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"The essence of action learning is to extract from the new task itself a sustainable desire to know what one is trying to do, what is stopping one from doing it, and what resources can be found to get it done by surmounting what seems to stand in the way.

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maximising  performance

ensuring change is sustained
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the compatibility of action learning with inner game coaching


Using “inner game” coaching techniques in the remediation of a challenged programme at a Global Investment Bank the environment was transformed into a delivery focused culture.  The techniques included group sessions that would be familiar to anyone aware of action learning and were an integral part of the strategy to ensure sustainable change was achieved, with the programme delivered to an agreed plan and under budget.


The foregoing is a description of the remediation of a programme to set up a new business model at the wealth management arm of a global investment bank in 2001-2 that had repeatedly failed to meet delivery milestones.  The techniques used were based on “inner game” coaching, as first described by Gallwey in “The Inner Game of Tennis”[1].  At the time I was unaware of the term “action learning” and the work of Reg Revans.  About three years later it was pointed out that the approach taken both in this case and at a number of other firms that I had worked at since was consistent with action learning. This was based on the observation that I had set up groups to deal with key problems and facilitated these groups by questioning the members with the aim of developing appropriate solutions and ensuring team ownership.


In 2001 I was asked to take over a programme to establish a new European wealth management business model.  The programme was beset with problems:

  • Missed numerous delivery dates, often with stakeholders being informed at the last minute

  • Uncertainty over redundancies, low team morale, beset with HR problems

  • A mixture of an inexperienced team with a lack of understanding of the management of change programmes (with resultant lack of process, plan, etc)

  • Poor communication, both within the team and to senior management and key business stakeholders

This resulted in an environment that lacked focus on delivery, together with a blame culture and corresponding lack of accountability.


My value proposition to the bank at the outset had been to coach delivery, with the aim of developing a relatively inexperienced team that had repeatedly failed to meet published milestones into one that could plan and deliver change.  At the same time they would develop an understanding of how sustainable change is achieved.


A background of understanding “inner game” principles, primarily from their use in coaching tennis some years previously had convinced me that they could be used in the delivery of change in a corporate environment.  Given that the team was inexperienced in this type of change programme there was certainly a need for learning.  The environment had resulted in the creation of fear and doubt, a common type of interference to performance. Gallwey in the Inner Game books describes performance as equalling potential minus interference.  Here significant barriers to performance had clearly developed.





Faced with a disparate team based in a number of locations and a rudderless programme, there was need for drastic action.  Preparation for this was undertaken in an initial two week assessment period, where myself and a colleague met with the team members and assessed the exact state of the programme, from a number of perspectives.  We set about addressing these issues by tackling specific areas where sound project management was not in evidence.  The approach was partly driven by previous experience of failing projects. 


When the initial analysis is done on failing projects and team members are interviewed it is often the case that team members involved know what the problems are, what the causes are and how to solve them.  Why then do they get into this position?  Team members in such circumstances usually do not feel empowered to deal with the issues and, whether it is due to organisational constraints and politics, believe that they are not listened to.


The principal symptoms of the environment that needed to be addressed were:

  • To clarify and document the scope of the programme

  • To ensure that there was a clear and rational project delivery process

  • That a realistic and granular plan for the programme was put in place

  • Address a number of problem areas, including document management and issue management


Scope was dealt with by meeting with a number of business stakeholders, revisiting initial documentation and working with the delivery team to clarify, document and ensure that all were on board.  In terms of the eight stage process of creating major change, as described by Kotter[2], the urgency had been created by repeated failure to deliver. This exercise served to document the vision and to start to build the guiding coalition, providing the team with purpose.  In many of the challenged change initiatives that I have encountered the change vision is often communicated at the outset but it gets forgotten as the management team do not continue to make the effort to continually do this.


The strategy to deal with the other points was the establishment of three groups (akin to action learning sets).  The aim of all the groups was initially to both solve a particular issue while also to learn from it.  For example, in building a programme plan the ultimate aim was to come up with a baseline plan for the programme but also critically, to gain an understanding of how to estimate effort, build and maintain a granular and realistic plan.  While the temptation is often to teach, or tell, my aim was to facilitate the learning and development of the team, principally by asking what I believed to be the right questions. 


