Reg Revans: Action Learning

16 September, 2014

Reg Revans made one of the most significant contributions to management and leadership training. His influence continues to be felt, yet his name is comparatively unknown.

Reg Revans

Brief Biography

Reg Revans’ early life placed him alongside genius. Born in 1907, he attended Florence Nightingale’s funeral at the age of three and competed in the 1928 Olympic Games. He went on to study physics at University College London (BSC) and Cambridge (PhD), later working as a post-doctoral fellow with Nobel Prizewinners including Thompson and Rutherford. He found them to be brilliant teachers; not through their instruction, but because of their willingness to listen, question, and discuss. The Times obituary reports that Revans recalled Albert Einstein saying to him:

‘If you think you understand a problem,
make sure you are not deceiving yourself.

He left academia to work, first for Essex Council (as an education officer) and then for what became the National Coal Board (as Director of education), where he started to formulate his ideas about management training. In 1955, he returned to academic life as Professor of Industrial Management at The University of Manchester. There, he developed his ideas of what became Action Learning, based on a simple principle that he held to be fundamental: the key to better performance lay not with ‘experts’ but with practitioners themselves.

Revans’ Ideas

At the heart of his thinking was a belief that practitioners learn best when working together to help each other with their problems, and then taking their answers away and implementing them in the workplace. Revans distinguished between two complementary aspects of learning:

Programmed Knowledge

Knowledge conveyed by traditional pedagogy, lectures, classes, books, videos.  This is most valuable when the body of knowledge is well established, uncontested, and largely settled

Insightful Questions

Questions asked of experiences, at the right time, and considered with care, will yield new insights. This approach to learning is best suited to arenas where personal insights are most useful, where there is no fixed body of knowledge that commands a strong consensus, or where the situation is subject to constant change.

He expressed the learning process as an equation:

Learning (L) = Programmed Knowledge (P)
+ Insightful Questions (Q)

Action Learning

Revans designed the process of Action Learning to exploit the power of insightful questions to raise awareness and prompt meaningful action. The process is well documented elsewhere but is based on small groups (5-8 members) working together to solve real problems that each member of the Action Learning Set brings to the group. Participants focus on exploring answers to simple but deep questions like:

  • What do we really want to achieve
  • What is stopping us?
  • What could we do about it?
  • Who has knowledge (P) that we could use?
  • Who has an interest in solving the problem?
  • Who has the power to get something done?

Whilst Action Learning Sets initially benefit from a skilled facilitator, their modern incarnation as high functioning mastermind groups, learning loops and other similar structures do not always require a separate facilitator. As participants get used to the process, they can manage it themselves.

Here is a short (3 mins) video of Revans speaking about his ideas.


Susan Scott: Being Fierce

9 September, 2014

When I read Susan Scott’s first book, Fierce Conversations, it blew me away. Scott is not as well known as the other thinkers we have covered so far, but her insights will be extraordinarily valuable to anyone who seeks to manage or lead in an organisation today.

Susan Scott

‘Paying fierce attention to another, really asking, really listening, even during a brief conversation – can evoke a wholehearted response.’

‘In fierce conversations there is neither a struggle for approval nor an attempt to persuade.’

What is not to love in a book that is filled with practical and insightful guidance as to how we can truly draw success out of people, one conversation at a time?

Short Biography

Susan Scott grew up in Tennessee, and worked in training and executive search, before running executive think-tanks for fourteen years. In 2001, she founded Fierce Inc, to provide the kind of conversations and leadership training that are truly transformative.

Fierce Leadership

In her second book, Fierce Leadership, Scott challenges business best practices in a bold, pragmatic and fierce way. It is a thought-provoking read in which you will find six established ‘best practices’ challenged by alternative ‘fierce practices’.

‘Best’ Practice: 360-Degree Anonymous Feedback
‘Fierce’ Practice: 360-Degree Face-to-Face Feedback
Let’s have the courage to have fierce conversations with our colleagues..

‘Best’ Practice: Hiring for Smarts
‘Fierce’ Practice: Hiring for Smart + Heart
Why settle for smart IQ, when you could get IQ and EQ (Emotional Intelligence) together. Cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence are not mutually-exclusive.

‘Best’ Practice: Holding People Accountable
‘Fierce’ Practice: Modelling Accountability and Hold People Able
Place expectations on people rather than set out to punish failings.

