Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rethinking the Action Learning Project

Many executives push hard for leadership development programs to deliver a strong return on investment.  They want the programs to be "practical" and "applied" in nature.  As a result, many companies have embedded action learning initiatives in their leadership development programs.  They sound like a great idea.  Bring a group of highly talented managers together for a leadership development program led by faculty members, consultants, and/or company executives.  Then, put the participants in teams and have them work on real projects back at work for the next few months.  Those projects provide an opportunity to put their learning into action, to apply the principles and techniques that they discussed during the program.   After several months, the teams present to senior executive sponsors of these projects, and hopefully, some of their recommendations become reality.  Hooray - we have demonstrated ROI!

Ok, that's the ideal...what's the reality?  The reality is that many of these action learning initiatives do not deliver the intended results.  Why?  It begins with the fact that you have overburdened some of your best talent.  You bring them off-line for a week, perhaps several weeks, for a leadership program.  They are now already feeling behind about work.  Then, you ask them to take on this new project on top of everything else they are doing.  Moreover, you ask them to collaborate on a team with members who may not even be co-located with them.   Executive sponsorship often doesn't materialize as promised either.  Senior leaders commit to serve as champions for the projects, but then they offer little guidance, support, or resources.   I have seen this scenario play out on numerous occasions.   Yes, applying what you have learned on a project can be a powerful development opportunity with tangible results for the business.  However, these types of projects require far more preparation, support, and resources than we usually find in companies.   For that reason, I would argue that many companies should re-think their action learning initiatives.  

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