Action Learning – The Delegation Test

The delegation test: can you let your staff or children learn?

Legend has the father of Action Learning, Reg Revans, sitting in the HQ of the newly nationalised coal industry. In the brave new world that was 1946, people were enthusiastic about modernising about a thousand (!) previously privately-owned mines with pretty variable standards of this and that. There was talk of improving those standards, talk of training, talk of a University of Coal.  Revans decided to see if there were good things happening already – out in the field.

What he discovered was that highly productive mines tended to occur in clusters and that their productivity wasn’t a function of geology (i.e. the mines all tapping the same rich veins of coal). What he unearthed, so to speak, was that in the productive clusters the Undermanagers (that’s what they call the chaps who manage what’s under) had formed the habit of getting together for a pint on a Friday night to talk over the week’s problems.

This is what later became known as an Action Learning Set: a group of people running similar operations, meeting regularly to listen to each other’s problems and to offer advice. Action Learning is as simple as that. Later some argued for the presence of a facilitator, but my view is that the ale and atmosphere of the local pub are facilitation enough. There is a temptation, for all parties, to turn the facilitator into the authority figure who guides the discussion and has the answers – to the detriment of ideas and ownership.  I’ve watched it happen.

Excited by the power and simplicity of his finding, so the story goes, Reg sought an audience with the Cabinet Minister in charge of the Coal Industry. Going into the Minister’s office he met the Vice Chancellor of one of the great universities coming out. Bubbling with excitement he told Reg that a group of universities he represented had just been given £100 million to set up a University of Coal. In vain did Reg try to explain to the Minister that he could save him £100 million and get better, quicker results. The idea of Action Learning was altogether too simple to be believed.

Whether in a huff or not, Revans moved to Belgium where he headed the Inter-University project, set up to improve the ranking of Belgium in the OECD. Working with 5 universities and 23 of the country’s largest businesses, Revans succeeded in raising Belgium’s industrial productivity above that of the USA, Germany, Japan and, of course, Britain.

If you are indulging in a bit of ‘typical!’ and mentally castigating our Minister and his ilk – think on the following. Gather any bunch of senior managers and ask them what they advise for the development of their juniors and the talk will turn to training, coaching and MBAs. Then give them the privacy of working in pairs, with a flipchart, and ask them ‘When in your life, and under what conditions did you grow the most?’  A common story will emerge: ‘I was given a project that was important to the company, dropped in the deep end and left to get on with it.’  Support often came from a senior figure who gave his attention and encouragement but didn’t interfere.

What’s going on? Why do we experience the success of one thing and advocate something else? Similarly, ask a group of people what advice they would give to a recent graduate on picking an employer – it will be based on logical analysis, it will sound right. Ask those same people how they got their first job? ‘My mate went there’; ‘My Dad used to work there’; ‘I met someone in the pub’. It doesn’t sound quite good enough does it?

So we have a tendency to prefer things that sound right, that have an easy logic, that have an immediate appeal. Things that are intangible or that require us to think a bit – they come a poor second.  Does this matter? You bet it does.  We have the daily spectacle of political leaders having to deliver ‘soundbites’ that have appeal.  Failing that, they play safe with empty phrases.  If they dared something a bit more thoughtful, the next day’s headlines would be sure to find in the thoughtfulness something to tear them apart.  And these people are running nations.

At an individual level, our ability to delegate rests on our willingness to let people get on with it in their own way. This could be a way that may not sound right to us, a way without an easy logic or an immediate appeal. Directors of a company I advise were locked in a pattern of criticising each other until I pointed out that there was nothing wrong with the results each was currently producing, merely the manner in which they did it – which didn’t conform to the way that some of the others would have done it.

Delegation, letting people find their own way, is one of the key factors in productivity and innovation. Google allow their employees one day in five to do what they want – so long as they record the results. 50% of their new stuff comes from this day; not just ideas – products. From 1757 the East India Company hired the sons of the British middle class and sent them off to India to rule over bits of it the size of Wales. The only stipulation was that each ‘Deputy Commissioner’ had to send a monthly report to London. Any advice that might have been offered in return would have been irrelevant by the time ships and horses had delivered the mail. Yet this organization of DCs stayed in place for 100 years and – by the standards of the day – they were resoundingly successful.

The East India Company’s approach may have missed the getting-together aspect of Action Learning but it had the trickiest part of it – letting go and letting people learn from doing important things. The monthly report served as a fair replacement for the discussion of problems. We don’t just learn by doing; we learn by reflecting on what we have done. However busy an executive you are, I advocate keeping a daily journal, or giving yourself time for some form of reflection.

On a different front we are now discovering that children below the age of 5 – long thought to be incapable of learning in an ‘adult’ way – have learning abilities that surpass adults. Babies and young children are exquisitely designed by evolution to change and create, to learn and explore. Yet within a few years, with notable exceptions, they will be subjected to the formal input of the classroom. Why? Because formal sounds right, informal is difficult to defend. It’s good to see that the UK’s great love affair with university degrees is beginning to be tested. More young people are bypassing the system, failing as it is to guarantee them jobs. (Whoever believed that it could or should?) And I wish I had a tenner for every executive of the construction industry who has shamefacedly admitted to me that he (construction is a male world) didn’t go to university. They wanted to get out of the education system and ‘do something’. (For followers of Myers Briggs we are talking Sensors – half the population.) The shame rests with a society that allows itself to be ruled by what sounds right.

So here we are, back to Action Learning. The next time your children or your staff seem to you to be in need of learning – find them something important to do and let them get on with it, preferably in the company of others, and under the eye of someone high-ranking who knows how to encourage without interference. And ‘important’ means something that you think only you know how to do, something you obviously need to tell them how to do, something that you can’t afford to have fail.

Easy isn’t it?  Far too simple really.

“Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.” Reg Revans

In this article the events and their sequence are not totally accurate.  The lessons to be drawn, however, remain so.  I am indebted to Alistair Mant (Google him) for his contribution.

©Brian Chandler 2010, revised 2017

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