The aim of the questioning was to create awareness to allow the team both to solve the principal problem areas and at the same time learn how to go about solving them.  Relevant examples around the delivery process are described below





The delivery process group was the first we kicked off.  The group was composed of the stream leads, these included business analysis, operations, testing, technology development together with the project manager from the main third party supplier, together with additional people from the programme team.


The aim of the sessions was to build a process for the programme from analysis through to implementation, including the core technology development lifecycle and the operational and business elements required to establish a new business.


We arranged an initial meeting, where we used a room with whiteboards and flipcharts and agreed some ground rules. The ground rules were that we would attempt to determine what questions we needed to answer to get to a sound delivery process, that any contribution had to be treated with respect and the output was to be the product of the group. My role was to facilitate the sessions, asking questions and encouraging collaborative discussion.  We then went through the following steps:

  • What were we able to define as the phases of the delivery process

  • What activities made up each of the phases

  • How do we determine the gateways between phases

  • What was the appropriate governance framework for the programme

  • Establishing a strategy for implementation of the process and governance


Included in this was also asking more general questions up front about what the participants expected a good delivery process to look like, what characteristics did they expect this to have and how do we determine who was accountable and how do we manage the expectations of various parties.


The first session was scheduled in the morning for 90 minutes and went over time. We had realised quickly that we needed longer and added a further session which allowed initial draft output for comment by others.  Periodic reviews were undertaken by the group and the delivery process refined following comment, review and reflection.


One of the temptations, particularly for the more experienced members of the group, was to air what was believed to be the answer or solution before we were clear on what question we were attempting to answer.  For example, talking about what activities made up a phase before we had identified the phases. This led to occasional bouts of confusion and re-iterating what we were trying to do to clarify.


Having gone through this process for the delivery process we then kicked off a similar process for the programme plan, though after the first two sessions it was left to another team member to facilitate this group through to completion of the baseline plan and then agree a smaller group to review and revise the plan.




With the last group we laid down the purpose of the group at the outset. To take an unfocused and chaotic issue management and build a process which had clear ownership and understanding of the next steps for each issue.  As most of the members of the group had been involved in process work an initial meeting with my involvement set out the objectives and they were then left to get on with it.  The group moved from daily issues meetings, where issues lacked clarity of ownership and rarely had timeframes for resolution, to ensuring that every issue had an owner and a timeframe and clarity over the next step. They continued to learn and consequently refine the process through the practice of ongoing management of issues.  The group moved to meeting on a weekly basis, both to address the outstanding issues and to refine the process.





Continued reflection and review enabled the team to refine the process and ultimately deliver to plan and under budget.  Reflection was conducted in a number of ways, principally in team meetings, these were held on a regular, scheduled basis but were also supplemented with ad hoc meetings to address particular needs and akin to the STOP tool described by Gallwey in “The Inner Game of Work”[3]  These also provided support to team members not only to talk about what they need to do but to build commitment to allow them to get on and take the risks to act. 


We’re often in a hurry to go nowhere and it’s amazing how many failing project teams we’ve come across which are frantic in activity but still fail to deliver. As Gallwey puts it “the purpose of STOP is to help a person or team disengage from the tunnel vision of performance momentum, so that mobility and more conscious working can be restored”[4]. STOP stands for:

Step back


Organise your thoughts, and



We have executed it with the core team or subsets of the team, where we would call a halt to work for 20-30 minutes and go through the process of stepping back, thinking about where we were in the context of the programme and ensuring the particularly group was thinking clearly and on the right track. It has the effect of ensuring the team is focused and productive in a calm environment and again contributes to a cohesive team that delivers smoothly.

The steps required to build trust amongst all the elements of the programme team is not an overnight exercise and can only be done over time by creating a blame free and open environment, continually acting with integrity and treating all team members with respect.  While these elements are the things that need repairing in a recovery context it is important to recognise the innate potential to learn in a team, which can be most effectively brought about by questioning.

The STOP tool was used in with a number of aims, which included:

  • Taking stock of where we were and what needed to be done next

  • Managing the energy of the team. In a similar way to that discussed by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz[5], managing energy I believed was key to developing a high performing team

  • Raising issues/problems to the attention of the whole team and using the meeting as a forum to resolve the problem and support those tackling the problem

  • To openly address uncertainty around the future of the programme.  The programme was repeatedly under threat as a result of internal politics and when rumours occurred we discussed these openly. 


