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Action Inquiry

What is Action Inquiry?

Action Inquiry is a transformational process of collaborative learning, which goes beyond the acquisition of new conceptual frames or theories.  

There are many different "takes" on it as a methodology or approach, but they mostly share a common base - in the work of people like Bill Torbert (Action Inquiry and Action Logics), Peter Reason and John Heron (Participative and Co-operative Inquiry), Hilary Bradbury and others (Action Research), with further contributions by Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge and those contributing to related fields like Appreciative Inquiry.  Learning theories themselves have always formed part of this growing body of work - leaning on David Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle and Bloom's more complex "taxonomy" of learning.  Credit must also be paid to Reg Revan, perhaps one of the earliest "modern" thinkers to articulate the value of paying primary attention to one's own experience with a mindset of curiosity and shared discovery, with his focus on peer-to-peer Action Learning.

Lastly, modern adult development theories owe much to Erikson, Kegan, and Wilber, who alongside Bill Torbert have provided a lifelong perspective on how to engage in increasingly deep and timely action inquiry that makes fewer basic assumptions that can blind the leader or organisation.

Why are people in organisations becoming more and more interested in taking an "action inquiry" orientation to change and leadership?

Most are realising that the "expert" mindset that made them successful in the 20th Century, is not only insufficient for the world we now find around us - but might actually be creating weaknesses and lack of learning and adaptation.  Nassim Taleb describes this mindset as "fragile" and says that the remedy for this has, in the past, been a constant search for "strength" which allows us to "resist" and bounce BACK from turbulance, uncertainty, volatility and complexity.  But what is needed, advocates Taleb, are processes of "anti-fragility" through which we "bounce FORWARD" growing more adaptive and ecologically evolved with every trauma encountered.

Danish systems researcher Erik Hollnagel, proposes that ultimate adaptive capacity isn’t so much a “thing”, but an ongoing process (doings, activities, verbs) - and we liken that adaptive process to one which maps rather nicely onto processes of Action Inquiry.  Building on (and adapting) Hollnagel's four essential "adaptation" verbs with a fifth drawing on our own experience of leading complex change, here at Lacerta we suggest the key steps to creating an ADAPTIVE culture in your business include:

  1. building generative and regenerative capacity - through community building, information access, increasing diversity, and power and resource sharing
  2. sensing weak signals and emerging risks
  3. not "reacting", but rather RESPONDING virally and improvisationally to disruption
  4. learning and transformation (requiring one to be vulnerable and open to being "altered" by discovery and experimentation
  5. dampening of "immune systems" designed to restore what was there before, or deny the disruption – which means limiting fixed structure to an absolute minimum and disrupting power dynamics where necessary.

This comes from a deep study of the most anti-fragile “system” of all – the ecological world.  When we combine Hollnagel’s ideas with others' drawing from deep ecology, permaculture, epidemiology and other areas (not often interrogated for corporate change ideas), we can see a number of patterns in what leaders might want to invest in - hence our focus on approaches like improvisation and inquiry, viral methods of change, and attention to questions of inclusion, power dynamics etc.

Ultimately, Action Inquiry responds brilliantly to what is increasingly described as "the VUCA world" (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) with pragmatic and adaptive processes, that help leaders develop more sophisticated "action logics", shifting from a "know-it-all" mindset to a "learn-it-all" attitude.

How do we do it?

Every Action Inquiry process is unique - of course!  How could it not be?

Yet, we propose that there are some common elements:

  • "Community of practice" formation - often this might take the form of a gathering using blended techniques that might draw on World Café, Open Space, Unconference, Appreciative Inquiry....  this enables the group to organise around particular questions, challenges or opportunities that are meaningful to them
  • Develop the "beginner's mind" - using a variety of experiential and reflective processes, help the group to create common language, platforms and processes which will enable their inquiry - drawing on Action Research and Action Learning, Applied Improvisation, Rapid Prototyping amongst other post-conventional approaches.  This can include partnering with an organisation to produce initial "assessments" based on Torbert's Action Logics for example
  • Create a platform for mutual support and challenge, sharing and being "altered" - increasingly this has to be global, bringing together our skills in hosting both face-to-face and virtualised learning groups, on-line platforms, wikis and social media conversations.  This repeating architecture supports lively, transparent and challenging mutual co-consulting throughout the learning period, while also enhancing participants' skills in dialogue, coaching and mentoring
  • Increase contact with disturbance and weak/early signals of change in their "eco-system" - this can take the form of
    • facilitating stimulating "Inquiry Expeditions" into provocatively different organisations, where people are organising in completely new ways (maybe working with "Holocracy", or "Teal" organisation forms, maybe running the entire business without leaders using Blockchain).  An example of this was part of our work with Siemens,
    • importing IN difference (in the BBC in the mid 2000's we remember designing and leading large group events to which we invited in 14-yr olds who were ripping and sharing content on illegal share-sites to sit alongside senior leaders while they talked about future digitisation and democratisation of content creation),
    • taking people out into unusual environments - for example drawing directly from nature (permaculture, ecological thinking, systems thinking and complexity) or the opposite (artificial intelligence and the digital world),
    • helping the client to design and host radically different events into which their customers and/or supply chain are fully invited as participants
  • Be there when the "immune system" kicks in - as the work expands and flourishes, and action experimentation grows (including a number of failures, which are inevitable and desireable), it will surely create internal disruption, anxiety, even anger and feelings of threat.  If this doesn't happen, then it isn't working!  The "immune" processes, systems and behaviours rise up to smooth things back to "normality" - in other words reverse the learning process.  We work right alongside our communities of practice engaging directly in the power-dynamics and system-locks that can act as barriers to real evolution.


For more information and examples of how Lacerta Consulting works with Action Inquiry, Action Research and other post-conventional development processes, please contact us.

Action Inquiry, according to Bill Torbert is:
"... a lifelong process of transformational learning that individuals, teams, and whole organizations can undertake if they wish to become:
  • increasingly capable of listening into dangers and opportunities of the present moment from which the future emerges; and
  • increasingly capable of performing in effective, transformational, and sustainable ways.
Action inquiry can gradually become a moment-to-moment way of living whereby we attune ourselves through inquiry – alone, with intimate others, and in public – to acting in an increasingly timely and wise fashion."
Susanne Cook-Greuter explains:
"Action inquiry is an method of learning that involves the subject as well as the object, the self as well as the system or organization investigated. As a method, it increases the rate of learning and effectiveness.
Action inquiry encourages individuals to be continually questioning of their purposes, strategies, and behavior while adjusting these on the basis of feedback about their impact in the world.
At the personal level, action inquiry demands high levels of curiosity, awareness, and willingness to experiment and learn from experience and feedback."


Our work with Action Inquiry is also enhanced through our accreditation to use the Action Logics based GLP - both on our own and in partnership with Global Leadership Associates.