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Experimenting with Leadership Development Action Learning Projects

Many leadership programs utilize some form of learning projects based on principles of adult learning and action learning. They are intended to strengthen the participant’s capacity to apply learning across different contexts. Of course, most action learning project participants hope to also deliver some value to the community beyond their own learning experience.  Donna Dinkin, an action learning specialist describes action learning:


Action learning is a process (often coach supported) involving a small group of people solving real problems while at the same time focusing on what they are learning and how their learning can benefit each group member and the organization and community as a whole.”

In the broader field of leadership development, programs try to create a genuine leadership application opportunity because people learn best by doing. It can be challenging to scope a project that can be accomplished during the duration of many leadership programs. Given these constraints the challenge is to 1) find a meaningful project that can be implemented or initiated and sustained beyond the program in order to make a contribution to the program’s desired goals, and 2) build into the project a robust action learning methodology that optimizes the application of new knowledge, skills and abilities while increasing the effectiveness and impact of the learning project. The challenges of selecting an appropriate project cannot be underestimated.


Ideally, the project work is not just a vehicle for learning, but actually is advanced by action learning. Some leadership programs have been experimenting with ways to reframe their action learning opportunities by leveraging existing work rather than assuming the program participants need to (or can) develop new projects specifically for the purpose of action learning in a very short time span.


A number of other leadership programs are designed with the use of projects that are intended to support the application of skills to projects that participants will be able to sustain through their current work/organizations. Below are five different examples of how this is done.


Ladder to Leaders: In the early part of the program, participants write up a couple of the key issues related to the programs community health outcome goals on large flip chart pages and then participants go and stand by the issues that they are most interested in working on. This is a way of facilitating self-organizing among the group to identify the areas of most convergent issues and those who would like to work on the issue. (The groups are expected to be somewhat distributed in size so some people may have to opt for their second choice.) During the session, people in the respective groups pitch ideas about how they would like to work on the issue. Through this process people are mostly organized around issues they are passionate about spending time on. There are no limitations to selecting issues that participants are already working on or may be able to support with organizational resources and time. The process happened early in the program so that the teams had time to implement their projects.


The Mesoamerican Reef Leadership Program (MAR-L): One interesting feature of MAR-L is their approach to recruitment. If you are hoping to effect on the ground change around a social issue, it helps to be strategic in your recruitment and think about who in the system needs to be part of the change you are hoping to produce. MAR-L approached this by thinking about the different issues undermining the health of the reef, (e.g. tourism, land management, overfishing, climate change) and which of these issues they could tackle that would make a difference. Over the years, they experimented with recruiting cohorts around specific themes, across sectors and from different countries. Each year they choose a new theme.


The National Academy of Leadership in Public Health (NLAPH) and the Emerging Leaders in Public Health (ELPH) programs: Both of these programs, with a focus on population health outcomes, recruit teams who have already formed around a project idea. NLAPH recruits a multi-disciplinary team of 4-5 participants from different organizations so that the project work builds relationships among agencies that should be collaborating to improve community health. The ELPH programs recruits an existing and future leader from the same public health agency who are charged with developing a project that can help to transform their agency. The project is expected to evolve and in some cases change dramatically with coaching as participants apply what they are learning to strengthening their concept and implementation.  


Results Based Leadership: The Annie E. Casey Foundations supports a Results Based Leadership program that is based in the Theory of Aligned Contribution. This program selects a specific result like reducing teen pregnancy, improving school readiness or reducing recidivism. Once the result is determined, partners target organizations and agencies that could leverage their organization’s position and resources to make more progress on the result by aligning their efforts with others in the system.


There are several advantages to these approaches:

  • These approaches are designed to increase the impact and sustainability of participants’ project work on their desired goal.

  • Many of these approaches connect project work with the work that is occurring within participants’ organizational and initiatives context. The idea is to work smarter through collaboration, rather than harder.  In these approaches, the project work would be situated in organizations that could accept and deploy the foundation grants to sustain the projects.

  • These approaches build relationships among stakeholders who are more likely to continue working together. It takes time to develop trust relationships, and in these models that time is invested in building work relationships that are more likely to be sustained. Another way to look at this is building relationships that can support emerging networks.

  • Most of the approaches start project development early on and integrate the application of new knowledge and skills supported by action learning coaching from the start so that learning and the project are integrated throughout the program.