Most of the challenges facing leaders today are complex. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model separates the types of situations leaders are confronted with into simple, complicated, complex and chaos, and indicates how each should be dealt with differently (HBR November 2007). A complex challenge requires leaders to probe, sense and respond. How can this model be applied to a team ?

When teams are invited to solve a problem or find solutions for a challenge, they nearly always intuitively move into solution mode very quickly. Each will mentally assess the situation, categorize or analyze the facts and then share which solution is the best and why this is so. “I think we should do this because I used to …”. Experts often save the day. Brainstorming helps to share as many ideas as possible in a short period of time so the team can respond quickly to the issue. Advocating solutions, expert input, brainstorming or sharing best practices works for simple or complicated problems where the Cynefin model prescribes the steps of sense, categorize, respond, and sense, analyze, respond respectively. Simple and complicated problems are prevalent in an “ordered” world where actions have predictable results. Approaching complex problems in the same way leads to half-optimized solutions at best and a team stuck in disagreement at worst; it is often up to the leader to decide what to do. So much for the team’s contribution !

How can a team work through the steps of probing, sensing and responding and tackle complex problems efficiently ?

That’s exactly what Action Learning does. Action Learning is a problem solving process where a small team works on a real and complex business challenge, takes action and learns as individuals and as a team while doing so. Rather than jumping into solution-mode, the ground rule “statements are only made in response to questions” helps the team focus first on what the real issue or challenge is. Perceptions and assumptions are put aside as the team asks questions about the different aspect of the problem. This corresponds to the probing step in the Cynefin model.

Based on the discussion and exchanges in the Action Learning session, each team member will decide what actions to take after the session. They can take action to test out an idea, confirm an assumption or talk to people to collect more information. This is the sensing step in the Cynefin model.

When the team reconvenes to continue their work on the challenge, each will share the result of their actions and what they learned from them. The team will take in this new information about the challenge, and continue to work on shaping the understanding of the situation through questions. This is the responding step in the model.

For a leader, the Cynefin model describes how to deal with a complex challenge. When this leader wants to empower the team to learn, develop and come up with new ideas, the Action Learning process provides a clear structure and rules to avoid the pitfall of tackling complex challenges through the ubiquitous brainstorming-like “let’s find the solution” approach.