Michael J. Marquardt: An interview by Bob Morris

Michael J. Marquardt

Marquardt is a Professor of Human Resource Development and Program Director of Overseas Programs at George Washington University. He also serves as President of the World Institute for Action Learning. He has held a number of senior management, training and marketing positions with organizations such as Grolier, American Society for Training and Development, Association Management Inc., Overseas Education Fund, Trade Tec, and U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He has trained more than 75,000 managers in nearly 100 countries since beginning his international experience in Spain in 1969. Marquardt is the author of 18 books and more than 90 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change. His published works include Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, Building the Learning Organization, The Global Advantage, Action Learning in Action, Global Leaders for the 21st Century, Global Human Resource Development, Technology-Based Learning, Global Teams, and most recently, Leading with Questions.

Note: I conducted this interview a few years ago. Mike’s next book, Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning, will soon be published by Stanford University Press.

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Morris: Please explain what action learning is…and isn’t.

Marquardt: Action learning is a process in which a group is acting and learning simultaneously, and thus improving the quality, speed and power of both the actions and the learning. It has quickly become a powerful organizational tool that simultaneously solves complex problems while developing leaders, teams and organizations.

Morris: Presumably you have frequently encountered what Jeffrey Pfeffer and David Norton characterize as “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” In your opinion, how can this “gap” be avoided or at least diminished?

Marquardt: Too often the knowledge that we have acquired in the academic settings or even in the corporate classroom has little or no relevance to our work. We thus lack the knowledge and skills necessary to actually do our real work. And we are so busy that we do not have the time to learn what will enable us to do our work well and efficiently.  Action learning is a perfect tool to lessen or delete this knowing-doing gap because it creates the necessary knowledge to do the work while the person or group is actually doing the work.

Morris: Many of the best business books were written in response to an especially important question. Is that also true of your two books, Optimizing the Power of Action Learning and Action Learning in Action?

Marquardt: The question I encountered in the workplace was “how can we learn what is essential for succeeding in our work when we lack the resources and time to generate such competencies? My books on action learning were built on the fact that few, if any, organizations understood or knew how to fully capture the power and benefits of action learning.

Morris: By what process should an action learning program be formulated and then implemented?

Marquardt: Based upon my experience and research over the past 10 years with hundreds of organizations, I have discovered that the full power of action learning requires six components.

1. A problem (i.e. project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task) should be significant, urgent, and be the responsibility of the team to solve. It should also provide and opportunity for the group to generate learning opportunities, to build knowledge, and to develop individual, team and organizational skills. Groups may focus on a single problem of the organization or multiple problems introduced by individual group members.

2. An action learning group or team (ideally composed of 4-8 individuals) who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution.  The group should have diversity of background and experience so as to acquire various perspectives and to encourage fresh viewpoints.

3. A process that emphasizes insightful questioning and reflective listening by focusing focusing on the right questions rather than the right answers. Action learning focuses on what one does not know as well as on what one does know. The focus is on questions because great solutions are contained within the seeds of great questions.

4. In order to take action on the given problem, members of the action learning group must have the power to take action themselves or be assured that their recommendations will be implemented, (barring any significant change in the environment or the group’s obvious lack of essential information). If the group only makes recommendations, it looses its energy, creativity and commitment.

5. Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term, multiplier benefit, however, is the learning gained by each group member as well as the group as a whole, and how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization but only if there is a commitment to learning.

6. An action learning coach is necessary for the group to focus on the important (i.e. the learnings) as well as the urgent (resolving the problem). The action learning coach helps the team members reflect both on what they are learning and how they are solving problems.  Through a series of questions, the coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions.

Morris: Based on your extensive experience with all manner of action earning programs, what seems to be the best way to measure their progress?

Marquardt: Unlike most organizational and leadership development programs or tools, action learning is easily and quickly assessed. At the very beginning of an action learning project, clear and measurable objectives are established and specific leadership skills identified. At the end of each action learning session and between sessions, progress in the results and the learnings are assessed.

Morris: In your books on action learning, you identify several critically important functions that an effective action learning program can combine simultaneously. Are all of these functions of equal importance?

Marquardt: The importance of these functions depends upon the organization. For example, in some organizations, changing the organizational culture may be most important; in others it may be developing leaders or building teams. What action learning recognizes is that all must be done simultaneously, and that developing one cannot be truly implemented unless the other four areas are not also developed. Solving an organizational problem inherently requires a change in the leadership and the organization for it to be implemented. Most problems require a team to implement.

Morris: How does Optimizing the Power of Action Learning differ from your earlier work, Action Learning in Action?

Marquardt: During the five years after writing Action Learning in Action, two aspects of action learning kept emerging as critical for making action learning a successful activity; namely, the importance of questions and the role of the action learning coach. Based upon these experiences and insights, I added two ground rules for action learning: (1) statements can be made only in response to questions and (2) the action learning coach has the power to intervene whenever he/she sees a learning opportunity.  Allow me to expand on each of these:

With regard to the first, because questions provide so many benefits, this rule assists all the group members to make the important transition from advocacy to inquiry. It does not prohibit the use of statements; as a matter of fact, there may still be more statements than questions during the action learning meetings since every question asked may generate one or more responses to that question from each of the other members of the group, or up to 5-10 statements per questions.

When following the second rule, the action learning coach focuses all of his energy and attention on helping the group learn; he is not involved in working on the problem. The well-known axiom of how the “urgent drowns out the important” (also called the “tyranny of the urgent”) underscores the necessity of assuring that the important tasks will not be forgotten or neglected. Accordingly, if power is not provided to the person who is focusing on the learning, the urgency of the problem will always win out over the importance of the learning. To assure that learning is maximized for the group, the action learning coach must have the power to intervene whenever she believes there is an opportunity for the group to learn, to improve upon what it is not going well, and to continue behaviors that are conducive to solving the problem.

