Successfully taking on challenges is the crux of action learning, writes Ted Black
ASK successful executives what contributed most to their success and hardly any will attribute it to a training course or qualification. Almost all will recall a challenging experience they had. They also often talk about a particular person they once worked for and admired.
SA’s future success depends on its ability to build a new generation of effective managers — ones who can set challenging goals and have their people achieve results fast. Some are “born” with a “results- DNA factor”. The majority of us need to learn how to manage this way.
As British philosopher Herbert Spencer said: “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” Whether it is MBA programmes for young students who lack business knowledge and experience, or corporate programmes for more experienced managers, most educational efforts fail to meet the great aim on both counts. There is much “knowing ” but little “doing”.
This is because there are several flaws in the approach taken by most business schools and management development courses.
The first is that programmes are activity driven. Success is to “inject” people with the right mix of management theory and practice. The second is that unsound management theories lie at the heart of the content. All the change literature takes a backward look at companies. Reasons for success or failure are developed after the fact. The theories are fragmented and programme designers cobble together as many of them as they can.
The third flaw is that the closest students get to applying theories is through “case analysis” and “action learning”. Neither approach is a solution. In case analysis, they review someone else’s experience instead of learning from their own efforts. “Action learning” is more relevant but in most cases it remains an intellectual activity. It can stimulate thinking about issues that concern students and their organisations and leads to recommendations and proposals that may climax in a presentations to top management. However, rarely do the students themselves convert ideas into action that improves workplace productivity.
That is because of the fourth flaw. Programmes lack the most vital learning experience of all — taking on a difficult management challenge and carrying it out successfully. They do not develop on-the-job capacity to manage change, conflict and communication —the core abilities of an effective manager. Most training and development efforts are a rain dance. We spend huge amounts of money, time and effort performing it but, like rain in the Karoo, tangible results rarely follow.
Recognising the need to move from “knowing ” to “doing”, the latest management discipline being widely taught is project management. However, this too is rarely translated into action that changes the way people get things done.
In the world of work, there are fundamentally three kinds of projects. First, we have the “management by objectives” type. A task force, or an individual in a department, focuses on elements of the job or function. Usually there are several initiatives on the go at any time. The theory is that they should all be in harmony with the organisation’s balanced scorecards and cascade down to the lowest levels linking to myriad key performance indicators.
Demand from the top may be: “I want a 10% improvement in productivity this year. Tell me how you’re going to do it with specific goals in each area of responsibility.”
Second , there are capital or major systems projects with detailed budgets, specifications, commissioning and so on. You are not asking the organisation to change with either of these approaches.
The third type of project, the 100-day action management project, does demand change. It has only one objective: a “breakthrough ” in personal growth.
Executive growth is evolutionary. It takes time. However, you can accelerate it through a skilfully managed interaction in a well-designed situation. Unlike other project approaches that chase after numbers, action management projects focus on personal growth as the path to better numbers. They accelerate the development of every person in the project team and their expanded capacity to perform makes a difference in many observable and indefinable ways on the numbers.
Personal growth is a complex and subtle process. With action management projects, the focus is on only five attributes that are especially valuable on the job:
- An improvement in self-esteem — how highly you value yourself and your ability to contribute;
- A rise in self-confidence — how able, willing and ready you are to tackle things in new ways. You start making demands for improvement and see failure as a necessary step on the bumpy road to success;
- Increase in your core competencies — your ability to identify the one or two critical success imperatives for any task and to upgrade its productivity ratios;
- Enrichment of relationships with people who influence your effectiveness above, below and alongside you. You become more open, understanding and flexible in dealing graciously with differences in style and opinion. Diversity becomes an opportunity, not an obstacle; and
- An increase in your own economic value. This is testable in the open market. Your personal growth becomes financially rewarding for you and economically valuable to the organisation. This will happen after two or three projects. The experience will pay off in your salary cheque much quicker than any other investment you can ever make in education, training or development.
