Michael Marquardt, Second Interview, by Bob Morris

Michael Marquardt is Professor of Human Resource Development and International Affairs at George Washington University. Mike also serves as President of the World Institute for Action Learning. He has held a number of senior management, training and marketing positions and has trained managers in over 100 countries since beginning his international experience in Spain in 1969. Consulting assignments have included Marriott, Microsoft, Motorola, Nortel, Alcoa, Boeing, Caterpillar, United Nations Development Program, Xerox, and Nokia as well as the governments of Indonesia, Laos, Ethiopia, Zambia, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Jamaica, Honduras, and Swaziland.

Mike is the author of 24 books and more than 100 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change including Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, Leading with Questions, Building the Learning Organization (selected as Book of the Year by the Academy of HRD), Action Learning in Action, Global Leaders for the 21st Century, and Global Teams. More than one million copies of his publications have been sold in nearly a dozen languages worldwide.  His latest book, Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning: Concepts and Cases, was co-authored with Roland K. Yeo and published by Stanford University Press (2012). He has received honorary doctoral degrees from universities in Europe, Asia and North America for his work and writings in the field of action learning and leadership development

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Morris: Before discussing Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Marquardt: My mother certainly had a great influence on my love of learning, my joy in asking questions, and my commitment to making the world a better place for others. No one in any part of our family had ever gone to college, and yet my mother pushed us all to get a college education – 3 of her children got doctoral degrees and 3 obtained Masters Degrees. Whenever we came back from college to our family farm, she would ask about everything we learned. We used to feel sorry for the person sitting next to her on an airplane as she would spend the entire flight asking about everything that person knew. And she wanted us to get into professions that helped others – 2 of my sisters are nurses, another sister was a social worker. One of my brothers ended up being a doctor and the other one is a fellow professor.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Marquardt: I would say Len Nadler and Reg Revans. Len Nadler, my professor at George Washington University, is considered the Father of Human Resource Development (HRD) and inspired me to do global HRD work. Reg Revans, considered the Father of Action Learning, inspired me to make action learning the passion of my life.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Marquardt: After 20 years of global work with a number of government agencies and global companies, I became a professor at George Washington University in 1994. The first course I was asked to teach was “Action Learning” as the position I was filling had taught this course before she retired. I did not even know what action learning was, and yet I needed to prepare and deliver this course to 25 senior executive who were part of GWU’s  Doctoral Executive Leadership Program. With some trepidation, I prepared the course as well as I could – using the existing syllabus and a Revans textbook. I created 5 teams of 5 students, and asked each team to identify a problem in one of their organizations which they were to solve during the semester. Fortunately, the course turned out well for the students, but I quickly became convinced that action learning was the greatest problem-solving and leadership development tool out there, better than anything I had seen in my previous 20 years of using scores of different tools for training leaders or developing organizations. I have become a devoted advocate and practitioner of action learning ever since.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Marquardt: I believe all of my formal education has enabled me to understand and appreciate action learning, as action learning is built on a wide array of disciplines that are integrated and generate its power. Thus, my undergraduate degree and studies in philosophy and economics, my master’s degree in education and group dynamics, and my doctorate in HRD that included psychology, management science and adult learning have all been valuable in re-creating action learning.

Morris: Briefly, what are the core principles of action learning?

Marquardt: Simply described, action learning is a dynamic process that involves a small group of people solving real problems, while at the same time focusing on what they are learning and how their learning can better solve the problem, develop leadership skills, build the team and change the organization.

Action learning program derives its power and benefits from six interactive and interdependent components. The strength and success of action learning is built upon how well these elements are employed and reinforced.

1. A problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)

Action learning centers around a problem (be it a project, a challenge, an issue, or task), the resolution of which is of high importance to an individual, team and/or organization.  The problem should be significant, be within the responsibility of the team, and provide opportunity for learning.  Why is the selection of the problem so important? Because it is one of the fundamental beliefs of action learning that we learn best when undertaking some action, which we then reflect upon and learn from.  The main reason for having a problem or project is that it gives the group something to focus on that is real and important, that is relevant and means something to them.  It creates a “hook” on which to test stored-up knowledge.

2. An action learning group or team

The core entity in action learning is the action learning group (also called a set or team). The group is composed of 4-8 individuals who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution.  Ideally, the make-up of the group is diverse so as to maximize various perspectives and to obtain fresh viewpoints.

