Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning: Concepts and Cases

Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning: Concepts and Cases

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by Michael Marquardt, Roland Yeo

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Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning explores why and how action learning groups have been so successful and creative in solving complex problems. The text begins by briefly reviewing the theories that undergird the effectiveness of action learning, philosophically situating readers and pointing them in the direction of related academic works


Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning explores why and how action learning groups have been so successful and creative in solving complex problems. The text begins by briefly reviewing the theories that undergird the effectiveness of action learning, philosophically situating readers and pointing them in the direction of related academic works that they may wish to explore. It then turns to stories of how organizations have employed action learning in solving specific, often-encountered business problems. These cases not only serve as real-world models for how action learning can be successfully employed, but also offer inspiration and potential starting points and guidelines for other businesses that face similar problems. The book concludes with a cross-case analysis that pinpoints the ingredients necessary for breakthrough problem solving via action learning.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"At last, we have a thinking person's guide to action learning. Michael Marquardt and Roland Yeo have written a much-needed book that goes beyond conventional checklist thinking. Importantly, they examine 31 global case studies, pinpointing success factors and documenting organizational and economic impacts. This is an ambitious book, well researched, deeply relevant to practitioners and academics."—J.M. Ryan, Wharton Executive Education and President and Founder, True North Advisory Group

"I've been fortunate enough to experience the breakthrough problem solving power of Action Learning countless times. The Action Learning coach, through questions, unlocks the full power and creativity of the team, leading to the truly breakthrough solutions. This book explores numerous examples of teams reaching this extraordinarily level of processing."—Bea Carson, Director of Certification and Education, World Institute for Action Learning

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Stanford University Press
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Concepts and Cases
By Michael J. Marquardt Roland K. Yeo


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7412-3

Chapter One

Problem Complexity and Problem Solving in the 21st Century

For nearly 20 years, Nationwide Insurance had been searching for an equitable way to offer its associates a discount on insurance and financial services products. A few weeks after forming an action learning team the company developed a breakthrough strategy that is now being implemented nationwide.

Although the problem appeared fairly simple on the surface, it had been challenging Constellation Energy for a number of years—namely, how to develop a work schedule to cover one of its power plants for six days a week, 24 hours a day. It was a challenge to design a system that would be fair to all the employees and still meet to the financial and legal constraints of the company. Remarkably, an action learning group, in less than eight hours, came up with a solution that had eluded Constellation for many years; it was a solution that met the approval of the plant workers and managers as well as the financial and legal people at Constellation.

Design an energy-neutral building to house 1,200 employees? Impossible! But an action learning group did so. The building—the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi—was described by the UN secretary general as "a living model of our sustainable future" at opening ceremonies in March 2011.

The Growing Complexity of 21st-Century Problems

The critical problems faced by organizations in 2011 are much more complex than problems encountered even five to ten years ago. The 21st-century workplace is marked by an enormous amount of ambiguity that has arisen from a wide array of rapidly changing socioeconomic trends and markets, overnight innovation from competitors, mergers across disparate corporate cultures and industries, new distribution channels, and the globalization of business.

As organizations evolve, they must maintain their strategic capability as they deal with internal and external complexities. Problem solving has thus become a way of life in challenging times. Organizational members, particularly leaders, are required to exercise discretion, take calculated risks, capitalize on the constraints of time and resources, analyze environmental uncertainties, make skillful decisions, and take considered action. As problems become increasingly complex—that is, they are not easily identifiable at first sight and are oftentimes subsumed within other issues—leaders are tasked with the responsibility of providing a way out so that, collectively, they take their organizations to the next level of competitive resilience.

Action Learning—21st Century's Powerful Problem-Solving Tool

Organizations around the world have discovered that action learning is a powerful way to solve complex problems and develop sustainable strategic actions (Boshyk and Dilworth, 2010; Marquardt, 1999, 2004a, 2004b, 2011b; Kramer, 2008, Pedler, 1983, 1991, 1997, 2012). A special issue of Business Week (2005) proclaimed that action learning is a key problem-solving tool for managers. And a 2008 study by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) found that 63 percent of all executive programs used action learning for problem solving and leadership development. Action learning is increasingly seen as not only the best, but as the only problem-solving tool that can solve large, complex problems, a tool so critical in times of "whitewater" changes.

Why does action learning work so well in generating breakthrough strategies that solve complex problems? Because it was conceived, designed, and tested for the express purpose of solving problems. It has all of the elements that are necessary for group problem solving. It enables diverse groups to learn while they are solving problems and thus become smarter and better equipped to comprehend the root problems and issues, to explore multiple resources and options, and to creatively and systematically identify the best powerful and effective actions. The ability of action learning groups to learn while working (changing the tire while the car is moving, so to speak) and to fully employ the most powerful problem-solving tool available—i.e., the question—leads to consistent and remarkable breakthrough strategies.

