Action Learning and Leader Emergence

Leading Collaborative Action Learning

 Action learning has been around since the 90s and even earlier in the UK. It's been practiced in a variety of ways, mostly to promote the "harder", functional-managerial skills. What we've learned in the intervening years is that the so-called “softer,” relational and communicative skills of leadership are equally important to management and a practical imperative for leadership.

In this article, I discuss Collaborative Action Learning, an approach that places a premium on building organizational capacity by promoting collaboration, teamwork, and emergent leadership. 

I recommend this approach because, as a management psychologist, I see the difference-making power of relational and communication skills as a critical success factor. But even more compelling are the indications, gleaned from conversations with top leaders in all sectors of the economy, that those who know how to collaborate will prevail in today’s economy. And their collaborative style will go a long way toward sparking aligned acts of emergent leadership at all levels.

Why Collaborative Action Learning?

These two words, action and learning, are highly valued in our culture. Some prize one over the other. There is the stereotypical "man of action" in business lore. The gendered form of this expression dates it, but it also belies a psychographic reality in the world of business, i.e., a bias for action. Others, a minority perhaps, favor learning and ideas over action. The pragmatist, however, appreciates that it is both in proper proportion that builds organizational capability and promotes sustainable success.

Any time we speak of organizational capability, it is helpful to recall Stephen Covey’s distinction between production and production capabilities. The former concerns completed work, goods out the door, and revenue generation. The latter represents our capacity to sustain, even improve and grow, our levels of production over time. This capacity is acquired by adaptive learning and development. It makes our engine of production smarter, stronger, more efficient and predictable.

What we recommend is a powerful, catalytic combination of action, learning, and leadership that builds this capability. It bolsters traditional action learning, which tends to be a bit too task-oriented and skewed toward hard-skill development, with a collaborative leadership component. Leaders hone their presence and influence to align mindsets, motivation, and modes of interaction that maximize productive action and build production capability.

Groups, teams, and systems of all sizes and stripes rely on coordination, communication, and cooperation to achieve their results. When such social action prevails, we characterize the work and culture as collaborative. Perhaps your firm consistently works this way and meets or exceeds its goals for growth and innovation. If so, there would be little reason to focus on improving your leaders’ skills to promote collaboration.

Collaboration is a beautiful thing, several working as one to accomplish something no individual could have accomplished on his or her own. No wonder it is easy to admire. But unfortunately we find fewer examples of great collaboration in practice. And once achieved this quality of work is hard to sustain. This is largely because the world of commerce keeps throwing curve balls at management – new competitors, technical innovations, pressures to improve cost/pricing – continual challenges to adapt. 

Collaboration ≠ Teamwork

Teams can very often be a great example of collaboration. Because they are bound by common purpose, goals, and accountabilities their interdependencies are explicit and all-pervasive. This means that they must coordinate, communicate, and cooperate consistently and well if they are to be effective. When there are strains or conflictive interactions that cause ruptures in relationships, there are also ample and almost unavoidable needs to repair these ruptures and restore cohesion and smooth operation.

This is where it becomes important to distinguish collaboration from team dynamics and teamwork. Collaboration means literally to co-labor or work together, and it implies qualities of freedom and agency in those who engage in this co-labor. The agents of collaboration may be individuals or groups. They may be members of a team or they may be members of two or more distinct organizations that operate under separate governance and leadership.

You get the point: Leading a collaborative effort often involves the use of informal power, effective skills of influence, and getting things done without having direct control and authority over the agents of action or resources required to get the job done. Whether such constraints on the use of formal power and authority exist, we must recognize that in today’s world and workforce the use of command and control methods are often less effective and almost always less sustainable.

That is one reason why so much has been written in recent years on “transformational” leadership. It is not that the more traditional “transactional” style of leadership is not relevant or effective. But we have come to realize that motivating people purely on the basis of contingent rewards has its limits. Most obviously, when you do not control the carrot-and-stick factors of transactional leadership, you have little choice but to inspire, stimulate, and motivate through the personal power of your presence and influence.  

Collaborative action learning in a great way to develop future senior executives. Sponsored by top management, this strategy allows you to deploy your rising stars to strategically important work, projects that require executive level presence and influence in order to be successful. The challenge of this work stimulates developing leaders. Learning modules and associated developmental coaching will help them acquire and hone leadership skills for promoting collaboration.

How to Start an Action Learning Initiative

Now, let’s assume that management has concluded that building the firm's capacity to approach work more collaboratively is a priority. The obvious next question is “How does management go about launching a collaborative action learning program?"

I recommend that you treat your first two waves of implementation as a pilot period. This reinforces the need to learn as you go, adaptively modifying your approach based on experience.

That said, I believe the following six practices will enhance your prospects for early success:  

  1. Identify the right work. An ideal action learning project runs 6 to 12 months in duration. It should involve a challenge that is sufficiently novel, bold, or complex to drive learning. At the same time, the work should not be so urgent and high-stakes that it squeezes out room for acquiring new knowledge, applying new skills, reflecting on the experience, and integrating insights into the hard and soft variables of performance.

  2. Choose the right people. Pick people who you believe can build the program. Management is the sponsor and they must be invested in its success from design and ongoing oversight, and throughout implementation. In the first waves of action-learning participants must be highly motivated people, and they should have complementary skills, attitudes, and experience to contribute.

  3. Be realistic. If a target project is too big to be completed in 6 to 12 months, you may be able to break it down into design, start-up, and implementation sub-projects. Alternatively, you may run parallel projects across two or three teams. In any case, ask yourselves, “Is this something a developing leader could accomplish with 8-10 hours of effort per week in 6 to 12 months?”

  4. Coordinate with supervisors. Participants in the program most often have “day-jobs,” and it is important to set realistic expectations with participants and their supervisors. If it is to be a positive, productive, and developmental experience, each stakeholder must recognize the value and the importance of the effort. Supervisors should be heard concerning potential productivity impacts, or deadlines that may be put at risk.

  5. Create the right curriculum. There should be learning modules interspersed at regular intervals that provide knowledge and involve application of new skills. This may include mini-lectures and readings in management. But it should also include modules that promote self-awareness, group dynamics, and handling “difficult” situations. In any case, the emphasis involves practical application to the project they are leading.

  6. Offer facilitation and coaching. Especially in your first “go” at it, you will benefit from professional guidance by internal and external experts in action learning and team development. Questions and rocky moments will occur. How you handle them is important. If a team is stuck, management may have excellent observations and feedback to share. However, if an intervention is required that may be best handled by experts.


 Although in-person meetings have been the traditional medium for designing, kicking off, and facilitating action learning programs, today we have needs and constraints that indicate the use of technology. Thoughtful design can compensate for the loss of in-person dynamics.

People are geographically dispersed much more frequently today, whether that dispersion is on a global scale or simply due to work-from-home arrangements. Fret not, action learning, and even Collaborative Action Learning can be achieved at a distance.

The greatest predictor of success in action learning is the quality of involvement of senior management. If you do your job thoughtfully and well, it need not be nearly as time-consuming as you might imagine.

You too will have a learning curve as sponsor and mentor, not to mention your oversight of program design and project selection. But soon you will find this approach to capacity building gives you greatly increased power and leverage. 

I would encourage you to try it. Choose a manageable project. Design a simple pilot. See if there is reason for you to contemplate something more programmatic and far-reaching.

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