logo image

ATD Blog

Action Learning: Adding to the Bottom Line


Wed Mar 04 2015

Action Learning: Adding to the Bottom Line

Many organizations have seen firsthand how action learning achieves breakthrough solutions, thus adding to the bottom line. For example, a division of a Fortune 500 company doubled in value in just 18 months because of action learning. Action learning teams think differently—they see what’s possible instead of being hindered by obstacles.

This new way of thinking is achieved by the action learning process and the skills of the coach. The coach is the catalyst for learning within the team. The coach makes sure the team is aware of all important issues, and then leaves it to the team members to decide how they will work together. The coach is critical in helping the team achieve the deep mind shifts necessary to develop breakthrough solutions.


What’s the Real Problem?

Action learning teams get to these breakthrough solutions because they identify the real problem before coming up with the solution. Initially, however, action learning teams may feel that defining the real problem is slowing them down. This is because the action learning process is quite different from the typical process companies use to solve an organizational challenge:

Company leadership schedules a meeting to address the problem. Somewhere between five and 5,000 people are invited, so they can come to consensus on the problem.A few very dominate people talk over one another.The company adopts the solution put forth by the most influential person.In action learning, the problem is presented in a minute or two, so the team hears only the crux of the problem, and not superfluous context and theories. This approach helps the team realize whether the problem presented is actually a symptom of the real problem, a solution, or a goal.

Example 1: Symptom presented as a problem. A company was struggling to clean up chemical spills in a timely fashion. In this situation, the real problem was that the company had three first responder teams to address different situations. The teams were not clear on their sole responsibilities, what responsibilities overlapped with the other teams’, or what to do if they were first on the scene of a situation that was the responsibility of another team.

Example 2: Solution presented as a problem. An organization decided to put programs in place to create a positive workplace culture. In this situation, the real problem was that leadership routinely ignored conflicts that arose between employees, hoping they would resolve the conflicts on their own. Rather than develop programs, leadership needed to address these conflicts before they escalated.


Example 3: Goal presented as a problem. A company set a goal to achieve zero OSHA-reported incidents at all plants. In this situation, the real problem was that employees were being injured on the job. The company needed to create a safer workplace.

By addressing the real problem, the team fixes the situation permanently, instead of slapping another bandage on a symptom. The power of this approach was expressed by the VP at a Fortune 500 company. Responding to a team member frustrated with how long the action learning process was taking, she said, “How many years have we wasted implementing the wrong solution? Let’s get it right once and for all.”

Triple Bang for Your Buck

The benefits of action learning sessions are threefold: The problem is solved, team members learn the most effective problem-solving process for them, and each member develops as a leader.

As the team works through identifying the real problem, determining their goal, and fleshing out a solution, the coach looks for learning opportunities. When an opportunity presents itself, the coach brings it to the team’s attention and facilitates a discussion of how it affects the team and how they want to move forward. The coach raises all questions with a future, positive focus—planting the seed of positive team dynamics. However, the coach leaves all decisions to the team. This is different from typical task facilitation, in that the team members decide on the best problem-solving process for them.


Additionally, each team member will identify a leadership skill to work on during the session. The coach and other team members will watch to see when the skills are practiced. At the end of the session, the team will discuss when and how the participants demonstrated their skills.

Consequently, organizations that adopt action learning will see a triple bang for their buck. Additionally, countless resources will be saved by addressing the real problem, and the organization will advance in the market with its breakthrough solution.

You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In


Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy