I often mention Action Research and a brilliant book – David Coghlan, Teresa Brannick, “Doing Action Research In Your Own Organization”, 2nd edition. It’s packed with scientific terminology, 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 approach, I hope that it will be enough for you to get started.
A word of warning: although Action Research is universal (the most popular use cases are academic Action Research in education and science, Agile/Scrum in software development, Ray Dalio’s Principles in finance, After Action Review in the US Army, etc.), its specific implementations are limited by the context of its application and should not be used as a source of facts and methods for other applications.
I think 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 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. 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 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 himself 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 to 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 follow the methodology. In established hierarchical structures, such changes can cause resistance, up to “arrows in the back” of “the smartest”.
Its 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 become the true leader in any market.
While the stated goal of the method 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. 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 convenient researches in 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 result, starting from day one, looks like a continuous increase in the effectiveness (what?) and efficiency (how?) of our work. The formal/bureaucratic component of AR is minimal: just a dozen of questions that we need to answer deeply and thoughtfully for oneself, not for the manager or somebody else.
I don’t recommend reading or even collecting 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 is deep inside our beliefs and delusions. We should motivate and direct employees should, not push, control or force them. 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 accumulate and analyze practical experience, while slightly longer cycles of the upper levels will control the strategy. The topmost cycle is learning and practicing AR, it monitors effectiveness of the methodology itself and continuously improves its implementation.
It’s all about changes, not goals. Each project of both lower and upper levels focuses on a particular change we need. Directions of our evolution, not any particular end points. If we can’t express something in terms of a specific change, it just means that we are trying to load too much into a single project, or we just don’t understand what do we really want.
Next chapter: Defining Changes.