Do the answers to problems always exist in books (if only we knew where to find them)?
Are experts our best bet for resolving problems?

Neither. The Group Coaching method, a form of action learning, demonstrates that we can best discover answers to our problems by asking the right questions (rather than seeking the right answers) and then taking effective action.

In the business world, the practice of action learning has become a favored strategy for crafting solutions, because it supports long-term, deep-level organizational change:

  • It integrates the experience of active learning with the achievement of business results.
  • It’s a cost-effective, engaging method of shared learning that balances knowledge, reflection and action.
  • As important as reaching the right solution is the “learning how to learn” that group coaching produces for individuals and teams.

Early Practitioners

Kurt Lewin: If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.

Action learning has its roots in action research, a term coined around 1944 by German psychologist Kurt Lewin while he was working as a professor at MIT. He believed that:

  • People gain understanding of an organization by trying to change it
  • Change requires action
  • Successful action requires analyzing the circumstances correctly, identifying potential solutions, and then choosing the most appropriate response to the situation at hand.

Incorporating these beliefs, Lewin developed a team-based process for progressive problem-solving. His approach involves a cycle of iterative steps which include planning, action, and identifying the results of the action.

Reginald Revans: There can be no learning without action and no sober and deliberate
action without learning.

In the 1930s, a young man named Reg Revans worked with high-powered colleagues at the University of Cambridge. When faced with difficult research problems, they would meet and ask each other lots of questions. Each person was considered equally important to the process: it was their combined capability, focus, judgment, and insight that benefitted the participants; they all had contributions to make (even when they were not expert in a specific field). In this way, they teased out workable solutions to their own (and each other’s) problems.

In the 1940s, Professor Revans conceptualized action learning. Recalling that Albert Einstein had told him: “If you think you understand a problem, make sure you are not deceiving yourself,” Revans re-evaluated the capabilities and roles of non-experts in problem solving, and the differences between knowledge and wisdom.

He believed that the key to improving performance lay in the awareness of the practitioners themselves, not with subject matter experts. With this in mind, he developed a process in which participants studied their own actions and experiences within small groups called “action learning sets.” Group members shared their perceptions and asked each other questions about what they saw and heard.

Revans understood that existing information (books, theories, concepts, specialists), which he labeled P for “programmed knowledge” was an essential but insufficient ingredient of learning and problem-solving. He believed that an equally critical component was questioning insight (that is, asking the right questions at the right time), or Q.

He summarized the process in the formula: L (learning) = P + Q

Concepts and theory are important, but in action learning, the emphasis is on applying them. So Revans focused on Q. This means that we must reflect on the experience in order to identify exactly what we’ve learned, internalize the lessons, and create action plans.

Next Blog—Group Coaching: Benefits and Key Characteristics

Read about the features of present-day action learning and how it delivers on its promise to increase learning ability through group coaching.