3. A process that emphasizes insightful questioning and reflective listening

By 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.  Action learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action.

4. A requirement of taking action

For action learning advocates, there is no real learning unless action is taken, for one is never sure the idea or plan will be effective until it has been implemented. Therefore 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).

5. A commitment to learning

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 members and how the group’s learnings can be applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization. The learning that occurs in action learning has greater value strategically for the organization than the immediate tactical advantage of early problem correction.  Action learning places equal emphasis on the learning/development of individuals the team and organizations as it does on solving problems and developing successful action strategies.

6. Action learning coach

Coaching is necessary for the group to focus on the important (i.e., the learnings) as well as the urgent (i.e., resolving the problem). The action learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. Through selective interventions and insightful questions, the coach enables group members to improve their performance and develop their leadership skills. The learning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between action learning and other approaches to education?

Marquardt: Almost all education and training, be it in academic or corporate environments is built around the premise of “learning how to act.” Thus, the teacher or expert provides the knowledge and demonstrates the skills that you then attempt to apply. Action learning is just the opposite; in action learning, you “act your way into learning.” It is the way we all learn as infants when we learn how to walk and to talk. No one teaches a child how to walk or talk. Rather, they action learn. Every action, be it a sound or movement, is subconsciously or consciously reflected on (e.g., is this sound working? Is this movement getting me closer to walking?) Every child, unless suffering some handicap become a fluent speaker and a fluid walker within 2 years. Most educators would say that the first 2 years of life are the fastest and best years of learning for any individual. Why because they are acting their way into learning. If we were to seek to deliberately teach an infant how to talk or to walk, we would “screw them up” and they would end up taking much longer to talk and walk more poorly. Action Learning recognizes that all skills ( be it golfing, parenting, teaching, leading, or whatever) are based upon the principles of action learning. You can only become a golfer by hitting the ball, reflecting and getting feedback. Hundreds of hours of lectures or videos will never lead to becoming a skilled golfer. One becomes a problem-solver by solving problems. A team becomes a great team by acting its way into cohesive and productive teamwork, not by being told what to be or do in advance.

Morris: I am deeply grateful to Howard Gardner for all that I have learned from him about multiple intelligences, such as Spatial, Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Bodily kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalistic. Here’s my question: Can any of these intelligences be combined with action learning to resolve especially complex questions or problems? Please explain.

Marquardt:  As I mentioned in my previous response, action learning is the process of developing a skill while in or after the action. Thus, every form of intelligence is needed, and can be valuable as individuals and the group solves problems.

Morris: Recent research in various neurosciences suggests that emotions have much greater influence during the decision-making process than was previously assumed? Your own thoughts about that?

Marquardt: Daniel Kahneman, in his recent best seller, Thinking Fast and Slow, describes in wonderful detail with numerous examples of how one emotions and subconscious influence how we think and act. Thus, action learning, especially through the questions of the coach, creates an environment which is positive and supportive, in which team members are respected and allowed to contribute, in which leadership skills are identified and nourished. Teams in which members care about each other and have positive self-regard will always outperform groups in which members do not like or support each other.

Morris: Here’d a follow-up question: In your opinion, to what extent does the subconscious mind influence decision making?

Marquardt: Tremendously. The subconscious can handle much more complexity and operate continuously; thus not to use the subconscious would be to lose 50-70% of the group’s potential. Man of the questions of the action learning coach go deep into the subconscious of the group members and enable them to tap into that resource continuously throughout the action learning session.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics]. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Marquardt: The difficult, urgent problems faced by today’s organizations are too complex to be understood, much less solved, by a single person or a typical problem-solving group. Only a team which is continuously learning while it is understanding and solving the problem can possible develop a strategy that is sustainable, effective, and incorporates the entire system of the problem and the entire system of the strategy.

Morris: Looking ahead, in which areas of additional research on action learning do you expect there to be the most significant breakthroughs? Please explain.

Marquardt: Action learning has unlimited potential as it is built on many different disciplines (economics, education, physics, mathematics, ethics, management science, political science, engineering, psychology, and others) and occurs in great complexity (a group of people attempting to solve a complex problem in a creative way). As a result, I expect that we will continue to increase the power and speed of action learning as we gain greater understanding of how these different disciplines can be applied to action learning. For example, gaining a greater understanding of the power of the subconscious, of the processes and systems in problems solving, the power of integrating diversity, etc.

