Using Action Learning to explore resilience challenges

Successful and sustained implementation of any change is not easy. At the Resilience Shift, we are seeking to catalyse significant change in the way critical infrastructure is planned, designed, operated and maintained by making resilience tangible, practical and relevant. Simon Gill and Mairi Mclean of The Schumacher Institute explain a model called Action Learning used at our workshop in New Orleans last month to help support these ideas.

Reg Revens, physicist and splitter of the atom, developed the beginnings of Action Learning research in the middle of the last century. It has since been used extensively as a means of supporting and developing those whose job is to implement change.

The issue here is simple, the solution is difficult.

In a rapidly changing world, the need to improve the resilience within and between critical infrastructure systems is agreed upon. It makes sense, and tools are starting to emerge to improve the way we do things. But we have a journey to travel before resilience is seen as tangible, practical and relevant. Infrastructure decision makers and practitioners need support on how they can enhance resilience in their day jobs.

Why?

It is clear there is agreement on the veracity of resilience, it has been tried and tested, but somehow people are failing to adopt, wholesale, the tools to implement and enhance resilience. This is is not about adoption of tools per se, but more around helping people work through their complex resilience challenges and what to do about it. Tools are there to support how to do it in practice, once the problem is understood and possible solutions are developed.

The Resilience Shift’s New Orleans workshop, which The Schumacher Institute facilitated, was about how we can help people implement those solutions and drive adoption of resilience practice by connecting them to the tools they need.

Much more focus on human factors is the answer.  People are resistant to change despite best intentions, therefore there is a need to do more than just recommend ideas or even direct their use.

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It is important to note that in this piece we explore human factors from a different angle i.e. how they are essential to catalyse resilience practice as opposed to ensuring that the humans in the system are equipped to make the right decisions under extraordinary circumstances.

Action Learning makes it possible for first adopters, infrastructure managers and practitioners to share and learn from implementation issues they and others face to ensure that change takes place and is embedded. Implementation of new ideas is a form of change management and so must be supported by these methods, which are proven to ensure success in managing the human factors elements of change.

At the Resilience Shift workshop in New Orleans we introduced and used a model of implementation developed by McLean and Gill.

In brief, the model first accepts that there is a need for taking account of human factors in implementing change.

Change leaders, first adopters and other leaders join a Set of approximately 5-7 people, not necessarily but possibly from the same organisation or industry. The Set has a facilitator and follows a relatively strict discipline. There is a presenter, who has an issue of implementation to resolve and must present their issue succinctly to the rest of the Set.

Set members then analyse the issue, with or without contribution from the presenter, and at this stage absolutely avoiding solutions. Once a deep analysis has taken place, with rigour, to determine why the issue is presenting difficulty Set members ask for feedback on their analysis from the presenter and then move into brainstorming mode to seek solutions. The presenter chooses two or three ideas they will implement and reports back to the next meeting of the Set on what happened. This is not about success or failure, but about how the ideas worked or didn’t.

Before the Set ends all members record at least one change to their own practice, which they will make as a result of the discussion. It is usual for Set members to find they too each replicate some of the issues raised and so can take their learning back to their own workplace. A key role of the facilitator is to hold the disciple of the model and to offer live real-time coaching to all Set participants.

Finally, lessons for the organisation drawn from the work of the Sets could be presented to senior leadership and decision makers with recommendations for system change, thus ensuring that learning is disseminated throughout the workplace of the Set members.

McLean and Gill have wide experience of this model used in a variety of industries with high reported satisfaction.

Some of the quotes from the Resilience Shift workshop in New Orleans suggest similar satisfaction levels:

  • It was new to me, I was unsure but gave it a try. I was amazed at how rapidly the set and facilitator found the root of the issue”.
  • “I was uncertain whether my issue was valid. I soon discovered it was….and I came away with some great ideas to try”.
  • “I was caught red-handed being an over talker. The facilitator pointed this out and helped me to practice listening not talking. I really heard things which I otherwise would not have done.”

Responses were so positive that participants expressed a desire to join further virtual ‘Implementation Sets’.

Action Learning supports resilience implementation by helping people to understand how to deal with their challenges. They do this by working with colleagues and making a clear analysis of the root causes of the lack of uptake or lack of success in implementing resilience, so that solutions are based on evidenced analysis not one person’s best efforts.

Each person in the Set learns and can apply that learning to their own situation, and the presenter feels supported in undertaking what is thereby recognised to be a difficult task. The challenge is validated and the individual does not feel lack of success is due to their incompetence so returns to the workplace with energy high.

The model will be further tested when The Resilience Shift holds its third workshop of the Tools and Approaches Project to be held in London in February 2019.

For further details, or if you are interested in joining a Set, please get in touch.

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