‘Best’ Practice: Employee Engagement Programs
‘Fierce’ Practice: Actually Engaging Employees
This is one of my hot topics (see The Influence Agenda) – we need to get out there and actually engage with all stakeholders.

‘Best’ Practice: Customer Centricity
‘Fierce’ Practice: Customer Connectivity
This is one of my hot topics (see The Influence Agenda) – we need to get out there and actually engage with all stakeholders. Oops – I think I already said that!

‘Best’ Practice: Legislated Optimism
‘Fierce’ Practice: Radical Transparency
This is a fierce exposure of the truth that allows people to recognise the need for solutions and quips them with the information they need to fully understand the problem.

Here is a short (4 min) video of Scott. She needs to get an invite to TED!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: In the Flow

2 September, 2014


Pronounciation: Me-high Chick-sent-me-high-ee


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a US psychologist at forefront of the field of positive psychology; the study of human strengths and how we can have a happy, flourishing life.

His research into flow states has made a famous figure among specialists and interested general readers alike, with several books including his two best-sellers: Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Brief Biography

Csikszentmihalyi was born to a Hungarian family in a city long disputed by Hungary, Italy and Croatia – now called Rijeka and part of Croatia; it was, at the time of his birth in 1934 a part of Italy, named Fiume. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, and got a BA and PhD from the University of Chicago, going on to become a a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology. He is the founder and a co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center – a non-profit research institute that studies positive psychology.

Flow, in a Nutshell

Csikszentmihalyi’s signature research was into Flow States – those states of mind when we are totally absorbed in an activity, and can therefore want nothing else in the world, at that time, than to continue uninterrupted. He describes these Flow States as the optimum states for a human being, and catalogues the three conditions under which they arise:

  1. The task has a clear and worthwhile goal
  2. The task is sufficiently challenging to stretch us to our limits (and maybe a little beyond) but not so challenging for us that we find ourselves anxious and hyper-alert for failure
  3. The task offers constant feedback on our progress and performance levels

For more details on Flow, see our earlier blog: Flow and Performance Management.

Contribution to Management Thinking

It would be easy to write a long blog about Csikszentmihalyi’s contributions to positive psychology, but from a management perspective, I want to focus on his work on creativity, in documented in his book: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

In the book, he relates interviews with over 90 creative people from many fields of the arts, sciences and humanities. From those, he distils a great many lessons. For me, one of the simplest is most valuable, his five steps to creativity:

  1. Preparation
    Becoming immersed in a problem that is interesting and arouses curiosity.
  2. Incubation
    Ideas churn around at an unconsciousness level.
  3. Insight
    The “Aha!” moment when the answers you reach unconsciously emerge into consciousness.
  4. Evaluation
    Evaluating the insight to test if it is valuable and worth pursuing.
  5. Elaboration
    Translating the insight into a workable solution – Edison’s ’99 per cent perspiration’.

This to me explains why we seem to get our best ideas when out walking, sipping a coffee, or in a shower. These are not the times when we solve our problems: they are the times when our conscious mind is sufficiently unoccupied to notice the answers that our unconscious has developed.

What does this mean for managers?

If you want creative thinking from your team, I think it tells us four things:

  1. You need to give people time to understand and research the problem, making it as interesting and relevant to them as you can.
  2. You need to let people go away and mull, allowing a reasonable period for ideas to incubate.
  3. You need to bring people back together with no distractions and pressures, so that the ideas can naturally emerge.
  4. You need to create separate stages of your process for evaluating the solutions and then for implemental thinking, when you hone the preferred solution into a workable plan.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at TED

Here is an excellent video from 2004 of the man himself…

Richard Tanner Pascale: The Honda Effect

26 August, 2014

… or Experiment, Adapt, and Learn

Richard Tanner Pascale is known as a subtle thinker who refuses to be seduced by easy models and trite explanations, preferring to take an enquiring view of the complexities of organisational challenges.

His two big contributions flow, first, from his association with the McKinsey 7S Model, and later from his championing of the concept of complex adaptive systems as a powerful metaphor for organisations.

Richard Tanner Pascale

Brief Biography

Richard Pascale keeps much of his life private – there is little I can find of his early life, between his birth, in 1938, and his education at Harvard Business School. In the late 1970s, he and fellow academic Anthony Athos collaborated with McKinsey consultants Robert Waterman and Tom Peters in the creation of the 7S model, which later became a central component of his and Athos’ book, ‘The Art of Japanese Management’. He spent 20 years at Stanford University n their Graduate School of Business and then became an independent consultant. He is now also an Associate Fellow of Said Business School, Oxford University.

