Action Learning Opens the Door for Innovation

Photo by flattop341

Photo by flattop341

Ever heard of the of The Marshmallow Challenge? It's a team activity involving 20 sticks of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The challenge is simple: using only the materials provided, teams have 18 minutes to build the tallest free-standing structure possible that can support the marshmallow on top. 

Millions of people across the globe have participated in this challenge, from world class engineers to corporate CEOs to MBA students to 2nd graders. And who do you think built the tallest structure? Well, of course, it was the elementary school students!

And why is that? How is it that world class, professionally trained engineers were beat out by a group of eight years olds barely able to spell marshmallow let alone build a tower to support one? The answer is simple: children "do" while they think.  

Adults facing The Marshmallow Challenge start by, first, creating what seems to be the most logical plan, next assigning clear roles, and then, finally, building the structure—essentially placing all their bets on one idea. Kids, on the other hand, start to build immediately; learning from and iterating on each of their attempts to build the best tower. Children are naturally inclined to participate in a learning process called action learning, where you learn by first doing and then reflecting on what did or did not work. 

Action learning is one of the best ways to learn a new tool or skill set and is something that we incorporate into each of our client engagements at Peer Insight. When designing a new service for an organization, we always insist that the client team join us in the field for ethnographic research and sense-making. Not only does the client gain empathy for their customers but they also learn the basic skills necessary for research and sense-making—skills they can use again when tackling a future innovation project. 

In our capability building engagements, such as Design Thinking U, a three-day, collaborative workshop that teaches the principles of innovation and corporate entrepreneurship, we use the action learning model to design a curriculum that is based on live challenges for the participants to solve. 

For most Americans, who were raised with more traditional lecture-based learning process of: read first, plan second, and experience later, it is exhilarating to be able to play with our ideas before coming up with a strategic plan. How can you build action learning into your daily work and life? I'd love to hear your ideas. 

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