Using action learning to raise self-awareness and increase accountable in a PR agency in Bangkok, Thailand

ABSTRACT
This account of practice explores the use of an action learning programme with a team in a Public Relations agency in Bangkok, Thailand. The programme aimed at improving team and individual performance, including leadership, self-awareness, ownership of work, communication and collaboration. The article describes the context and intended purpose of the action learning programme, the overall process and the evaluative measurements that were used. This account exemplifies how action learning can be used to support a team struggling with complex and urgent problems. The experience of the author highlights how key elements of action learning such as problem-solving and critical reflection can support a team who may be ‘stuck’ by helping them to find new motivation, greater self-awareness, and an increased sense of individual and team accountability.

Introduction
In June 2019, I attended a course to become an Action Learning Coach in Chang Mai, Thailand led by Peter Cauwelier, the President of the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) (www.wial.org). WIAL uses the term ‘action learning coach’ synonymously with ‘action learning facilitator’.

I have a long history of working with different teams and groups in the corporate world and more recently as a Consultant. After becoming certified as an action learning coach, I facilitated seven groups from different organisations, all interested in solving problems through using action learning. Through this experience, I have found action learning to be valuable in my work as a method to (i) empower individuals to develop their leadership skills (ii) improve team communication and collaboration, and (iii) help a group identify and address their ‘real’ problems.

After completing my Action Learning Coach certificate, I approached the Director at a Public Relations (PR) agency in Bangkok, Thailand, who I knew needed support with leading her team. During our very first meeting, listening to the challenges they were going through, I suggested that Action Learning may be an effective intervention for this team. In this account of practice, I have shared my experience of facilitating four action learning sessions with the team.

The PR agency, founded in 2008, was facing challenging times. Two years ago, there were two partners in the company who were also friends. In the last year, the two partners ended their business relationship, which resulted in half of the staff leaving with the other partner to form a new company. In the original company, a group of new staff were hired – the Sales and Marketing Team – specifically to develop new business. However, the splitting of the company left the team without energy and motivation. They saw only obstacles and avoided responsibility to bring in new business. The Director described a total lack of communication and collaboration within the team. The agency had very few leads for new business and at one point the Director of the agency didn’t know if she would need to sell the agency or to find a way to survive and prosper through a new way of working.

The agency’s Sales and Marketing Team had urgent issues to resolve. The aim was to see if Action Learning could help them to move forward.

Setting up the programme
The purpose of introducing action learning within the company was three-fold. Firstly, my intention was to use action learning to increase the self-awareness of team members so they would be able to better see their own contribution or non-contribution and build greater personal responsibility and accountability. Secondly, action learning would enhance communication and collaborative work among the team. Learning to ask open questions and actively listen to everyone in the team was the starting point. Thirdly, the objective was to empower staff to become more proactive and able to take decisions on their own. This would lead to decisive action in generating business, such as following up new business leads.

I conducted two meetings, one in person and one over the phone, to gain an understanding of the current issues faced and the agency’s overall strategic plan, vision and objectives. These meetings helped to shape the purpose of the action learning programme (described above) and to structure the process to achieve this.

The participants were hand-picked by the Director, all working in Sales and Marketing plus the General Manager and the Director herself – in total seven people. It was a requirement that the action learning set members were fluent in English.

The programme was structured into three phases, starting in November 2019 and ending in January 2020. Phase 1 was an Introduction to Action Learning for the group. Phase Two involved the facilitation of 4 action learning sessions. Phase Three involved measuring the outcomes of the programme. The process in each phase in described below, with my own reflections and learnings alongside.

Phase 1 – Introduction to action learning
In phase 1, the urgent and complex problem to be resolved was proposed to the group. My challenge was for the team to be willing to participate and have a desire to solve the problem and take responsibility.