Early Work

The McKinsey 7S model offered seven inner-related aspects of a business and became an important part of both Athos and Pascale’s book, and of Peters and Waterman’s: ‘In Search of Excellence’. Whilst Peters and Waterman focused on examples of US success, taking a fairly reductionist view of what it takes to succeed, Pascale and Athos focused on Japanese business and highlighted the importance of the ‘soft S factors’ rather than the ‘hard S factors’.

Soft S Factors

  • Style of management
  • Staffing policies
  • Skills
  • Shared Values

Hard S Factors

  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Systems

In this book, he also started to identify how Japanese businesses were able to respond successfully to complex and ambiguous situations, where rational analysis was unable to create a clear solution. Instead of jumping to a final resolution of a problem, he advocated accepting the uncertainties and proceeding on the basis of an initial assessment, and then using the new information you gain as the basis of tweaking your approach. This leads to a step-wise, incremental approach, rather than a bold, decisive strategy.

In many ways, therefore, he was advocating an approach akin to the Deming (or Schewart) Cycle, or the OODA and CECA Loops.

Work on Agility

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) had taken an interest in why Honda had been so successful in launching a business in the US, but it was Pascale’s response in a 1984 edition of California Management Review that stimulated debate and raised awareness of Pascale’s ideas. Whilst BCG attributed their success to a long term investment strategy and gritty perseverance, Pascale saw things very differently. After interviewing Honda executives, he saw a series of failures and setbacks, followed by learning and adaptation. He perceived Honda’s approach as one of experimenting and reflecting.

Pascale adamantly rejects the western approach of oversimplifying, decrying management and strategy fads, and disassociating himself from common terms like expert or guru. Instead, he prefers a process of testing and questioning, reflecting and learning, and adapting. He has constantly returned to the theme of agility as the core competence of an organisation in a complex and changing world.  He concluded:

  • Agility is a key source of competitive advantage
  • Organisational culture and attitude to uncertainty and change, rather than processes are what lend it agility
  • Four things determine how agile an organisation will be:
    1. Power: the power employees have to influence events
    2. Identity: the extent to which individuals identify with their organisation
    3. Contention: how creatively is conflict managed
    4. Learning: how the organisation handles new experiences and ideas

In item three, the four elements can lead to stagnation, so Pascale went further, in a Harvard Business Review article (Nov-Dec 1997) called ‘Changing the way we Change’. He listed  seven mental disciplines that drive agility:

  1. Building an intricate understanding of your business
  2. Encouraging uncompromising straight talk
  3. Managing from the future
  4. Harnessing setbacks
  5. Promoting inventive accountability
  6. Understanding quid pro quos
  7. Creating relentless discomfort with the status quo

Pascale views complexity and ambiguity as the drivers of change, and that constant change as the key to success. ‘If it ain’t broke: don’t fix it’ is a truism. Pascale would say:

‘If it ain’t broke: go break it’.

Complex Adaptive Systems

More recently, he has been thinking carefully about the science of complex adaptive systems and drawing somewhat fruitful analogies with organisations. The problem I see is that this has become one of the fads he has derided, and been subject to much over-literal interpretation by lesser thinkers. His Sloane Management review article ‘Surfing the edge of Chaos’ and his subsequent book, also called ‘Surfing the Edge of Chaos‘ showcase his thinking in this interesting area. However, as intellectually stimulating as it is; it is hard to see how directly managers can apply the ideas.

Michelle Howard: Not a Wimp

19 August, 2014

Admiral Michelle Harris is the first woman and the first African American to be promoted to a four star role in the US Navy, and the first African American woman both to command a ship, and later, to reach three-stars. She was recently appointed to be the US Navy’s vice chief of operations – its second-highest-ranking officer. She was also the  officer who masterminded the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates – later dramatised in the Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips.

Admiral Michelle Howard

Short Biography

Michelle Howard was born in 1960 to an American father and British mother. Her father was a Master Sergeant in the US Air Force. She graduated from the US Naval academy and then earned a master’s degree in military arts and sciences in 1998 from the Army’s Command and General Staff College. When she took command of the U.S.S. Rushmore in 1999, she became the first African-American woman to command a ship in the US Navy.