It is the inherent and spontaneous problem-solving nature of action learning that makes it such a powerful tool for enabling organizations to develop breakthrough strategies while working on critical and complex problems (Marquardt et al., 2009; Pedler, 2012). In Chapter 2 we explore how and why action learning is so powerful and successful, but first let us (a) examine why problems have become more complex and (b) the essential elements of breakthrough problem solving.

The Complexity of 21st-Century Problems

Complex problems are those that are intricately connected to the roots of other problems. Normally, a complex problem is solved by carefully considering its individual layers and issues. However, given the organic structure of today's organizations, in which inter-, intra-, and extra-organizational dynamics are changing so rapidly, complex problem solving has become a lot less straightforward. Organizational dynamics includes human relations as well as sophisticated team, organizational, and environmental structures. Complex problem solving, therefore, is not just about seeking solutions; it also entails the identification of new problems that could potentially emerge from each solution found. The complexity therefore lies in the uncovering of the more deeply rooted symptoms of a problem.

Assume, for example, that a surgeon is performing a complex operation on a crucial organ of a patient. The surgeon is of course well aware of the intricate interconnectedness of all of the human body's parts and system. The removal of one part may create complications for the functioning of another, just as it does in an organic organization. Leaders therefore need to be aware that approaching complex problems in organizational contexts requires a systematic yet exploratory approach in order to understand and manage each problem's multiple facets.

The defining characteristics of today's complex problems, according to Bertolt Meyer and Wolfgang Scholl (2009), are based on the complexity, opaqueness, interconnectedness, dynamics, and polytely (multiple goals) of the situation.

1. Complexity is determined by the amount of information that needs processing, usually beyond the capability of human processing. Failure to absorb and make sense of all available information prevents the problem solver from making appropriate decisions and undertaking optimal action.

2. Opaqueness suggests the density of a problem's root causes such that frequent, active, and updated information is required to unravel them.

3. Interconnectedness refers to the interdependence of issues and events that contribute to the intricacies of the problem properties such that a systemic (overall) perspective would be required in order to give the problem solvers a complete picture of the problem structure.

4. Dynamics suggests environmental influences on the shape and evolution of the problem over time.

5. Polytely refers to the different goals that are needed to satisfy the multiple and sometimes conflicting aspects of a complex problem.

In the Caribbean Water Action Learning Project described in Chapter 5, the problem faced had all of these ingredients. The action learning teams needed to comprehend and integrate multiple sources of information with a wide array of communities to develop the insights needed to solve the problem.

Connectivity and dynamics are two primary features of a complex problem (Funke, 2001). Changes in connectivity alter the structural properties of the sublayers of a problem and sprout to form new problem branches; situational dynamics transform the problem over time and interactions with environmental properties. As such, complex problem solving requires that the solver be highly aware of the situational requirements of the task, which include mental, emotional, communicative, social, and intellectual competences.

Technical and Adaptive Problems

Rapid organizational change challenges managers to clearly identify the types of problems that they need to solve. Problem solvers need to understand each problem's primary drivers, particularly the environmental factors that could help them make sense of the level of complexity.

Problems can be based on existing knowledge or a lack of existing knowledge. For instance, Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie 1997) distinguish between the problems that were more common to the 20th century (technical problems) and those that are (so far) most prevalent and important in the 21st century—that is, problems that are adaptive in nature and context.

Technical problems are those in which the necessary knowledge to solve the problem already exists in a legitimized form or set of procedures. Solving these problems requires the efficient and rational acquisition and application of knowledge, a more Newtonian manner. Technical problems have a linear, logical way of being solved, with precedents within or outside the organization; they are somewhat like "puzzles," with single right answers.

Adaptive problems are those that may have no absolute answers or that require no technical expertise necessary to solve. In other words, adaptive problems are complex problems that surface in less recognizable forms. The nature of these problems often changes with circumstances and time, making them difficult to define and tackle. Complex organizations are more likely to give rise to such problems because they themselves must adapt to external competition and forces. People working to solve these kinds of problems will sometimes need to make uncomfortable adjustments—changes in attitude, work habits, basic assumptions, and expectations. They need to constantly generate new ideas, modify their strategies, and integrate other perspectives when responding to adaptive problems.

One immediate requirement is that they let go of entrenched habits by exploring alternatives and seeking opportunities to handle the problems. Solving adaptive problems may also require them to learn new skills and develop new knowledge to meet the demands. Needless to say, it is essential that people in organizational settings collectively apply their intelligence and competence to resolving these problems.

Note, though, that technical problems are not unimportant or necessarily easier to solve than adaptive problems. They are called "technical" problems only because the information and knowledge needed to resolve them already exists; clear procedures and guidelines in organizations can be used to resolve technical problems. As organizations become more complex, however, strategic and operational problems will require more than a technical response. Problem-solving teams may therefore need to acquire more adaptive approaches to questioning, dialogue, feedback, and reflection (Ellstrõm, 2001).