During the introduction, I observed that the team was very quiet, and some members were not engaged. I recognised that I needed to create a safe environment and I explained that my role as a ‘coach’ was to ensure confidentiality, so that everything we talked about would stay only within the action learning sessions. Having lived in Bangkok four years I have experienced that it can take a longer time for people to open up and feel comfortable to ask questions. As a newly trained Action Learning Coach, the initial resistance from the group was challenging. I have realised that when action learning participants are not joining voluntarily, they may well be less willing to engage.

I designed and delivered a 3½ hours session introducing the set to action learning. I went through the background of action learning and presented Revans’s model of action learning (1983a, 1983b) based on reflective listening and insightful questioning. The components that are included in action learning were shared and discussed as per my Action Learning Coach course:

A problem or a challenge, that need to be an urgent and real problem

A team, which would be a small team

A questioning and reflecting process

Strategies and action. What will you do to solve the problem?

Three levels of learnings. What you can learn of yourself, your team and organisation?

Action Learning Coach, to help and support the team to find the real problem and take actions.

I also emphasised the power of asking great questions in both professional and personal lives in this session. I introduced two exercises on asking effective questions, the first one was ‘7 questions’ and the other was a game called ‘Question Hunt’ developed by Peter Cauwelier.

Exercise 1: Seven Questions

Everyone picked a partner and one person started to ask their partner an open question, such as ‘What achievements are you most proud of during last year?’ Participants were encouraged to keep the questions short because that is what makes effective open questions. The next question needed to build on the previous answer. If the question asked was not an open question, the partner had to clap their hands, and the question-asker needed to come up with a new short open question. When 7 open questions had been asked correctly, each pair switched over, so everyone had a turn.

Exercise 2: Question Hunt

The game consists of picture cards representing different objects or concepts, a sand timer, reward tokens and a question dice (What? When? Where? Why? Who? How?) One player is designated the ‘dealer’ who controls the timer, the reward tokens and the dice. All the question cards are face down on the playing area. The dealer shares with the other players a real problem, challenge, anecdote or experience in up to 3 minutes. The other participants listen carefully and take 3 picture cards. Their task is to look at them and create one open question starting with the dice question word (who, what, when, why, where or how?) and containing one or more words connected with the picture cards they have picked up.

(https://wial.org/products/)

I used these exercises to encourage the members to learn the art of asking effective questions from each other instead of listening to an expert. The exercises helped the group to ask good open questions and to see how questions bring new insights and start to help a group re-connect with each other. The first rounds were a bit awkward and almost everyone in the team were struggling to ask good open questions. However, after three rounds it started to work well, and it became a contest of who was going to get the most points. After the game, I asked the team what they had learned about asking questions – which questions were the most powerful questions and why? The team agreed that the short open questions were the most powerful questions.

Next, we discussed how to give and receive feedback and I re-emphasised the importance of confidentiality. Given the pre-existing poor quality of communication in the team, the first step was to ensure that the action learning process would offer total confidentiality and a safe space for open, honest communication. Some requests that were introduced and highlighted at this point were to respect and actively listen to each other, to lean in and maintain eye contact, and to not interrupt each other. We also agreed not to use mobile phones during the sessions. I noticed that until that point, everyone was using their mobile phone, seemingly preferring to look at them instead of each other. So, that was the first thing they had to let go of to show that they were truly listening, that they cared, and that each member’s voice mattered in this process.

I also introduced them to some generic leadership competencies. All set members were asked to consider what leadership skills they wanted to work on during our time together. We identified and discussed the leadership components that we had chosen to work on and how we might do this within the group.

My observation from facilitating this introductory session was that, in this case, more time was required to build trust within this group and that building a safe environment is dependent on the context in which the action learning is provided. The games contributed significantly to enable the members to open up and start communicating with each other. The facilitation of the games was effective, and I will use these again as a part of an action learning introductory session.