Understanding the subconscious. – Think fast and slow – points out power of priming, etc.

Morris: Also looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Marquardt: The greatest challenge for CEO’s will remain the problems their organizations need to solve. However, tomorrow’s problems will be even more complex and will need to be solved in shorter periods of time. Action learning teams will be the only entities smart enough to meet these challenges.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning. When and why did you and Roland decide to write it and do so in collaboration?

Marquardt: The acquisition editor at Stanford University Press approached me two years ago and asked me to write a book for them, and I naturally I decided that I wished to write another book on action learning, specifically in the area of problem solving as that was an area in which little research or writing had been done. Roland and I have done and number of articles together and enjoyed working with each other, and recognized that our different experiences and differing styles of writing could lead to a great book.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Marquardt: We did decide that we would be open to what the research showed, to be open to discovering new ways in which action learning solved problems. What was probably most revelatory for us was the power and benefit of an action learning coach, the importance of the mindset of group members, and the criticality of support from top leadership for the group and in implementing its solutions.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Marquardt: We included many more case studies as action learning practitioners from around the world were eager to share their success stories.

Morris: Until reading this book, I was unaware of the work of Reg Revans (1907-2003). In your opinion, what is his relevance to development of the action learning concept?

Marquardt: Reg is considered by many as the Father of action learning. He was the one who developed the basic concepts (a) having people involved in the problem solve it rather than outside experts, (b) focusing on questions and what is not known rather than answers and past solutions, and (c) the importance of humility and openness when solving problems.

Morris: Why specifically is action learning preferable when the objective is to solve especially complex business problems?

Marquardt: The more complex a problem is, the less valuable is expertise and the more valuable is diversity in solving it. The more complex the problem, the more likely the group cannot solve it with the knowledge and skills they bring into the group, and the greater criticality of improving the knowledge and skills of the members while solving it. Only action learning groups learn as well as act, and thus only action learning groups can solve truly complex problems in as sustainable, systematic and efficient manner.

Morris: I agree that problems for all organizations in the 21st century are unique to the times and much more complicated than ever before. How do you explain that?

Marquardt: The 21st century environment is much more complex because of technology, speed, customer awareness and demands, diversity, and global competition.

Morris: What are the greatest challenges that this complexity poses for business leaders, especially CEOs and their C-level associates?

Marquardt: CEOs and C-level associates may foolishly believe that they have the ability to fully understand the complexity of a problem, and not recognize that only a diverse group with different perspectives can begin to see the whole system and thereby begin to understand and develop appropriate strategies and actions.

Morris: What are the primary options that these leaders have when deciding how to respond to the challenges? Which do you prefer? Why?

Marquardt: Great leaders recognize that they can no longer do it by themselves, and through demonstrating humility and openness, they seek the assistance of an action learning group.

Morris: How specifically can action learning expedite problem solving?

Marquardt: Action learning groups recognize that understanding the problem and reaching a clear perception of the root problem is essential to ultimate success. Thus action learning groups begin with questions to each other so as to gain a complete awareness of the true problem. In that search to clarify the problem, the subconscious is creatively beginning to identify potential strategies. As the diverse group members ask each other questions, they creatively and systematically challenge each other’s assumptions and begin developing breakthrough strategies.

Morris: You and Roland identify and discuss “Ten Central Principles for Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning.” Which seems to be the most difficult for most business leaders to follow?

Marquardt: It is difficult for leaders to (a) share their problems (fear that they would not be seen as competent) and (b) trust and empower a group to develop strategies that they might not agree with.

Morris: You and he provide 31 action learning mini-case studies. By which criteria were they selected?

Marquardt: Of course, we first sought cases in which the action learning group came up with breakthrough strategies. But we also wanted cases that came from every type of industry and from every part of the world so as to provide interesting stories, but also to demonstrate that action learning can solve any type of problem for any type of organization and any part of the world.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of the leadership described in these cases that was needed to achieve the given objectives?

Marquardt: Leaders who are humble, trust others, are committed to learning and helping those around them to learn, are willing to take risks, and seek great successes – these are the leaders who most likely to encourage, support, and reap the benefits of action learning.

