One of the characteristics of high potential leaders is their ability to think and act quickly in their domains of expertise. However, challenges that organizations increasingly face require extensive cross boundary work and exploration, which requires new skills set. Microsoft asked Sage Ways to design a 1-day learning event to address this area of skill development for large groups of 100+ participants. This really put Action Learning to the test as a large-scale intervention.
Creating a learning culture
At Microsoft’s One Engineering gathering, high potential senior leaders collaborate on a number of real business issues. The head of Engineering @ Microsoft, kicked off the day stating, “Today, we lean into a learning culture.” He then unleashed a sizable group of employees representing a cross-section of the engineering discipline to get curious about issues the company faces.
Sage Ways laid out the primary guideline of Action Learning in tackling the day’s challenges: statements could be made only in response to a question. This guideline disrupts normal group dynamics, inspiring inquisitiveness, awareness, and reflection on the diverse experiences of the group.
The subject matter expert introduced a challenge to two of the groups: How do we reframe our relationship with time to drive a learning culture?
Action Learning in action
Before diving into the challenge, each employee identified a leadership skill to practice throughout the day. A Program Manager selected “refrain from jumping to solution.” A Design Manager chose “suspend judgement.” These behaviors are typical in a fast-paced setting and can result in narrow or sub-optimal answers, preventing the problem from being fully-explored and understood. Participants at each table, many of whom had never met before, then began asking questions. One of the first questions was, “What does success look like?”
After working for 15 minutes, an Action Learning coach from Sage Ways asked each employee at her table to rate the group’s performance so far on a scale of 1-10, 10 being high. This intervention gives voice to all participants’ experiences, including introverts. One participant rated the group 7.5, another just 5. Surfacing this gap allowed exploration of what the team could do to improve its performance, and accelerated interactions.
Another critical intervention occurred when the coach asked participants to write down and read their version of the problem statement. Then, the coach asked whether the group had consensus. Four thumbs went up, one sideways and one down. Sound familiar? Agreement on the problem was critical in order for the team to move forward and develop insights. The team needed to further investigate the challenge. So, a member of the team kicked off the next round of discussion, asking, “Who are we solving this for?”
At the end of the session, after the group recorded their insights and ideas to present to the SME, the rating of the group’s performance was up, with one scoring team effectiveness as an 11. “What pivoted for you?” the coach asked. One participant responded “I loved that as a group, we said, ‘Let’s be inventive’.”
The subject matter expert said, “Action Learning can result in major a-ha’s. Action Learning allows us to interact with the engineering audience in a robust way, on big, interesting, persistent problems where we have limited data and don’t know where to start.” The day’s session generated a reframing of how her team would address the challenge of becoming a learning culture, and validated planned approaches.
“The question-only model was helpful and not something I would have considered without this event,” one participant said. Another said, “The Action Learning framework is a good one I can use in my day-to-day work and with my team.”
It hadn’t been the quantity but the quality of questions that was important in driving the day’s culture of curiosity and growth mindset. One key takeaway? “Am I even asking the right question?”