I often mention Action Research and a great book – David Coghlan, Teresa Brannick, “Doing Action Research In Your Own Organization”, 2nd edition. This book was written by scientists for scientists and I totally understand its complexity for an ordinary reader. I worked for full 5 years in a science lab and I still had hard times reading it 🙂
Here I will try to develop a short practical guide to this methodology, not getting too deep into theoretical and technical details of the origin. Given that Action Research is a purely practical methodology, I hope that it will be enough for you to get started.
A word of warning in advance: although Action Research as a methodology is universal and can be applied in a wide variety of niches (academic AR in education and science, Agile in software development, Ray Dalio’s Principles in finance, After Action Review in the US Army, etc.), its specific implementations should be limited by the context of its application and can’t be used as a source of facts and methods for other applications. In my opinion, Ray Dalio was wrong when trying to push his own implementation of Action Research in finance for non-financial applications. In his business right decisions are at the core, while startup founders perfectly know that execution is what really matters.
In Action Research, you start with a simple universal “skeleton”, then gradually cover it with the “meat” of your industry, expertise and practice, without even trying to draw any universal conclusions. And, whenever you are going into the next niche, you better start from scratch rather than reuse pieces from the old one. It’s the only way to get the highest possible effectiveness for this specific context.
Action Research is about learning in action, not about learning first, then practicing next. The subject becomes a researcher of the process of doing his own work duties and himself as a worker in this context. We must research ourselves and our work, not the work of others. Unlike a third-party business consultant, who does not fully understand the specifics of a particular business, the “insider” has all the information and expertise required, he can quickly use results of his own learning, not pushing them for weeks through the filters of bureaucracy.
If someone offers to implement Action Research in an organization as an outsider, he will unlikely succeed. The only effective way to implement AR is to communicate its importance to employees, lead by your own example and hope that at least some of them will take it seriously and begin to follow the methodology. In established hierarchical structures, such changes can cause resistance, up to “arrows in the back” of “the smartest”.
Methodology results will entirely depend on the level of its implementation, of course. You will get the most out of it at the executive level, while at the lower levels it can be even harmful, since people in this position do not always have all the pieces of the puzzle. Although, if they succeed, the company will get a chance to become the true leader in any market.
While the stated goal of the methodology is to improve the performance of a particular business process, in reality it turns out into a rapid personal evolution of the subject, going far beyond the boundaries of work or the business in general. The person starts with a desire to improve the organization, but gets much more for himself in terms of personal evolution in the long run.
When we conduct any type of research inside our organizations, we get reports, figures, graphs and plans, which are purely theoretical in their nature. When using AR, we focus on practice from the very beginning. The practice leads the research, not vice verse. The end result, starting from day one, looks like a continuous increase in the effectiveness (what?) and efficiency (how?) of our work in real time. The formal/bureaucratic component of AR is minimal and can be expressed by about a dozen questions that we need to answer deeply and thoughtfully for oneself, not for the manager or somebody else.
I don’t recommend to read or even collect employee reports, because reflection (an attempt to understand oneself deeper) is an intimate process. It is unlikely that the subject will fully open up in front of his friends, let alone the manager. The methodology will be useless without reflection, since the source of our critical mistakes are hidden deep inside our beliefs and delusions. Employees should be motivated and directed, not pushed, controlled or forced. Without intrinsic motivation, there will be no tangible results.
The key factor of the effectiveness of the methodology is the speed of evolution. If we analyze our results once a month, we will grow 30 times slower than with daily analysis. Therefore, short one-day cycles enable us to quickly accumulate and analyze practical experience, while slightly longer cycles of the upper levels will control the strategy. The topmost cycle is the process of learning and practicing AR, it monitors effectiveness of the methodology itself and continuously improves its implementation.
The entire methodology is about changes, not about goals. That is, each project of both lower and upper levels is determined by the type of change we need. Directions of our evolution, not any particular end points. If something cannot be expressed in terms of a specific change, it just means that we are either trying to load too much into a single project, or we just don’t understand what do we actually want.
Next chapter: Defining Changes.