‘The willingness to experiment, it turns out, is the chief indicator of how innovative a person or company will be.’ (Hal Gregorson)
I sometimes get asked, ‘When is Action Learning useful?’ and I’m tempted to respond, ‘When tried and tested doesn’t work.’ This is one reason why Action Learning works so well with Test and Learn.
Test and Learn is an experimental, adaptive technique, used to address complexity, uncertainty and innovation. It’s useful in situations where, say, past experience isn’t a reliable guide for future action because e.g. critical conditions have changed. It’s also useful when moving into new, unchartered territory where the evidence needed for sound decision-making can only be generated by, ‘let’s suck it and see’. It shares a lot in common with action research: create a tentative hypothesis, step forward, observe the results, try to make sense of them, refine the hypothesis, take the next step.
Test and Learn is used in fast-paced, fluid environments, such as by rapid-onset disaster response teams where conventional strategizing and planning isn’t realistic or possible. By the time a detailed plan is formulated, things have moved on – and the paper it’s written on is sent for recycling before the ink has dried. Test and Learn is also used by marketing teams when testing new products or services, or seeking to penetrate new or not-yet-known markets. It provides tangible evidence based on customer responses which, in turn, enables change or refinement before investing further.
What psychological, relational and cultural conditions enable Test and Learn to work?
- Leaders who believe and overtly support the idea that learning is a key to success, both from experiments that go well and those that fail.
- Shared opportunities for ideation, hypothesis formulation, testing of assumptions and critical sense-making: and this is where Action Learning can add real value.
- Experiments that are sufficiently specific and observable to draw out key evidence and learning.
- Meaningful recognition, celebration and reward for experimentation and learning, and the progress that results from it.
If you’d like to learn more about Action Learning, to join an Action Learning group (‘set’) or train as an Action Learning facilitator, do get in touch!
Nick Wright is an Action Learning facilitator and trainer at Action Learning Associates.