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Is Your Action Planning As Effective As It Could Be?

Is Your Action Planning As Effective As It Could Be?

I often need to persuade clients that the ‘future-focused’ element of a learning initiative (call it action planning, visioning, learning transfer etc etc) can be, indeed should be, delivered in exactly the same way as the ‘developmental’ elements. There seems to be a strong desire to isolate the action planning phase from the learning acquisition phase by applying a different set of pedagogical principles. At best this is confusing and unnecessary, at worst it impedes effective learning transfer, and in this blog I’m going to suggest why.

Let me offer an example from just last week. My colleague Ann Alder and I were working with a long-standing client from the education sector, helping them to extend the well tried and tested learning framework they used in their organisation so that it better supported coaching approaches. We’d used a range of learning tools and groupwork structures to develop their thinking, filtering potential approaches and building agreement on which ones should be taken forward. At this point Ann introduced our most successful planning tools, Voyage Mapping™ with the intention of using it as a hands-on and visual way of developing their action plan. What Ann and I anticipated was that we would take a couple of hours to draw on the Voyage Mapping board a representation of the route to implementation for their agreed plans - a representation that could be captured in words and circulated around the organisation.

Now one of the principles that underpin experiential learning is this:

 your debrief relates to what actually happens, you do not debrief what you intended to happen.

To clarify - if the session is wildly different from what you envisaged it was going to be, you as the facilitator need to trust that there is learning available in what actually happened that will support the stated learning outcomes for the session. You may need to think on your feet, you will almost certainly have to revise the questions you were going to use in your debrief, it may discomfort you and make you work hard, but you have to trust the process you’ve initiated.

After two hours around the Voyage Mapping board we didn’t have a route plan, we didn’t have anything that resembled ‘first steps’ or ‘milestone review points’. What we had was a lot of notes from multiple team members, ideas, suggestions, criticisms, tangents and oblique references with nobody recalling their meaning. It was a mess, and the team had followed no discernable process that could be debriefed. But we did debrief - we debriefed what had happened - and the team gained some powerful insights about themselves from the questions we posed. It became clear that whilst there was consensus on what they needed to do there was still work to do on how to do it. This was only revealed because we’d not moved away from good experiential learning practice despite this being a session that was exploring matters that were yet to happen, rather than the more customary retrospective reviews.

Our next step (again good experiential learning practice) was to recognise that we weren’t going to progress this issue by working collectively, we needed individual representations from each team member so that a range of possibilities could be defined, presented and considered. We moved away from the large Voyage Mapping board version with everybody pooling their thoughts, and gave each person a smaller Individual Voyage Mapping version and asked them to design their own take on an implementation process. On completion these were shared by each team member in turn, and from them they collectively manufactured a solution that everybody could get behind.

What I hope that this example shows is that action planning is an integral part of the experiential process, it should be delivered without reverting to more didactic, less immersive methods. Tools like Voyage Mapping support this approach but it needs the facilitator to believe that the result is going to be just as, if not more, effective than a more conventional action planning process. 

In summary what this needs from the facilitator is:

  • Know what outcome you’re looking for (clear learning objectives).
  • Be prepared to be flexible about the methods and tools you use.
  • Use a mix of team-focused and individually-focused approaches.

and, above all,

  • Work with what’s happening in the room, not what you anticipated would happen.



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