Once a group has been in action learning for a short time, the group members truly appreciate these two ground rules and quickly recognize the enormous benefit they provide to the group as they enhance and expand the power of action learning.

Morris: Two separate but related questions: what are the primary methods by which to solve problems, and, how to select the one that is most appropriate to a given situation?

Marquardt: The most important aspect of solving problems is to be sure that you are working on the right problem – the real problem and not the symptom, the problem that — if solved — will solve many other problems. In action learning, the continuous questioning and challenging of assumptions assures that the group will isolate the key problem.  Once the problem has been properly identified, there are innumerable methods and strategies to solve them, and the one chosen would depend on the problem, the situation, the context, etc.

Morris: Please describe the ideal action learning coach.

Marquardt: There are a number of important skills, values and attributes that will enable the action learning coach to be successful.  Let’s briefly examine each of them.

1. The key skill of the action learning coach is the ability to ask good questions initially, and especially follow-up questions.  She should be able to ask questions that make people think and feel challenged; the questions should be supportive and positive rather than critical.  In order to consistently ask good questions, the action learning coach needs to have a strong and sincere belief in the power of questions and the critical role of action learning coach in asking questions.

2. Asking questions is not always easy, especially the tough follow-up questions or questions that require deep and intensive soul searching.  The action learning coach needs to be courageous and authentic, be strong and not intimidated by the rank or expertise or character of the person to whom the question is posed.

3. Finding the ideal time for intervening is an art for the action learning coach. If he intervenes too early, there may be insufficient experience for the group or individual to have sufficient data to adequately respond, and thus there may be a missed opportunity for understanding.  If the intervention is too late, there may be missed opportunity for learning as well as a frustration on the part of the participants that the group is struggling too long.

4. It is important that the coach has confidence in his role as an action learning coach, and demonstrates this confidence by his relaxed belief in the action learning process and that the group will be successful. The coach should believe that everyone in the group has necessary abilities to solve the problem; and his job is to merely bring out and capitalize on these strengths.

5. Successful action learning coaches need to possess strong listening skills. They should bee able to hear what is not said as well as what is said. Careful observation and good note taking allows them to be in tune with who is saying what, how, when and to whom. Active listening requires a great deal of attention.  This strong listening enables him to acquire a “helicopter-type” perspective and holistic view.  They must be able to stand apart from the problem and focus on the development of the group.

6. Action learning coaches must be eager to see people learn.  As tempting as it may be to do otherwise during the action learning sessions, he focuses on the learning, not on the issue or problem being discussed.  He understands and appreciates how adults learn and sees learning as a way of life. And he recognizes that learners can only learn for themselves.

7. The action learning coach respects each person and has a concern for the well-being of all members.  He wants them to succeed with the project and to learn from so doing. His ability to empathize and be supportive is very important. He should see members as curious and thoughtful about the problem and about each other. These attitudes generate more trust toward him as well as each other as well as more openness among the group members.

8. Self-awareness and self-confidence

The action learning coach needs be cognizant of his strengths and limitations.  His self-confidence enables him to be authentic and resilient. His humility demonstrates himself as someone who is still willing and able to learn. He should want to be seen as someone who can be trusted, who can handle rivalries, distrust, and anger.

Morris: Now let’s discuss Leading with Questions. Please explain why asking questions is “the ultimate leadership tool.”

Marquardt: I firmly believe that great leaders are those who ask great questions. Questions have tremendous power and can accomplish an amazing array of results that benefit individuals, groups and organizations. They have an innate power to initiate action, be it mental or physical. Questions focus and direct attention and energy. Of course, questions can elicit information, but they can also do much more.  Great leaders use questions to encourage full participation and teamwork, to spur innovation and outside-the-box thinking, to empower others, to build relationships with customers and to solve problems.  Questions improve the quality of decisions made by the leader and their organizations. They generate dialogue and critical thinking and help develop organizational vision, values and culture. Over time, they can also facilitate organizational change and action.

Morris: What is your opinion of “fishboning” which involves relentlessly asking questions which begin with “Why…” or “How…” or “Why not…” until the causes of root problems are eventually identified?

Marquardt: Asking questions until you get to the root cause or root problem is critical.  Otherwise, we end up solving the wrong problem, or solving it only on a temporary basis and perhaps creating an even greater problem. Requiring people to keep on questioning, as I do in action learning, helps people to develop greater competence and confidence in their questioning skills.

Morris: In the final chapter, you suggest that leaders who lead with questions “will create a more humane workplace as well as a more successful business.” How so “humane”?

Marquardt: Asking great questions requires an openness and respect of the person being questioned. If you do not care about the other person, you will never be able to effectively ask that person questions that will elicit great ideas or cause that person to change. In addition, leaders who lead with questions create an environment in which everyone is learning, contributing, and excited about the workplace. Questioning leaders create learning organizations that bring out the best in everyone.

Morris: Here’s a final question, one you’re probably asked countless times. In years to come, will the most effective leaders continue to be those who ask the best questions? If so, why?

Marquardt: Yes, future leaders will be those who know when and how to ask questions. Organizations will need to continue to change and learn ever more rapidly. Questions increase individual, team and organizational learning, build powerful teams, enhance critical thinking, and develop oneself as a leader. Questions energize people; they prompt new ideas.  They show people new ways of doing things. A vital question from a leader rivets our attention. Questions open us to new worlds.

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Mike cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:








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