Types of Complex Problems

There are four broad types of problems that are related to organizational threats and their effects on problem-solving capabilities. These are characterized as universal exigencies in all forms of social systems; they present themselves as adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency or tension problems (see Table 1.1). They interact with each other and affect the overall organizational system in complex ways. Complex problems can weaken the structure, systems, and strategy of an organization. These types of problems are intricately related to the behavioral aspects of organizational dynamics in the 21st century involving people, process, and purpose.

Adaptation Problems

Adaptation problems are different from adaptive problems. Adaptation problems are caused by misalignments of expectations within the subsystems of an organization, including culture, technology, people, and structure. They require problem solvers to incorporate a systems perspective on organizational interrelations. They need to understand the organization's subsystems by recognizing that together they constitute one autonomous system, and be aware of the roles and independent agencies that drive these subsystems into a collaborative unit of operation. Unlike adaptive problems, adaptation problems can fully rely on existing knowledge and expertise to provide possible solutions.

Adaptation problems frequently drive organizations to manage with limited resources while making the most of a situation. Individuals are expected to be resourceful in seeking opportunities for improvisation. This involves viewing the same situation from different angles and diverse perspectives and performing tasks in new ways, usually modifications of already tried-and-tested methods.

Adaptation problems exist when employees are myopic in their worldview at work, focusing on their narrow job scope without considering how the complexity and significance of their own work relates to other functions. To a large extent, adaptation problems trap employees in their comfort zones. Such employees restrict themselves to old ways of doing things and don't take risks that might improve their performance (Maier and Hoffman, 1960).

Goal Attainment Problems

Goal attainment problems arise when an organization fails to identify the appropriate goals for its needs. Fragmented goals can also contribute to the failure of goal attainment. As complex systems, organizations function organically when individuals interact to express and achieve different types of goals to meet organizational needs. A complex system is one that functions through mutually implicating elements, such as its people, subsystems, and processes, to reach common objectives. The interdependent functions of the elements all affect the others in significant ways.

The complexity of a system depends on such interdependence such that when a goal within a subsystem is not achieved, the larger system (the organization) could be affected. The operational efficiency of a complex system is contingent on how tasks are integrated and the synergy they produce. Hence, in order for an organization to function strategically, it must translate core competencies into clear and achievable goals.

When goal attainment problems occur, individuals usually need greater clarification of the goals and on the importance of goal setting as it operates at different levels of the organization. Sometimes those tasked with solving a problem interpret the goals differently. Goals will then become misaligned as everyone will have a different idea of what is to be achieved. When goals are misaligned at multiple levels, the organization will lose control over its strategic direction, including its competitive edge. Hence, a shared understanding of specific goals is imperative (Quiamzade et al., 2009).

Integration Problems

Integration problems are challenges that arise when the organization has difficulty maintaining stability among its departments and subsystems. This usually happens when employees of different departments do not see the big picture and operate in ways that do not consider the strategic direction of the organization; the result is conflict based on narrow expectations. The disruptive forces that prevent employees from converging on common objectives can prevent an organization from changing and developing.

The lack of departmental integration and unnecessary competition among business units can have adverse consequences. Individuals need to develop a wider perspective on how individual objectives can be integrated into the strategic objectives of the organization and understand how collective objectives can influence the organization at the macro level.

Understanding the overall strategic scheme can help people to refocus on how their individual tasks affect that scheme and ultimately contribute to the organization's competitive advantage. A lack of such understanding can lead to fragmented contributions and organizational dysfunction. Integration problems can reduce an organization's responsiveness to external competition (Land, 2004).

Latency or Tension Management Problems

Latency or tension management problems are related to the integrity of a value system and its formalization in an organization. When the values are unclear, individuals become skeptical about policies, and the integrity of managerial decision making is challenged. The lack of a shared value system causes unnecessary tension that can lead to dissension and dissatisfaction in work-related and cross-functional issues.


Excerpted from BREAKTHROUGH PROBLEM SOLVING WITH ACTION LEARNING by Michael J. Marquardt Roland K. Yeo Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Marquardt is Professor of Human Resource Development and International Affairs, as well as Program Director of Overseas Programs, at George Washington University. He serves as President of the World Institute for Action Learning. Roland K. Yeo is a Management Trainer based at the Saudi Aramco Professional Development Academy. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the Maastricht School of Management and Adjunct Senior Researcher at the International Graduate School of Business, University of South Australia.

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Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning: Concepts and Cases 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great book that describes how and why action learning can solve complex problems. Over 30 case studies are presented that shows how action learning solves problems in areas such as marketing, human resources, technology, leadership, and community development.