed with their mindset (just my inference).   One said confidently in the beginning along the line of ‘We are going to perform on stories which we do not know’.

This is exactly the mindset needed to deal with “Complex” problem (under Cynefin Framework) – the cause-and-effect is so unclear that existing practices do not work.   The leaders need to take time to experiment for emergent practices.     To me, the most challenging part is to be mentally prepared e.g. to go against the urge to adopt any ‘best practice’ or ‘technical fix’ which could easily be Work Avoidance.

The way how the improv actors carried themselves provided me a great example and reminer to such way of thinking.   On the other hand, I also learn from them on the technical aspect.   I reflect on how the actors managed to co-create the stories:

Diversity – They designed ways to tap into the different inputs from the floor e.g. timing on when to sing a song.   Other than being engaging, the inputs forced the actors to create something new.   It broke the inertia.

Team – In a way, their task is to convert the crazy inputs into digestable and entertaining performance.   Working in a core team who knows each other well makes it much more possible.   The 4 actors both challenged and supported each other.

Technical – Allowing things to emerge needs solid foundation. The actors could work on new inputs since they have strong performing capability. They sang well. They spoke clear and loud. They made melodies from the piano which their team members can follow. We needed readily available lego pieces in order to emerge.

(Note: The performing team is called Aktör Entertainment.  But somehow, I could not find them on the internet)