Working in the social sector brings with it its own challenges and pressures. Anything that can help managers perform better, feel more confident in their work and able to create an environment of trust and collaboration has the potential to bring enormous and long lasting benefits to an organisation.
Such was the experience of A2Dominion Group. This case study explains, in some detail, the process their managers went through to achieve a raft of benefits and changes that have transformed their working relationships.
A pilot project to start
In 2015 we were approached by residential property group A2Dominion to address development areas identified in their annual staff engagement survey.
Specifically, we were to devise a programme of action learning sets for managers to:
- Give management opportunities to explore how they work and how this is affected by an ever changing working environment
- Allow more regular and structured time out for reflection
- Provide the environment and opportunity for managers to share best practice tips
Work began on the programme and six taster sessions were offered to managers. The tasters were highly experiential and offered a short introduction to the underpinning principles in action learning, the contract and the ground rules, and gave a realistic experience as each group worked in an action learning set during the sessions.
From the 56 people who attended the tasters, four sets were formed, three mixed sets involving managers across the business and one formed from managers in a specific department.
Each set met for seven half-day meetings, facilitated by Jane Garnham, an ALA Associate.
We wanted to observe the difference in outcomes between sets containing members that knew each other and already worked closely together, and with sets that brought people from different departments, and did not necessarily know one another.
At the outset, Jane set out the ground rules and principles of taking part in an action learning set, to establish openness and trust across the group.
During each set, each participant had the opportunity to present a ‘real life’ challenge, problem or issue, one they were experiencing at that time, in their workplace. Action learning principles ensure that each member of the group actively listens, without interrupting the presenter. The session then moves on to helping the presenter explore and find a resolution to their issue, under the guidance of a trained action learning facilitator and the strict protocols of action learning.
Evaluating the outcomes
Outcomes can be segregated into two areas: benefits to the individual, and benefits to the organisation.
We also measured the changes each person experienced using a number of parameters, and these are the results:
In terms of Listening Skills, their assessment of where they were at the start of the contract was an average ranking of 2.71 out of 6. By the end of the contract the average ranking for listening skills was 4.67, so a considerable shift in terms of distance travelled amongst the 28 managers.
Developing questioning skills
In terms of Developing Questioning Skills, their assessment of where they were at the start of the contract was an average ranking of 2.42 out of 6. By the end of the contract the average ranking for listening skills was 4.39, so again considerable shift in terms of distance travelled amongst the 28 managers.
I have learned to listen better, especially with regards to letting the person finish speaking before I ask questions, as well as asking better questions and the difference between probing and clarifying questions.
Action and solutions
The feedback demonstrates that the participants left with increased understanding of the real issues and challenges they brought to the sets, and plans to take action.
Issues and real problems occur within all departments, managing these issues and supporting management ideas will be to the benefit the company.
To use this method when deciding how to address a problem or situation.
The set process builds awareness of self, others and the organisational environment. Of the 28 managers in the sets, at the end of the contract the average ranking for how well the objective of developing self-awareness had been met was 4.5 out of 6, the retrospective ranking for where people had been at the start of the contract was 2.96.
Learning from others and their insights has been invaluable.
New connections; trust and support
Action learning helps build new connections and enables managers to support each other. The pilot sets, in particular the three mixed sets, were able to evidence strengthened connections, increased levels of trust and a new, albeit small, network of people who continued to use each other as ‘go to’ people.
Support from a network of peers that I did not have previously.
Using an approach based on Social Network Analysis (SNA) we measured the changing connections between people. We asked ‘How well do you trust this person?’ at the start of the contract and at the end. Set members were asked to rank each other, privately on a scale of 1 = not well, not often to 5 = very well, very often / commonly. The table below illustrates their responses.
You can see that there is a marked difference between opinions at the start of the process and at the end, with a positive shift towards an increase in trust between set members.
Core management capabilities
Action learning is known to help develop better managers and as part of the contract feedback we asked all sets to consider what has been the impact of action learning on four fundamental areas of effective management.
- Decision making
- Core management practice
Here are some of the comments received during this feedback process in direct relation to these areas:
- I consider feelings as well as logic
- I pre-judge less often
- Has made me consider and think more about evaluating all the information before making a decision
- Talking over the decisions to be made has empowered me to act
- I’d take more time over some decisions now especially those that involve staff
- I now consider the outcomes of any decision more before deciding on a course of action
- Action learning has forced me to take action rather than ignore it and hope it gets better
- Helped me think about HOW I am assertive, the way I am posing questions and presenting myself
- More confident in how to tackle difficult situations, for performance and team building
- Open questions to challenge without confrontation
- I have felt confident to make decisions that I understand I am accountable for, take ownership confidently
- I have learnt to be more accountable with my staff as a result of being in the set
- Action learning has aided me in realising that we are all accountable for our problems
- I am able to encourage team members to deliver solutions to problems by using effective open questions rather than telling them to do something
Core Management Practice
- I am better able to manage upwards
- Dealing with issue of poor productivity – action learning has given me better management skills
- Action learning has given me some great tools to use to be a better manager; ask right questions, What can I do?
- Developed the skill of open questions which will help me in my day to day management of staff; ask as opposed to tell
- Improved through use of open questions and listening, especially in a 121 setting
- I am letting my managers manage more
The above scores and comments demonstrate the effectiveness of the action learning programme, and the personal development that each set member experienced.
Looking again at their comments, it is easy to see how their new understanding and ways of working combine to bring benefits to the teams and departments that they manage, and to the organisation as a whole. Two of those sets have gone on to continue as self-facilitating sets.
The rewarding part of any action learning set is the feedback we receive during the evaluation exercise. That’s when our participants share their own personal experiences, what they feel they have gained, and how the skills they have learned will come into play during their everyday working life.
The answers are many and varied, and to include them all would make this case study a much longer read. However if you would like to receive a more detailed report of the comments made please contact us for further details.
If you are considering action learning sets for your own team of managers and leaders, we’d be happy to have a conversation with you, to learn about your current challenges, and how action learning would help. Just get in touch.