Learning in action

Improvement, Organisations No Comments

We are used to hearing modern gurus claim how they can help the improvement of organisations. Many are from abroad and some pretty recent. Their books are in airport shops – and promoted by online retailers.

Looking back provides inspiration too, we believe. One of us has a passion for going back to the wisdom of the ancients (for example). More recently, in the immediate post war period, there were three things happening that are having a major impact in organisations still today – two of these developed first in the UK and were closely aligned to the health service in England.

At the time American academic Deming was popularising his important ideas in Japan, the ‘Tavistock’ approach to applying psychodynamic principles to groups and organisations was becoming well established in London.

We find the legacy of Deming important especially his PDCA model.  His work underpins most modern approaches to Continuous Improvement from the rebranded and practical PDSA cycle to lean and measurement more widely (see this previous blog).

The influence of the Tavistock approach underpins many contemporary approaches to organisational development – especially those that consider the ‘shadow’: the hidden, the avoided, the projected and the pathological in groups. We try to bring these insights in to our work in ways that don’t demotivate and are in balance (see p6 here).

The second UK Contribution, which is possibly less well known than these two traditions, is that of Reg Revans, which he also developed and tested in the NHS after early success in the coal industry. We use this inspiration in much of our work: in asking good questions, in peer review methods and clear 5-30-90 day action cycles. It is at the heart of our year long, 4 stage ‘Team XYZ’ approach: supporting a senior group to improve though the introduction and use of various frameworks, tools and the spirit of experimentation.

The Revans’ approach to action learning makes an interesting read. One of his legacies is that some people in some UK organisations now have experience of being in a ‘learning set’. Do you want to give it a go?

Try this checklist for a 45minute or so action learning session – think of it as peer coaching:

1) Meet with a small group of volunteer colleagues – or peers from other teams/organisations.

2) Take it in turns to have a go/‘take the seat’ – rotating the facilitation of the process too.

3) For 5 minutes share a challenge or question in your work, succinctly allowing questions for clarification only.

4) Move seats so you are sitting on a chair out of the group, but where you can hear clearly.

5) Allow the group to talk for 20-30 minutes: they can share their guesses or hypotheses of what is going on in your case or issue initially (Deep Think style) – and then move to listing questions for you to consider and they might  even note possible ideas for action for you (to post its, flip chart etc).

6) You re-join the group and for 5-10 minutes describe what you took from the conversation – you don’t have to correct their misunderstandings (allowing their ‘phantasies’ (sic) in the spirit of the Tavi!). You might want to commit to a PDSA or 5-30-90 action plan.

7) A more open final 5-10 minutes discussion can help to round off the session.

We find versions of this process work well in groups of all seniorities and sectors: from considering how to be more influential in a team to completing a project; from to managing personal energy to trying to challenge organisational culture. Let us know how it goes…

A couple of final thoughts:

First we note the use of mathematical abbreviations for management models in the 50s (DxVxF>R, PDCA, L=P+Q)…a sign of the(ir) times.

Second, we like this quote from Voltaire: “The best way to become boring is to say everything” –- so, whilst this is a longish blog (with lots of links!), there is lots more that could be stated and shared. Please ask if you have more questions…

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