The challenge is for managers to discover these hidden capabilities in themselves and their people, and to harness them
The underlying presupposition is that every organisation has huge amounts of potential that it pays for but does not realise. Typically, you see it unleashed in emergencies. When people swap stories that involve a disaster (fires, strikes and other “must do” situations) people spontaneously rise to the challenge without complex planning sessions or orders from above. That means every organisation owns and pays for significant capacity that has no economic impact in “normal” times.
The factors that characterise an emergency do not exist in the daily life of most organisations. Yet, in a crisis, there is extreme urgency to achieve a result fast. There are good reasons for that. The challenge excites and stimulates them. The goal is near and clear. People grab responsibility. They collaborate, ignore red tape and experiment. Depending on the nature of the crisis, they have fun doing what must be done.
The exciting thing is that you can tap into this extraordinary reserve of hidden potential without any emergency. The challenge is for managers to discover these hidden capabilities in themselves and their people, and to harness them.
Some companies and educational institutions break the mould. They remove the flaws by turning the standard “training only” model on its head. Matthias Bellmann, once the MD of Siemens Management Learning, and Robert H Schaffer, president of management consultancy Robert H Schaffer & Associates, describe in the Harvard Business Review (June 2001) how they collaborated to redesign the Siemens programme so that managers learned while achieving significant bottom-line benefits.
Teams of participants selected a specific performance goal to tackle in the four months between development seminars. One group addressed the challenge of Siemens’ expansion into central Asia. The goal they chose was to breathe life into a stalled project — to operate a fibre optic linkage that ran through more than 15 countries. After years of delay, they did it on time, enhanced Siemens ’ reputation, and at once started to earn revenues.
Another group reduced telecommunications costs for the company in England and Germany. They set a rapid cycle, breakthrough goal to reduce costs by 30% for one month.
They achieved it and discovered how to redesign operations to make sure the gains were sustainable. This development programme, which started in the late 1990s with about 35 teams, saved the company about R65m in its early stages. Today, more than 500 teams have attacked many tangible goals, and the value of benefits runs into hundreds of millions.
Other organisations as diverse as Cemex in Mexico and a timber company in SA have followed a similar approach. Here, the management development programme started with a breakthrough project to reduce rail costs. It spawned p ro j e c t s that culminated years later with one that redesigned the value stream. The process minted many successful managers and generated productivity impacts well in excess of R50m.
Achieving measurable, economic results provides a high-energy learning experience you cannot create in any other way — certainly not through intellectual insights and debate. So how can you make it happen? It starts best with the chief executive, who should champion the effort with other top leaders.
A demand might be: “Over the next three years from our own ranks, we want to fill at least 50 management positions with people who possess the results-DNA factor.” Leaders then sponsor projects that build better managers on the job while improving the organisation’s economic performance.
ANOTHER option is for HR, working in partnership with line managers, to build 100-day AMPs into the management development curriculum. Similarly, university and graduate management programmes can build a practical, rapid-results emphasis into curriculums. For example, a course on health-care administration could include projects in local hospitals to make real improvements in patient admittance and scheduling, or in back-office areas such as billing and collections.
Rapid-results efforts are not meant to replace other important parts of management training and development, but to expand and enrich them so that they produce far more effective and successful managers. A context of a real-life challenge creates opportunities for organisations to use many development tools “just in time”, and therefore to far greater effect. Coaching and mentoring programmes can be enhanced immeasurably, as can the use of 360º feedback and any other form of concrete skills development.
The most critical business challenge facing SA is to develop man – agers to meet today’s intensified demands and make our resources productive. As leading management consultant Peter Drucker observed: “It is only managers, not nature, or laws of economics, or governments, that make resources productive — only managers.”
The challenge therefore to corporations, government and educational institutions is to adopt a resultsdriven management development approach. Imagine the impact that just 10 000 such high-performing managers could have on the economic vitality of SA in the next few years. It can be done.
Ted Black, writer, consultant and executive coach, is an affiliate of Robert H Schaffer & Associates of the US ( www. rhsa. com).