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Yakkety-Yak, Don’t Talk Back: The secret to solving problems


Rhea Zakich, a young mother from Garden Grove, California, was unable to speak for several months after her doctor found polyps on her vocal cords. During her recovery period, she was afraid that the polyps might return. Worse, due to her inability to talk, she feared emotional estrangement from her family. It dawned on her during this time that “we all spend so much time talking…but we never really communicate.”

As a remedy, she decided to write down on paper cards a number of questions that she wanted to ask her husband and children. Before long, with nearly 200 cards on her hands, she realized that she could turn them into a board game.

So she played it with her family, and the results were surprising: her husband revealed for the first time how frightened her illness made him; her son, a bright student, expressed how he hated the constant pressure to perform well in school; the other son talked about how his brother’s constant teasing hurt him. At the end of the game, her husband said: “I’ve learned more about all of you in these twenty minutes than in the past five years.”

Several years ago, I played “The Ungame” and it was a genuine revelation. You had to think very carefully before you asked a question and that in itself was an eye-opener.

You see people like to talk, and mainly about themselves. A quick scan of Twitter shows that not only do people like to talk about themselves, but they like to appear wise and they want to be an expert.

So what? Well here’s the thing. When you have a problem, what do you do? One my friends believes “a problem shared is a problem doubled”. However, he’s in the minority. Most of the time when we have problem, we seek the counsel of others. You probably have an idea how to handle it, but you’re not sure if it’s the right way. So you chat to your peers and your manager and what happens? “Oh, I know exactly what’s happening there,” they say. “What you need to do is this…” It’s in our nature to want to provide answers. Some people are more forthcoming than others but essentially, everyone’s got an opinion.

The thing is though, they don’t know the whole story and they see things from their perspective not yours. Not only that, but their solutions are based on their experience, their skills and their context. So, when people say “If I were you….” what they really mean is “If you were me…” To fix your problem, you need to find a solution that will work for you. But how can you find solutions when the problem seems too complex to even define?

Ever heard of Action Learning? It’s an incredibly simple and powerful process. Notice I said “simple” not “easy”. It’s a challenging process but an incredibly motivating experience for anyone that takes part. Here’s what happens. The “set” is made up of 6-8 members, all of whom have a specific business problem. During the session, each person will take it in turn to work on their problem. When working on their problem (or “issue” – the name doesn’t really matter) they are known as the Problem Bringer and they sit in the hot seat (a bit like MasterMind, but without John Humphrys).

> The process looks like this

They take the floor and outline the problem they’re having. That’s the Introduction stage. Next comes the exploration stage. This is where the other set members (all sitting in a horseshoe around the Problem Bringer) ask probing questions in order to get to get a clear view of what the problem is. You see the problem you think you have may not be the real problem. It may be a deeper problem, or it may be a complete different problem all together! And the problem is, you can’t solve a problem unless you know what the problem is!

So once the Problem Bringer has thoroughly digested the questions and responded carefully, he or she comes to define the problem as they now perceive it. Then comes the meatiest part of the session – the Consultation stage – where the enablers ask questions of the Problem Bringer to help them generate solutions. This is where the “experts” have a challenge on their hands. You see the presupposition behind Action Learning is that the Problem Bringer is the ultimate expert in that problem, not the other set members (called Enablers). In the consulting stage – in fact throughout all the stages – the Enablers are only permitted to ask questions. They’re not allowed to tell you what to do. Trust me, it’s hard work! Questions in this stage will help the problem bringer unpack their problem, force them to look at the problem from differing perspectives, challenge their thinking and stimulate new insights, ideas to unlock a way forward. You can probably see now why the chair the problem bringer sits in is known as ‘the hot seat’!

The final stage – Action - where the Problem Bringer sums up what they are now thinking as a result of the questions they’ve been asked and commits to actions that they will take to tackle their problem.

As members become more fluent in Action Learning, their sense of empowerment is extraordinary. Think about the rules.

1. You bring the problem

2. You define the problem

3. You decide the best solution

4. You take the necessary actions

No one else can you tell you how to solve your problem – the responsibility is all yours. What’s great, however, is that your team mates help you work through the process by asking objective, challenging questions – questions you may be afraid to ask yourself.

Simon Leckie, Development Consultant for LSN, calls Action Learning “the best kept leadership development secret”. Why? First, it massively boosts the confidence of leaders in terms of their skills, expertise and the ability to solve complex problems. Secondly, it boosts teamwork, bringing together individuals from a range of business areas. LSN even facilitate Global Action Learning, in which the set is made up of delegates from different companies. Thirdly, it sets in place an ongoing process – which can be facilitated with your own internal resources – building confidence and ability through ownership.

Action Learning is an amazing tool and incredibly easy to use. All you need is a room, some chairs, a flip chart and a facilitator. The challenging part is for the Enablers to listen and question. Master that, and your biggest problems will quickly become your greatest opportunities.

Jez Fernandez

One Response

  1. Multicoaching?

    I’ve been hearing a bit about action learning and really like the concept – seems very much based on the underpinning theory of Coaching that the individual has the solution already, but just needs a Coach/Enablers to help unlock this.

    And I would definitely agree that the most difficult (and often frustrating) part is not being able to ‘send’ solutions, as we’re all know-it-alls at heart!!!

    Great article, thanks!

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