Action Research: Defining Changes

In the introduction to Action Research, I talked a little about the basics and mentioned that the methodology is about changes, particular goals. Not only processes will change, but people, since the root causes of most problems are deep within us.

“If you kick the butt of your biggest enemy, you won’t be able to sit for a week.”

It’s really important: when working according to Action Research, the subject himself must want to change because of deeper understanding of his typical problems, mistakes and their true causes. The methodology is highly effective not because of increased efficiency (how to do?), but because of higher effectiveness (what to do?). If you look for the most effective ways to invest your time, effort and resources, “how” will no longer matter, it will come naturally with experience.

Rapid evolution doesn’t occur because of faster movement towards a pre-defined target, but because of constant evolution of targets, with their continuous adjustments in accordance to the response from the actual world. Making right decisions under pressure, searching for and combating one’s own delusions, openness to information from the outside world – all of that requires not only deep understanding of the importance of the issue but also long and painful experience. It’s easy to say to yourself, “I’ve already learned to understand others, let’s move further” but it’s much more difficult to do in reality.

So, you need to understand from the very beginning that our goal is to become better by ourselves and change some processes in the company that we consider important. And, if we think deeper about the change, it will be even easier to define the boundaries of projects than if we set ourselves a distant and not very specific goal.

The major problem with goal-setting is that we can’t predict the future when we have limited or invalid information at the beginning. It may seem to us that some goal or a way to it is important and correct. But, immediately after we make our first steps and get first feedback from the market, we may get an urge to change the goal or build another path to it. And, if we do not want to change, trying to “save” efforts and time we have already invested, we will continue to run into the wrong direction.

So the first thing we need to do is to identify the most important changes at the moment. We cannot run in multiple directions, so we must make a hard choice. Prioritizing in which direction we want to move in the first place is more important than the movement itself. If we choose a wrong direction, if we pursue other people’s goals, we will fall out of the race because of the loss of motivation long before getting first positive results.

Therefore, any project of change begins with a deep analysis of both the direction of movement and the actual reasons and consequences of this choice. If you are lazy to do this, you can stop reading further. As Lewis Carroll once said:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Here you will need to answer just a few questions, but do it without haste, thinking deeply about your answers and trying to stress-test them both independently and with the help of friends, relatives, acquaintances and colleagues. Or, at least, google for your decision and listen to the experience of older people.

At this stage, I guarantee, your initial idea will develop, and all the perspectives and limitations will become clear. Do not hope that you can this work once and then forget. In reality, finding your goals can take several weeks or even months. You will never be sure you are moving into the right direction, but it will still become better and better with each iteration.

But this does not mean that all this time you need to “think”. It’s opposite: the most useful information comes only with practice, so this evolution will occur in parallel with your work. You just need to give yourself the right to change directions along the way. This is the essence of evolution.

“Innovation is not fashionable and youthful technologies, but the number of sacred cows that will have to be slaughtered in the course of”

Ichak Adizes

I organized an “archive” in which all abandoned projects go. It is already larger than the number of active projects. Yes, these were my personal mistakes, but this is just evolution, where dead-end branches die off as we get more information from the market and update our goals and approaches. But as they die, they still provide valuable information and experience.

Making hard mistakes is an inevitable part of the learning process, and if it is still difficult to look for and admit your mistakes, I recommend googling for the “levels of taking responsibility”. The easier it is to admit that you are wrong, the faster and easier it will be to learn. Over-optimism and forgiveness are also far from the desired level.

Now let’s look at the questions that we need to answer thoughtfully and honestly:

What exactly do we want to change, and why?

Here you need to describe in few sentences the essence of the desired change and just as briefly the reasons for this change. A more detailed analysis of the context and reasons will be a little later, right there we just need to understand at least the general context of what we are going to do.

As a result, the very essence of the project and our attitude towards it may change. That’s fine, you just write the updated version, but keep the initial one to avoid walking in circles.

What external forces require this change?

Here we list all the forces beyond our control that determine the need for this change: political (rising international pressure, sanctions), economical (increased competition), technological (artificial intelligence), social, and so on.

For each of these forces, we perform a quick analysis in the form of quick answers to the following questions:

Source: What exactly is the driving force?
Potential: How critical is this factor for us?
Requirements: What exactly will this force require of us?

The last question here is the most important and interesting one, since it will gradually give us an understanding of the boundaries and requirements for the project. For example, in the case of increasing competition, the primary requirement is the speed of change, because if we grow slower than our competitors, we will die young.

What inner forces require this change?

We write it the same way, but now we are considering the internal forces under our control or within us: psychological (our preferences and beliefs), structural (organizational structure of the company), cultural, personal, and so on.

Just as in the previous question, answering the last question will give a better understanding of the project requirements for us personally and for our organization.

How will the system react to changes?

This will require turning on the brain and thinking about the real consequences of what we are going to do, both short-term and long-term. Yes, there will be many positive moments, but we should not overlook the negative either, as they usually come first in the actual world 🙂

Reactions may be alternative, with various scenarios, and we should consider separately each one. It is also a good idea to look for the experience of similar changes in other people and compare it with your expectations.

Do we really need this change?

Can we avoid this change?

What happens if we leave everything as it is?

Here you can build different scenarios in the short and long term, trying to validate your forecasts along the way with the help of others.

Do we really want this change?

Or did we just saw a picture in a glossy magazine?

This question requires you to dig deeper into yourself and your genuine desires. Don’t be too short here: it’s what can make or break everything in the long run.

What would the perfect ending point look like?

Here you can and should dream a little, because at this stage there will already be a rough understanding of the importance and scale of the change, and such dreams will really help answer the next question and start the first cycle.

What are project boundaries?

Summing everything up: here we define everything that we will do within the project, with a brief description of our responsibilities. And the more we expand the boundaries, the more we understand the importance of self-imposed limitations 🙂

As a result, you need to come up with a list of the major activities, clearly limiting the project to a certain framework. If your hands continue to itch, it is better to single out everything else into a separate project rather than arranging a prefabricated hodgepodge of loosely connected directions here.

That’s all: as you can see, less than a dozen questions to start! The only catch is that the answers to them require deep thought and repeated rewriting. For this reason, I recommend keeping a history of versions, so you be able to come back to it from time to time with the question: “Am I running in circles?”

Next Chapter: Organizing Cycles

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