The environment of fear and doubt, accompanied by blame culture that had paralysed the team was transformed with the use of coaching combined with a process that I have since learned is remarkably similar to action learning. Particularly, combining questioning to create awareness combined with the grouping together of individual team members around particular problems.  The emphasis was placed on learning how to solve the particular problem being addressed. Additionally there was a need to simultaneously reduce interference from senior management through proactive communication. 


In the true spirit of action learning, while there was plenty of praise for the team when they delivered, the meetings were aimed at addressing issues that they were struggling with and removing obstacles to delivery.  At the outset this was problematic, as they were used to an environment of hiding problems and self praise of their work where they could possibly warrant it.  Initially we dealt with this by both encouraging team members to be open in this respect and also engineering situations where we got issues into the open and discussed problems in a supportive and constructive way. The stance was always to address the situation as it was, never to blame individual team members and to talk about what we could all learn from the situation. This resulted in the team becoming much more open and willing to raise problems with each other and learn from their interaction. The solutions then became their own rather than something imposed upon them.


The team delivered in a cohesive manner.  The overall culture of the team changed from one of problem raisers to problem solvers. Changing from a closed culture, where there was an innate expectation of failure to deliver to an open culture. Setting some small early and achievable deliverables developed an understanding of a successful delivery process, removing the association with missing milestone dates.


“The central idea of this approach to human development, at all levels, in all cultures and for all purposes is, today, that of a set, or small group of comrades in adversity, striving to learn with and from each other as they confess failures and expand victories …” [6]


Having read more about action learning it is unsurprising that someone with a bent for inner game techniques should find action learning such a good fit, on at least two counts:

  1. One of Gallwey’s mantras is that “awareness is curative” and creating awareness comes from asking good questions. The problem is not to find even cleverer people to come up with the answers, but to find people to ask good questions’ Reg Revans. 
  2. The inner game was based around the observation of people learning from doing, initially in the context of the game of tennis but has since been applied to many other activities, including work.


Action Learning enabled the delivery of ongoing, sustainable change, transforming an underperforming team to one of high performance.  A major factor in the team becoming more productive was the increase in ownership and accountability which came about as a direct result of action learning.


“ ... we are witnessing a shift in many businesses and nonprofit organisations – away from traditional autocratic and hierarchical modes of leadership and toward a model based on teamwork and community; one that seeks to involve others in decision making; one that is strongly based in ethical and caring behaviour; and one that is attempting to enhance the personal growth of workers while at the same time improving the caring and quality of our many institutions.”[7]


While one of the techniques in motivating and developing the team was to work on aligning individual aspirations and values with those espoused by the programme team, these were not necessarily those of the wider company environment.  Consequently, with this piece of work and more significantly the work done with a number of other banks with more autocratic and hierarchical structures, although the change may be sustainable in small pieces there is a danger of it being overwhelmed by a different and less enlightened culture, if the change is not supported at a sufficiently senior level.


In this context one of the key advantages was the location of the key members of the delivery team in one place.  One on-going problem we had was working with a vendor of the core banking software package we were using.  While we had a number of their consultants and a project manager on site we were successful in integrating them into the single team experiential learning approach that we took.  However, they were developing additional functionality off-site, some of this work was being undertaken in the UK and other work in India (an increasing trend in financial services in the last decade).  The offsite team was more difficult to influence and did not work in a way that was aligned with the approach we took.  To mitigate this we provided them with a project manager on a part time basis to work with them to plan their work.  This had a limited impact but we were constantly struggling to avoid the relationship becoming adversarial.


Following this work I have continued to use and refine the techniques with different levels of success.  This has included working with external and outsourced suppliers to integrate communication and culture more effectively.


This article has been published in the Action Learning: Research & Practice  2009 [copyright Taylor & Francis]; Action Learning is available online at :http://journalsonline.tandf.co.uk/

[1] W. Timothy Gallwey, 1974, The Inner Game of Tennis, Random House

[2] John P. Kotter, 1996, Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press

[3] W. Timothy Gallwey, 2001, The Inner Game of Work, Random House

[4] Ibid

[5] Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, 2003, On Form, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

[6] Reg W. Revans, 1980, Action Learning: New techniques in Management, Blond and Briggs

[7] Larry C. Spears – Introduction to The Power of Servant Leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, 1998, Barrett-Koehler Publishers









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