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Action Reflection Learning- why it works even better today!

So life is complex... but does it have to be so complicated?


"An ever-higher rate of complexity and diversity at an ever-increasing speed…"
These are common, and current descriptions, in management literature, recounting the challenges organizations face, not only today, but also what they have been dealing with for the last 30 years. Does that mean that the participants in the upcoming MEC 54 (MiL’s Executive Leadership Programme) are facing the same challenges as their predecessors, the first participants, in 1978?

Yes and no, some struggles might be timeless, but studies show that, in the last 55 years, there has been a six-fold increase in complexity. Fine, it might not surprise me that business complexity is six times higher today. The frustrating part is that the same study shows that the rate of complicatedness – i.e. the amount of procedures, vertical layers and decision approvals – has increased 35 times during the same period!

In an attempt to deal with the uncertainty of complexity, we add layer upon layer of standardized procedures and detailed regulations, making decision-making processes heavy, complicated and slow.

And not only that, on a more discouraging note, the standardizations, regulations and the detailed “what to do and what not to do”-lists are also a consequence of a growing public distrust of managers and professionals (for example doctors and bankers). The assumption being that these professionals neither has the will, nor the skill, to act in the best interest of their organizations, of their employees or of society.

Recipe for disaster - or at least - mediocracy


The consequences of these detailed lists or cookbook recipes for management are according to American psychologist Barry Schwartz that “the important nuances of context are squeezed out. Better to minimize the number of rules, give up trying to cover every particular circumstance, and instead do more training to encourage skill at practical reasoning and intuition.”  Such training and practical reasoning that can be found for example in our leadership programmes building on Action Reflection Learning ®.

Reginald Revans, developed Action Learning in the 1950s in order to help managers “develop the capacity to carry the burden of decision making”. When I talked to Lennart Rohlin, the founder and former MD of MiL Institute last week, Lennart said something similar about Action Reflection Learning ® and MiL’s leadership programmes:

” the purpose is for you as a manager to get your own insights and experiences by having the time and room for reflection, thereby creating something that is more founded in yourself, a personal leadership theory, your own understanding and approach – the opposite of a cookbook recipe. There is no need for those when the knowledge of how to act, of what to do, is grounded in you yourself.”

ARL promotes practically wise organizations and managers


I would add that the power of Action Reflection Learning is that it helps you make use of your experience, help you get access to your tacit knowledge and your assumptions, encourage you to critically examine what you know (as a person and as a company representative) and challenge you to become more aware of your, and your organization’s, values. All in order to support practically wise organizations and managers. To quote Schwartz again: Wisdom is not something theoretical but highly practical: it is to know the right thing to do at the specific moment in the particular circumstances and then to actually do it.

Hence, we find the Action Reflection Learning ® approach, all the more important today. To navigate and to act as a manager in an even more complex environment, avoiding tempting recipes, you must trust that no theory (nor recipe) works better than the one you yourself experience, create and reflect over.

That is what we are aiming for to happen in our leadership programs - promoting practically wise organizations and managers that are able to navigate the business context of today and tomorrow, to stand grounded in the ever more global, complex, diverse, fast moving and uncertain life of organizations today.

Read ”The Story of Action Reflection Learning” by Lennart Rohlin to know more about the conception, and future work fields, of Action Reflection Learning.

Johanna Steen, MiL Institute

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