Action Learning/Research is an approach to problem-solving that was pioneered more than 60 years ago by social-psychologists, and it offers pathways for the 21st century nonprofit to explore issues more deeply and implement decisions based on the findings of these explorations.
One pathway for problem-solving involves seven steps that require 1) an understanding and differentiating of information types; 2) delving through symptoms to get at root causes, which may then lead to important discussions of organizational values; and 3) developing criteria for impartial evaluation of potential solutions.
The seven steps are:
1. Identify the problem or issue.
2. Analyze the problem: is it an isolated issue or is it related to other problems? Who is affected by it? How is it handled now?
3. Describe the problem in measurable, impartial terms.
4. Look for root causes and causal relationships by asking "why?" at least five times.
5. Develop alternative solutions, evaluating each against predetermined criteria.
6. Implement a decision. Anticipate the downside of decisions.
7. Measure results.
Most of the time, we're dealing with the symptoms of much deeper problems. For example, inactive committees, late budgets, or stalled fundraising efforts generally stem from larger organizational issues. While we may have a gut feeling about the source of a problem, following a systemic pattern of resolution, such as the seven-step model, offers an objective approach for boards and staff that facilitates decision-making and change while maintaining a level of organizational equilibrium.
Organizations that commit to problem-solving as a process that is both consultative and reflective create many opportunities to surface values and passion -- the "big picture" stuff that is necessary for meaningful decision-making, and ultimately, change. Organizations that are willing to ask "why?" five times stand a better chance of getting to the heart of their visions, missions, and values. Board members and staff become co-learners, working together to inquire and to collect data, question assumptions, give and get feedback, and plan, implement, and evaluate courses of action.
While some problem-solving and decision-making does not require this approach, clearly policy and criteria development benefits from it.
How might you incorporate the seven-step model into the leadership work you do?
Think about how you would need to restructure meetings in order to support the model. Think about the time frames you might need in order to accommodate it, knowing that more time will be spent in the researching, learning and reflecting phases. Think about how much ground you may gain be focusing on root problems, not just symptoms, and how, in doing so, you can articulate shared visions and values that can form the platforms for future decision-making.