Action learning and leadership

November 30, 2008
MBS Harold Hankins Building

MBS Harold Hankins Building

An inaugural event took place on Nov 26th 2008 at Manchester Business School to celebrate plans for closer links between the regional action learning community and the Reg Revans foundation. The issues discussed show connections between action learning and the processes of creative leadership

Leaders we deserve had an invitation to participate at the event, but managed to miss significant chunks of it. This is therefore in the nature of a personal view. A more detailed commentary can be found on the Revans Academy web-site.

My fragmentary experience suggested a considerable overlap between the processes of creative leadership and action learning.

Power and influence

Kiran Treharn, co-editor of Action Learning: Research and Practice, made a convincing case for the need for a more critical examination of power and influence forces operating within action learning sets. From outside of that community I would extend the point to other types of work group.

For example, research colleagues Susan Moger, Abdullah Al-Bereidi and Ming-Huei Chen have been examining the dynamics of MBA project teams over a period of more than a decade. The research has been reported elsewhere, and I will confine my remarks here to its findings.

Our results suggest that even after a shared training and instructional experience, some groups are more successful than others in avoiding the problems of status and dysfuntional behaviours. This finding challenges a piece of conventional wisdom, namely that teams follow a universal path through the hallowed stages laid down by Bruce Tuckman: form, storm, norm, perform …

Our view, based on a considerable body of evidence, is that a range of factors influence the success of groups we have worked with. We believe that a team’s success is partly determined by supportive (‘creative’) team leadership, and partly by team factors such as willingness to espouse new ideas, and resilience in the face of difficulties.

At the Revans event, Mike Pedler’s contribution suggested that the practice of action learning sets may also be encountering various ‘contingent’ factors influencing success and failure.

The magic number six

Another area which struck me as worthy of a reflective critique, is group size. Action learning practitioners seem to have settled for a standard size of learning set. The reverence for a constant group size across different contexts seems worthy of more challenge than it may be receiving. The mystical significance of the number six may be minimising experience with other sizes of set.

I seem to recall that the quality movement also circled around the magic number six, and Belbin team role enthusiasts favour a rather similar group size to accommodate eight or nine team roles including two leadership styles.

Research on brainstorming suggests that ideational productivity drops off with groups larger than six. Earlier, its pioneer Alex Osborn took a more ‘whatever it takes’ approach, to overcome what he saw at the destructive impact of status differentials in business meetings.

The size of a project team, (and public sector boards) are often far removed from the magic number six.. Size is largely determined by the scale, complexity, and inter-dependencies of the tasks which tend to result in chunking into smaller team units. It should also be noted that even if custom and practice of small-group work points to the benefits to a ‘set’ of a membership of six, we are moving to an era of more virtual teams.

Worker bees have always able to construct marvellous hexagonal structures for their hives, a determined outcome of the geometrics of form. But need we be quite so locked into a neo-Darwinian functionalism in our preference for six as an ideal size for small group activities?