Morris: In Chapter 8, you and Roland explain how four organizations (i.e. Panasonic, National Bank of Dominica, Anglo American Mining, and Union Church Hong Kong) “changed their corporate cultures and ethical practices by incorporating action learning.” Here’s my question: What lessons can be learned from their initiatives that will be most valuable to almost any other organization, whatever its size and nature may be?

Marquardt: These cultures were cultures which either already encouraged learning or, as a result of action learning, became a culture that encouraged learning. For action learning to work in an organization, the culture must be or become one in which learning is part of the culture, be it at the individual or group level. Leaders and staff are rewarded for their own learning and for the learning opportunities they create for others.

Morris: Bullying has become a [begin italics] major [end italics] problem in the workplace. In your opinion, how specifically can action learning help to alleviate – if not eliminate – that problem?

Marquardt: In my form of action learning, there is one simple ground rule: “Statements can be made only in response to questions.” This simple norm is the most positive, powerful norm for groups anywhere, and prevents bullies from bullying. Another element that decreases negative behavior in my action learning groups is the formal incorporation of leadership development. At the beginning of the action learning session, each person identifies the leadership skill that he/she would like to develop. At the end of the session, group members are asked to provide examples of how each person did on their chosen leadership skill. Wanting to get “good” feedback from other group members consciously and subconsciously causes us to behave in a more positive way. Finally, the action learning coach has the power and responsibility to handle any behavior that prevents the group from a high level of performance.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning, please explain how action learning comprises the values and basic business philosophy (BBP) of Panasonic’s founder, Konosuke Matsushita.

Marquardt: Mr. Mathushita was a remarkable leader who believed that the most important role of a leader was to continuously learn, and to help everyone around him to continuously learn. He believed that success would be attained when people cared about each other. For him, high performing work teams were essential for corporate success.

Morris: How specifically can action learning help to improve talent management?

Marquardt: Action learning teams can creatively and successfully develop (a) great strategies for selection of staff, (b) great strategies for developing staff through continuous learning within and outside of action learning groups, and (c) great strategies for capturing the ideas and ongoing support of staff leaving the organization.

Morris: What are the most valuable lessons to be learned from the initiatives of the Global Leadership Program described in Chapter 9?

Marquardt: Microsoft recognized the importance of developing and utilizing internal action learning coaches as well as creating a culture of action learning in which managers would use action learning whenever they had complex problems or whenever they wished to develop leadership skills.

Morris: Insofar as action learning is concerned, what is a “virtual setting” and what are its potential significance and benefits?

Marquardt: It is a fact of life that more and more organizations must use virtual teams need to accomplish the work of the organization, and that these virtual teams must be as effective and efficient and the face-to-face teams. Action learning can work equally well with virtual teams so that they become capable and comfortable in solving complex problems across space and time.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you and Roland provide in Breakthrough Problem Solving with Action Learning, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?

Marquardt: Organizations do not need to be large or powerful to use action learning. Action learning can help small companies successfully compete with the big boys as it will provide the innovation and speed and efficiency to provide competitive advantage over organizations with more money and resources. The humility, willingness to take risks, the recognition that becoming smarter is necessary are more likely to exist in smaller organizations, and thus their willingness to tap the amazing power of action learning.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Marquardt: You have already posed so many great questions, I really can’t think of another, at least at this moment.

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

To check out his faculty page at GWU’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, please click here.

To learn more about the World Institute for Action Learning, please click here.

For Mike’s Amazon page, please click here.

To watch a video, please click here.

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1 Comment

  1. Pi-Chi Han on May 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Dear Mike,

    Thanks for sharing this with me. I have learned a lot from the interview.

    I hope you still remeber me. I am teaching in University of Missouri-St. Louis. My research has been in exploring /developing intercultural effectivenesss (ICE)competencies for various groups. I have built up a five-competence model for ICE. Also I have developed an integrative ICE model for helping HRD practices.
    Recently I have added Confucianism leadership to enrich the literature with non-western philosophical foundatiuon to develop global leaders.
    I look forward to meeting you in the near future.

    Always respectfully,

    Pi-Chi Han
    assistant professor
    Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
    University of Missouri-St. Louis

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