Phase 2 – Action learning sessions
Four action learning sessions of 90 minutes each followed the introduction. I started all four action learning sessions with a ‘sharing’ exercise. The sharing would include what leadership skill(s) participants wanted to work on, how they would like to work on these and how we would know that they are working with it during the session. They also shared with the team how they would work on improving the leadership skills between the sessions. To engage the group, they all needed to draw a card from a deck with different emotions on them and describe their thoughts on it. I then reminded the set about the basics of action learning and how to ask great questions.

In the first action learning session, it was the Director that presented the major problem for the group – that they had very few leads for new business and that at the moment it was only her that worked on this. She expressed that to ‘save’ the agency everyone in the team needed to take responsibility, follow-up leads and bring in new business.

My key learning during the first action learning session was that as a coach I needed to intervene many times to get the whole team to be engaged, to open up and to ask questions. I also observed that one team member was visibly agitated. He was leaning back and crossing his arms, seeming that he had disengaged. The rest of the group appeared to be engaged. As a coach I waited several minutes to see if the group might do something to address this, but they were either unaware or unwilling to speak up. So, I intervened with a simple question: ‘How are we doing as a group, on a scale of 1–10’. The group went around and individually answered this question, all with high scores – 8, 9, 9, 10, 8 – until it was the turn of the disengaged team member who said ‘1’. That allowed for follow-up questions on what they were doing well and what they could be doing better. The participants then continued to engage each other more successfully by asking questions.

Some examples of the questions that I asked as the coach were; Is the quality of the questions good? Are we building on each other’s questions and answers? Can you turn that into a question? How creative are we in our questions? Are we including the whole team?

At the end of the first session, each team member was asked to identify actions they would take to achieve the overall purpose of the action learning programme. They reflected on how they had applied their identified leadership development objectives and received feedback from the other participants and from the coach. A set of actions was agreed for each member, which they would work on before the next action learning session. Again, I asked questions such as: Were you helped/supported during the session and if so, how? How did we do as a team? How could we improve the next session? Which questions were most valuable? What was the most valuable learnings as an individual and as a team how will you apply the learnings?

The format and structure of the other three sessions were the same. As the action learning coach, I observed that the energy level changed as we progressed from the first session to the next and then the next. There was respect towards each other and as a coach I did not need to intervene as many times as I had before. There was a more positive feeling and the team members had more courage to speak up.

Phase 3 – Measuring the outcome
I was keen to measure the outcome of the action learning intervention and developed a self-assessment questionnaire to do this. The members completed the questionnaire at the start of the first action learning session and then again at the end of the last session. The self-assessment was in two parts, the first part focused on how they saw themselves and the second part was about how they viewed the team efforts. The questionnaires were conducted in Survey Monkey anonymously were offered in both English and Thai.

Self-assessment questionnaire to assess individual efforts

(1) Do you perceive yourself as efficient and productive at work?
(2) Do you use your personal leadership and soft skills in your daily work?
Examples of Leaderships and soft skills: communication, creativity, positivity, active listening, asking powerful questions.
(3) Do you perceive yourself as self-confident and assertive?
(4) How do you perceive your problem-solving capability?
(5) How do you perceive your decision-making capability?
(6) Do you perceive yourself as a person with high self-awareness?
(7) Do you perceive yourself adaptable to new things and ideas?
(8) Do you have the courage to speak up?
(9) Do you encourage others to speak up?
(10) Do you perceive yourself as an employee that is engaged and accountable?

Self-assessment questionnaire to assess the team efforts

(1) How do you perceive your team performance at work?
(2) Do you have a positive, mutually respectful working relationship with co-workers at all organizational levels and positions?
(3) How do you perceive your teams problem-solving capability?
(4) How do perceive your teams decision-making capability?
(5) How do you perceive your capability to reflect on and learn from collective experience?
(6) How do you perceive your collaboration skills in your team?

The analysis of the first part showed an increase of 18% across questions between the first session and the last session. Overall, the biggest change was in the increase of the capability of decision-making of individuals. The second set of questions showed an overall 8% increase and the biggest difference in the score was the team’s capability to reflect on and learn from the collective experience. After the last session and the self-assessment evaluation, individual feedback and comments were captured in a video. Some of the feedback included:

‘Teamwork is the heart of a company for success.’

