Problems or puzzles

I recently worked as part of the ALA team to introduce action learning to managers at a motor manufacturing company. Most of them came directly from the production side of the business, and were used to working in an environment where problems have to be resolved at speed. As I explained how action learning worked, I could see some sceptical expressions as well as some interested ones. One man asked, directly, why waste time asking questions of someone with a problem, if you can see the answer to their problem. Surely it’s better just to give the answer?

He was right. Sometimes there is a right answer and it is better to just give it. However his question also highlighted the useful distinction between ‘puzzles’ and ‘problems’ drawn by Reg Revans, the originator of action learning. A puzzle is essentially simple, in that it has only one solution; a problem is complex in that it has many possible solutions. Yet one person’s complex problem may appear to another as a simple puzzle, which is where the desire to give the solution often comes in. “This person you manage is antagonising his team? You need to give him feedback and send him on a course.” Such ‘solutions’ are usually based either on the adviser’s own experience – something which worked for them – or a general theory of what a good manager ‘should’ do. They are rarely helpful to the problem-holder, because they don’t take account of him or her as an individual with specific skills, beliefs, history, and relationships, all of which affect what actions he or she can actually take.

With this distinction in mind, the group tried out some action learning. It was exhilarating to see them grasp the opportunity to explore the nuanced problems that were rarely acknowledged in their high-pressure environment. Being asked questions which raised their self-awareness helped problem-holders to see what they were currently doing – and what they might do differently. One of the managers commented: ‘I’ve realised that I am part of the problem, but also part of the solution.’ This liberating realisation is at the heart of action learning, and it was a joy to see a group discover it for themselves.

Since the introduction, ALA has trained a team of internal facilitators to continue the action learning programme. Managers are showing up, despite their extremely busy jobs, endorsing the benefits of action learning. We hope to work with more manufacturers in future.

One thought on “Problems or puzzles”

  1. you report that Revans commented that “A puzzle is essentially simple, in that it has only one solution; a problem is complex in that it has many possible solutions.”

    I seem to recall that Revans distinguished between simple puzzles with one solution ,complex puzzles with many solutions and true problems – which may not have a solution

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