Howard was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) – equivalent to Commodore in the UK’s Royal Navy – in 2007 and to rear admiral, in 2010. She was promoted to vice admiral in 2012, and then, on 1 July 2014, she was promoted to four-star admiral with President Obama’s nomination (since unanimously confirmed by the Senate) to become the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Leadership Thinking

From her earliest days as a junior officer, Howard was recognised as an outstanding leader. On only her second posting, aboard USS Lexington, she received the Secretary of the Navy/Navy League Captain Winifred Collins award for the one woman officer a year showing the most outstanding leadership.

But it has not always been easy. Howard said in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1999 that, in the course of her career, she encountered ‘individuals who didn’t want me at the command, or didn’t want me in a particular position.’ 

Speaking about the obstacles she has faced as an African American woman, she said in a 2010 talk about women and minorities in the Navy: ‘This is not for wimps.  You have to keep a sense of humor. You have to develop stamina because there’s going to be tough days. Like the pioneering women of old, you have to let some things go.’

But, for this blog, the most valuable interview is the one that she recently gave to Forbes Magazine, which you can read in full, and watch  extracts below.

The five leadership lessons that Howard offers are powerful indeed, not least because of the authority and careful consideration she brings to them.

  1. If you want to innovate, first take a hard look at yourself–and be flexible about making changes.
  2. Create space for creativity–you never know what could result.
  3. A morning routine can boost observation, not just efficiency.  (my own personal favourite)
  4. An appreciation for the lessons of the past will help you better craft the future.
  5. Create an environment where employees can meet personal goals and they’ll strive that much harder for the professional ones, too.

I shall not give more detail, because you can readily read it on the Forbes website. Please do.



You might also enjoy the Leadership Pocketbook and the Diversity Pocketbook.






Clayton Christensen: Disruptive Innovation

12 August, 2014

Clayton Christensen currently* styles himself as the ‘World’s Top Management Thinker’.  I don’t propose to either challenge or endorse his claim, but let’s at least take a look at his thinking and see what the source of that extraordinary claim is. It is about ‘disruptive innovation’ - the idea that new entrants to a market, with new ideas, can disrupt the market. Established competitors – even the best managed ones (particularly those, Christensen argues) will fail.

I confess I don’t have any of Christensen’s books on my shelves, but I do have ‘The Mind of the Strategist‘ by Kenichi Ohmae: ‘But to break out of a stalemate, the strategist has to take drastic steps.’  Christensen’s idea is not new: what he does is examine it in great depth.

Clayton Christensen

Brief Biography

Christensen was born in Salt Lake City in 1952, and took his first degree, in economics, at Brigham Young University. He then wen to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, to study applied econometrics, returning to the US to take Harvard MBA. He joined prominent strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, did a spell in the Reagan White House, within the Transportation Department, and co-founded a high-tech materials science business, CPS Technologies Corporation, in 1984. He returned to Harvard in the mid-1990s to do a doctoral thesis in Business Administration, from which he joined the faculty. He is now Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School; and is regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth.

In 2000, Christensen founded a consulting firm called Innosight, which applies his theories of disruptive innovation to help companies create new growth businesses. In 2007, he also founded Rose Park Advisors, an investment firm that seeks to invest in disruptive companies. His Innosight Institute is a non-profit think tank with a mission  to apply his theories to social problems such as healthcare and education.

He has written a number of books, which are discussed below.

Christensen’s Ideas

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail

The Innovator’s Dilemma was published in 1997. Its primary thesis is that large, well-established businesses in stable markets are frequently the victims of disruptive strategies from new, low-end competitors, seizing their markets with a lower cost, often technologically-enabled, service or product offering. Christensen argues that well-managed businesses are doomed to fail eventually, and that 80% of the corporations studied in business schools therefore teach students the secret of eventual failure.

The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and sustaining successful growth

The Innovator’s Solution was published in 2003. It built upon its predecessor and set out to answer the threat of disruptive insurgency by smaller upstarts. Christensen set out three ways:

  1. the corporation can spin-off a new, smaller, more agile, but well managed and resourced upstart of its own
  2. the corporation can acquire an existing innovative upstart business and nurture it
  3. the corporation can create a sand-box business i=unit, free of existing constraints, within which to build its own upstart

Seeing What’s Next: Using the theories of innovation to predict industry change

Seeing What’s Next was published in 2004 and took the story one step further, identifying three ways to spot the trends that will lead to disruption:

  1. identify the signs and portents that change is coming
  2. analyse the competitive environment and the conflicts it creates
  3. understand your strategic choices

