Any organisation that aspires to succeed in a tough environment must resolve the basic dilemma that:-
- Organisational success depends on the talent of its people and both professional and personal development is key to that success
- Success increasingly depends on learning. Yet many people don’t know how to learn and leadership that should be best at learning, often struggle the most.
One of the key mechanisms for delivering success in challenging and fiscally strained environments is also unfortunately most likely to be the first victim of the inevitable cost driven decision makers. Whilst it is a requirement of responsible leadership to review potential excess, and tough times are a good opportunity to do so, the risk of seeing development solely as a cost is that the organisation stands in the way of people fulfilling their potential at the very time when there is an imperative to ensure that people’s motivation and potential are fulfilled and well directed. Learning is most commonly seen in the context of solving problems, however, for learning to persist and innovative change to be sustained, there must be an element of development to learning.
To that end, and a view I am passionate about, is the powerful impact of action learning peer groups (learning sets) in addressing both the need for organisational problem solving as well as individual capability development. Properly led, they deliver real and immediate impact for organisations, provide a vehicle for knowledge and expertise sharing, whilst at the same time, providing a ‘safe’ and confidential environment for senior, executive and next generation leaders to reflect critically on their own behaviour. They are effective in building an internal cadre of leadership talent and strengthening the organisation’s culture.
Properly structured action learning sets impact on the learning process for individuals in developing capability and gaining personal insight in a supportive environment as well as impacting on the organisation by solving real business challenges. The elegance of sets is their flexibility to be structured to deliver particular needs. Making their impact for both individuals and organisations extremely powerful and valuable. Internal sets for example can be organised to have a short term solution delivery focus for solving a specific organisational challenge. At the same time, the set can build cross functional or cross divisional collaboration, foster a culture of co-operation and build a single identity through shared language, purpose and the camaraderie of shared success.
Other sets might be high level executive peers who know the meaning of being ‘lonely at the top’ . Who not only benefit from a safe environment to solve their own organisational headaches with like-minded, intelligent peers, but also from a supportive space to share their personal challenges in the knowledge that Chatham House Rules and deep bonds built on trust make possible. This is particularly valuable in times of constraint.
For managers transitioning into leadership from a specialist to a generalist, the shift in mindset and behaviour can be extremely challenging. Learning through strategising real challenges, going away to implement and coming back to reflect and refine your strategy allows safe risk taking and support in learning from failures when they occur. Important mechanism for ensuring success and coping with the inevitable challenges of the learning experience in these groups is the ‘Learning Consultant’ or Facilitator who is there to blur the distinction between formal learning and achieving critical organisational results.
These are just some examples of how action learning peer groups can be organised. What is important in the design is to be clear about how individuals and their organisations define their idea of success from the program.
There has, in my view, never been a time when the impact of high quality real world, rapidly transferable solutions that a well-structured and professionally led action learning set can deliver, has been more important – at a personal, professional and organisational level. In relation to value for money in organisational impact through capability development and problem solving, they are unsurpassed.