‘I have learned that communication is the key foundation for a successful career.’

‘I have learned and develop my leadership skills.’

‘Action learning is good for building team.’

‘I have been coached for one month and learned a lot how to develop my leadership skills.’

‘I have worked with my leadership skills which you can use in your personal life too.’

‘I have learnt a new way to manage my team, asking question, a new approach and also developed my skill to let go of things that only drain my energy.’

To conclude the programme, I had a follow-up meeting with the Director to discuss the results and talk with her about her learnings, insights, what was good and what could be improved. She said that she had observed some changes in each team member, such as increased self-awareness, individual responsibility and taking action. She also recognised that she acts differently as a leader, asking more questions and thinking differently about her own leadership style. She acknowledged that she had found a different way to work and to run the agency.

My learning as an action learning coach
The Director had clear objectives and was sure about who she wanted to involve in the action learning process. My observation is that within a hierarchical culture, as in this company, having the Director and the General Manager within the action learning set was not ideal and would not be recommended in future. It definitely took longer for the others in the team to open up in front of their bosses. There were also many instances when the Director wanted to take over and lead the process. From this experience, is has become evident that excluding the ‘boss’ and making sure that the team members are in similar roles and positions contributes significantly to creating the safe space required for action learning.

Even though one of the required inclusion criteria was to speak English fluently it was obvious to me during the sessions that speaking a language fluently is highly subjective. The language barrier was certainly an issue and although we started with seven members, only five were able to stay meaningfully engaged in the whole process.

Another required inclusion criteria was that every participant needed to be willing to participate and want to change. One of the two participants affected by the language barrier was also not willing to participate and did not want to make any changes. I observed that the two participants who were disengaged due to language slowed down the exchange within the sessions. Others in the group started to help with translations but the negativity of those less able to speak English seemed emotionally contagious, triggering the rest of the participants’ emotions and behaviours. I saw less energy and more frustrations as a result. Through this experience I realised that if they had not been included from the start, it would probably been a smoother and more effective process. Going forward, I will ensure that this inclusion criteria is firmly adhered to in future sessions.

Finally, there might have been a better outcome if I had a one-to-one coaching session with each participant before the first session. To hear from participants right at the beginning about how they viewed their work situation and what goals they had might have enabled me to bring the team further along in their team development process. Whereas in this case, we were halfway through the action learning process before some of the team members had the courage to speak up ‘for real’.

Conclusion
This account of practice demonstrates positive results in the two self-assessments and the follow-up meeting with the Director. At the individual and team levels, the participants raised their self-awareness, took more ownership in their work and recognised the power of asking great questions to start communicating better. They worked on their leadership skills by reflecting and learning during this process.

At the same time, I also identified areas for improvement in the design of structure and process to result in more effective action learning. My overall learning from using action learning is that the method has many benefits. It enables participants to become more effective communicators, particularly by focusing on the ability to ask open questions and actively listen. Through this reflective process, participants gained more self-awareness and improved their leadership skills. This process also highlighted that the action leaning contributed to better collaboration among the team members as well as supporting them to take decisions to move the business forward. It is a method that gives results but to be effective requires understanding of the ‘real’ problem and engaged participants willing to learn and commit to taking action.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes on contributor
Anna Frummerin is CEO and Co-founder of A New Approach (ANA), a Consulting and Coaching company in Bangkok, Thailand. She specialises in coaching, training, leadership development, sales and marketing. She is also a certified Action Learning Coach. She works with individuals, teams and organisations to enable learning, development and change.

References
Revans, R. W. 1983a. ABC of Action Learning . Bromley : Chartwell-Bratt. [Google Scholar]
Revans, R. W. 1983b. “Action Learning Its Terms and Characters.” Management Decision Journal 21 (1). doi: 10.1108/eb001310 [Crossref], [Google Scholar]

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