Posted on by & filed under book reviews, Business, Daily Learning, leading teams, Learning & Development.

Problems and opportunities.

They’re becoming more complex and coming at us so fast that we can either get run over by them or strive to identify, understand, and conquer them. 

In Building the Learning Organization, author Michael Marquardt talks about action learning, a powerful tool that has helped some of the world’s most successful companies solve problems and seize opportunities. This compelled me to read his book dedicated to the topic, Optimizing the Power of Action Learning.

Action learning is a process where a small group of people focus on a complex business problem with the goal of solving it while developing themselves and the organization. It consists of six components that, when operating together, deliver powerful results ranging from innovative new products to drastic reductions in production and delivery time to improved customer service. The benefits grow exponentially when the process is replicated and expanded within the organization.

“Since Reg Revans introduced action learning in the 1940s, there have been multiple variations of the concept, but all forms of action learning share the elements of real people resolving and taking action on real problems in real time and learning while doing so. The great attraction of action learning is its unique power to simultaneously solve difficult challenges and develop people and organizations at minimal costs to the institutions.” – Chapter 1, Optimizing the Power of Action Learning

The 6 Components of Action Learning

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The Problem

The problem or opportunity is at the heart of action learning and should be of high importance to the organization and urgent in nature. It can be anything from reducing turnover to orchestrating a reorg. Marquardt goes into detail about choosing a problem, the feasibility of solving it, the learning opportunities it should provide, as well as the authority the team has to solve the problem.

The Team

The action learning team is made up of four to eight people, ideally from different departments and functions within the company. There are a number of considerations for team members including their familiarity with the problem, their power to implement tasks, and their commitment to organizational growth the and building of networks and future support systems. Many teams include an action learning coach who focuses on the learning and development of members and the organization.

Questioning and Reflection

What Marquardt calls a ‘working process of insightful questioning and listening’ is one focused on finding the right questions rather than the right answers. In doing this, the group can enter into dialog, clarify the problem, avoid mistaken assumptions, learn about each contributor’s perspective and capabilities, and discover the beginnings of a solution. The author explains the benefits of questioning, why asking the right questions is so important (and difficult), and shares examples of the types questions that are the most and least effective.


Actions include problem reframing, establishing goals, developing strategies, and executing those strategies with testing, garnering support and resources, gathering information, pilot testing, and ultimately, implementing strategies. Marquardt explores systems thinking vs. linear thinking, outlines the stages of action learning, and shares an action framework.


While solving the problem at hand is critical, learning and the knowledge gained from it on an individual, team, and organizational level adds exponential value as the process can be expanded and replicated to create quantum leaps for an organization. The author delves into the the following areas:

    • responsibilities and benefits of learning
    • creating and capturing learning
    • the cycles of learning
    • the types of knowledge created and competencies developed through action learning
    • how action learning develops critical leadership skills needed in today’s quickly changing and chaotic landscape

The Action Learning Coach

A dedicated coach helps the team stay focused and thinking about what they are learning and how they are solving problems. For a more effective action learning program, a business can appoint an employee to become a Certified Action Learning coach (CALC) to help team members improve how they ask questions, listen, process, plan, and work.  

Learn More with Safari

Besides a thorough explanation of the process and a how-to chapter on introducing, implementing, and sustaining action learning in the organization, Optimizing the Power of Action Learning is sprinkled with real life examples, ideas, and success stories from organizations of all kinds. If you’re a Safari member, you already have unlimited access to this title and thousands more. If you don’t use Safari and would like to try it for free or explore options for your organization, click here.

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Tags: Action Learning, continuous learning, Learning and Development,

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