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008), and The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care (2009) followed. These extended Christensen’s ideas into the realms of education and healthcare respectively. He returned to the more generic thinking with…

The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators

The Innovator’s DNA was published in 2011 and  sets out the five skills we need to develop if we want to be innovators:

  1. Associational thinking – synthesising new ideas by combining ideas and knowledge from multiple sources
  2. Questioning – asking the questions that less innovative minds fail to recognise
  3. Observing- noticing the world around them
  4. Networking  – seeking new people with new ideas, and testing out their own ideas with a wide variety of people
  5. Experimenting – seeing pilots, prototypes and experiments s the way to learn, develop and innovate more

It is important to note that, although Christensen is the leading thinker behind all of these ideas (as far as an outsider can tell), on all but the first of the books listed above, he collaborated with co-authors.


Recently, there has been a somewhat public spat between New Yorker journalist Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen. Lepore wrote a highly critical analysis of the idea of disruption in general, and of Christensen’s work in particular: ‘The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong‘. Subsequently, Drake Bennet interviewed Christensen for Business Week and published a lengthy article with Christensen’s response: ‘Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation’‘.

Make your own judgement.



* On his website, 23 June 2014.
The World's Top Management Thinker

Kenichi Ohmae: Irrational Strategy

5 August, 2014

Kenichi Ohmae is notable as the first internationally-known Japanese corporate strategy thinker, for fresh thinking on how corporate strategy thinking should be conducted, for the essential concerns of a corporate strategy, and for one of the first people to do some serious thinking about the strategies that need to arise from modern globalisation of commerce.

He has an awesome intellect, and holds a PhD (like Karen Stephenson, whom we met recently) not in business, but in another topic: in Ohmae’s case, in Nuclear Engineering.  Like me, he is a physical scientist at heart, but if you think that makes him a pure rationalist, you’d be wrong.

Kenichi Ohmae

In Ohmae’s best known book, The Mind of the Strategist, he sets out how Japanese business went about creating corporate strategy, arguing that the strategy creation process should not be a rigid, linear process, but instead needs to involve creative and intuitive thinking, flowing from a structured analysis. His book is filled with powerful tools to help us do this analysis, some of which were familiar from earlier works. What was new was the way he set out that Japanese companies go about the process, placing the customer at the centre of their thinking. Central to his approach is ‘The Strategic Triangle’ – or the three C’s.

Kenichi Ohmae's Strategic Three C's

Brief Biography

Kenichi Ohmae was born on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, in 1943.  He studied chemistry as an undergraduate and then nuclear physics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, before moving to US to earn his doctorate in nuclear engineering at MIT. His first job was a brief one, at Hitachi, but he quickly found his natural milieu, moving two years later to McKinsey & Company in 1972.  He stayed there for 23 years before stepping down to run for public office as Governor of Tokyo. When he was beaten, he moved into academic life and private consulting. His first book, The Mind of the Strategist, was written in 1975 and his other particularly influential book, on globalisation, The Borderless World, came out in 1990. In total, he has written eight books and contributed to others.

His Ideas

Central to Ohmae’s early work is the strategic triangle of corporation, customers, and competition, and his injunction that we place customer focus at the heart of our strategic thinking. Another key point of his, against which many global corporations have swung in recent years, is the criticality of strategic business units. These are quasi autonomous businesses within a large corporation, capable of serving a discrete customer set with products or services that they need. He argued that this is where the corporation is closest to its customers, so it must give these SBUs freedom to operate as they see fit, in service of their customers. The role of the strategist in this is to match the capabilities of the corporation to the needs of the market. Sadly many of the global corporations I work with now see fit to centralise so many functional decisions that SBUs are no longer able to serve their customers as they would like.

Ohmae identified four sources of competitive advantage:

  1. Concentrate resources on the business’s key factors for success
  2. Exploit the difference between your business and that of competitors to harness relative superiority
  3. Develop a disruptive strategy to shake up the status quo with an aggressive initiative
  4. Innovate to create change in your marketplace and exploit these strategic degrees of freedom

Ohmae’s later work, starting with The Borderless World, focused on the effects of globalisation. He advocates two more C’s: Country (nation states) and Currency (the impact of exchange rates and volatility). These become ever-more important considerations in a corporation’s strategy. It is the attempts to leaven the risks and harness the opportunities of these factors that have lead major corporations to subordinate Strategic Business Units to global-level corporate strategies and business planning.


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