We asked Anne Dalton, AJLI’s Chief Officer for Strategic Initiatives, and Janine le Sueur, Director of Education and Programs, to give us a little primer on Action Learning as a concept and how it made its way into AJLI’s transformation process.
What is Action Learning?
Action Learning is a fluid, dynamic, and open-ended way of collaborating for success. Through questions and reflective inquiry in place of “expert” information, Action Learning team members engage in a dynamic process of developing and implementing solutions to complex and urgent problems where no known solutions exist.
Why does Action Learning make sense for The Junior League?
We are in the midst of a transformation designed to shift our mindset from change that is episodic to change that is systemic. Action Learning, which is innately collaborative and reflective, gives us a relatively simple method for engaging the knowledge and creativity that exist within Leagues and across our membership base. Our legacy is based on our ability to come together to address issues in our communities through the community and civic leadership of women. Within our vast network of 155,000 intelligent and seasoned women lies an abundant repository of knowledge and talent that we would be foolish not to harness. Remember that first and foremost, Action Learning is about leadership, which is the cornerstone of The Junior League. What better combination could we have to embrace the exciting and rapid changes all around us?
And why now?
It makes sense now because the proliferation of technology in our everyday lives has greatly accelerated the pace at which the world functions, such that the only thing we can rely on is the constancy of change. Action Learning will enable us to be more nimble and proactive— and better equipped to adjust quickly to new conditions that affect our position in society and our well-being as an organization. To keep pace with this change we must evolve into an adaptive and innovative organization that is flatter and more inclusive of all generations and levels of experience and less hierarchical and rigid. Action Learning offers us an opportunity to facilitate that.
What is the problem The Junior League is trying to solve?
There are several, but what we do know from our substantial internal and external research as part of the Strategic Roadmap over the past few years is that they fall into three areas: Community Impact; Membership; and Governance & Management.
With respect to Community Impact, what we’ve found is that there has been a decline in the scope and impact of Junior Leagues’ community work. Project-based episodic volunteering has displaced Leagues’ capacity to collaborate with the larger community in identifying and developing a sustainable response to issues. As a result, the League member does not experience a meaningful connection with her community and her impact is not as deep and far-reaching as it could be. In addition, the League is less likely to be seen as a viable community partner. If we are successful in building sustainable community partnerships and are able to more decisively focus our community effort, then we will have a more solid foundation from which to make an impact. This community platform is vital to our endeavor to build a networked organization of powerful women developed as community and civic leaders. This is The Junior League’s longterm investment in sustainably improving the quality of life in the communities they serve.
“Through questions and reflective inquiry in place of ‘expert’ information, Action Learning team members engage in a dynamic process of developing and implementing solutions to complex and urgent problems where no known solutions exist.”
In the area of Membership, we have learned that our model is out of sync with women’s lives today. The model has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1900s and as such is linear, hierarchical, and age- and tenure-based. The old model also presumes that the League is the primary teacher of volunteer skills. But women today are not only living multi-faceted lives, which require greater flexibility, they also bring a variety of skills and interests to the League. The League’s membership model must be both flexible and capable of leveraging and maximizing the skills we collectively build through our work in the community.
With respect to Governance & Management, we know that historically many Junior Leagues have intertwined the two, giving both responsibilities to their Boards of Directors along with a system of committees. For the most part, however, Junior League board members wind up devoting the majority of their time to overseeing day-to-day operations at the cost of developing long-term strategic vision and leadership that governs the accomplishment of the League’s Mission. If we are successful in separating the two, we will have built an efficient infrastructure that helps us accomplish our goal. Think of Action Learning as a means to an end, which is to be a network of highly trained community and civic leaders embedded in their communities for the purpose of making an impact for the better.
How is our organization using Action Learning? What stage of the process are we at now?
Thirteen Action Learning Teams (ALTs) made up of 79 Leagues began meeting in late spring 2011. The primary responsibility of the Action Learning Teams is to share the authority for progress and outcomes. They meet “virtually” by phone every five to six weeks with team members pursuing different action strategies between meetings to advance the work of the team. The focus of each meeting is on using questions to understand the “problem” the team is addressing, and probing and inquiry to uncover possible new strategies and approaches to solve the problem. Once a team feels it has a new strategy, each of the Leagues in the team will test that strategy, fine-tuning it along the way. AJLI Staff will document the new strategies and disseminate them, once tested, to all Leagues. Each participating League is represented by an ALT Representative and each team has a coach who is a League member and a coordinator who is an AJLI Staff member. Four ALTs are tackling issue-based Community Impact; six ALTs are working to redesign the Junior League Membership model; and three ALTs are addressing the Governance & Management structure. The teams are also divided according to League size, each of them focused on either small, medium or large Leagues. The participating Leagues have made a two to two-and-a-half-year commitment initially. Most teams have had three meetings to date.
“To keep pace with these changing times we must evolve into an adaptive and innovative organization that is flatter and more inclusive of all generations and levels of experience and less hierarchical and rigid. Action Learning offers us an opportunity to facilitate that.”
Action Learning sounds really interesting. Is it something a local Junior League could incorporate?
Simply, yes. We believe that Action Learning is one way that Junior Leagues can transform how they engage their members…not just in decisions about which issues they will choose as the basis for their community programs, but also in engaging members in working together to advance the Mission of The Junior League. We encourage Leagues to learn more about Action Learning. As a starting point AJLI will be sharing with Leagues what we are learning, and at the end of this article are some recommended resources that will tell you more about Action Learning. It also is quite possible that there are members in your League who have had experience with Action Learning in their careers.
Where can I find out more about Action Learning?
There is an extremely helpful Action Learning Overview that talks specifically about AJLI’s current ALT work and is available on AJLI’s website via this link:
For a broader immersion in Action Learning beyond The Junior League, we would encourage you to spend some time Googling “Action Learning.”