Team Learning

by Dick McCann

Copyright © Dick McCann. All rights reserved.

This article has been reprinted from the Team Management Systems website. Please visit for further information or to contact the authors direct.


Many organizations have tried to focus on teams. Self-managed teams offer the potential for downsizing organizations and the prospect of improving productivity. How many organizations can claim to have really succeeded in their attempt? Meeting people from all around the world, I hear the same comment, "Oh, teams, yes we tried that but it didn't work."

It is not possible to wave a magic wand and create a high-performing, self-managed team overnight. A self-managed team needs to develop a culture of lifelong, individual and team learning.

The Learning Organization

The latest 'buzz' word being talked about in Australia is The Learning Organization. This concept is the synthesis of a number of ideas about managerial learning brought together and popularized by Peter Senge and others in their books about the Fifth Discipline. Five disciplines comprise the learning organization concept.

They are:

  • Systems Thinking
  • Personal Mastery
  • Mental Models
  • Shared Vision
  • Team Learning

Many people I talk with are impressed by these five disciplines and want to introduce them to their organization 'overnight'. The question they always ask me is, "Where do I start?"

My answer is, "Start with Team Learning. It is a process you can commence tomorrow and it just may help you prevent your self-managed team strategy from failing."

What is Team Learning?

Team Learning is an adaptation of action learning originally proposed in the UK by Reg Revans many years ago and recently re-discovered by organizational development consultants in the USA. It focuses on providing solutions to business problems by developing an open approach to questioning. As Reg Revans himself once said, "The mark of a leader is not the answers he gives but the questions he asks." The business world is changing at such a pace that the solutions to problems are not found in books or journals, nor in the mind of 'the expert'. They are found by team members themselves, who, through the process of Team Learning, identify the key questions to be addressed. They then seek to use their resources to find the answers, often through trial and error.

The concepts of Team Learning can be broken down into four key components:

  1. Questioning
  2. Valuing Diversity
  3. Communicating
  4. Learning Review


When faced with a problem, a new project or an opportunity, it is a good idea to focus on the nine key success factors which make the difference between a high-performing team and a low-performing team. These factors are arranged in a model of team tasks, known as The Types of Work Wheel.

This Wheel describes nine essential team activities as:

  • Advising - Gathering and reporting information
  • Innovating - Creating and experimenting with ideas
  • Promoting - Exploring and presenting opportunities
  • Developing - Assessing and testing the applicability of new approaches
  • Organizing - Establishing and implementing ways of making things work
  • Producing - Concluding and delivering outputs
  • Inspecting - Controlling and auditing the working of systems
  • Maintaining - Upholding and safeguarding standards and processes
  • Linking - Coordinating and integrating the work of others

These factors form the basis for a methodology of questioning.

When faced with a difficult problem, the starting point for team discussion is Advising. What information do we need? Why? Where will we get it? Who will get it? When do we need it? How will we get it? This ensures that all currently available data is gathered for consideration.

The Innovating sector ensures that the team will spend time discussing ideas around the problems being faced. Most successful innovating sessions follow a procedure designed to ensure an open and diverging discussion. Such sessions should be free from any commitment to make a decision. That comes later.

Promoting has two aspects to it. Each team member needs to learn how to present ideas and solutions in a way that will influence other team members. Equally important is a focus on the key stakeholders outside the team. Who outside the team needs to be persuaded if the idea is to proceed?

Many ideas are impracticable and can never be implemented, due to organizational and cultural constraints. Developing sessions focus on which ideas are likely to work and how can they be tested for verification.

Organizing is action-oriented and ensures that the team will implement agreed solutions and assign accountabilities and responsibilities. It is predictably colored red - the color of action.

Producing addresses the output aspects of any decision. What are we producing? To what quality levels? To what standards? When? Producing defines the bottom line on which many teams are evaluated.

How many ideas fail because the detailed aspects were not thought through? Unforeseen contractual problems arise, financial difficulties occur, security issues eventuate, computer errors appear. Many of these Inspecting problems can be eliminated by focusing discussion on this aqua-blue aspect of work. Blue is the color of cool, clear, detailed thinking. Maintaining the agreed decisions and the team processes will ensure that the team stays together and learns together. Your car will fail if it doesn't have a regular 10,000 Km service. Your team will fail if it is not maintained. Maintenance involves regularly reviewing mistakes in a non-recriminatory way and establishing guidelines to prevent them from reoccurring.

Linking is in the middle of the model because it is a shared responsibility of every team member. Each person working on a team task must undertake to link with other team members so that everyone is fully informed.

This model should be the basis for any Team Learning processes established in your organization. It provides a structure and a language to ensure that the essential activities for excellence in teamwork are continually implemented.

Many successful learning teams structure their meetings into four basic sessions, rather than attempting to cover everything in one sitting. Green meetings focus on information; yellow meetings concentrate on opportunities, red meetings implement plans and blue meetings check details and review progress.

Valuing Diversity

Diversity of thinking is one of the hallmarks of learning teams. Problems need to be viewed from different angles if the best solutions are to be generated. If everyone looks at problems in the same way then group think can occur. If diversity is allowed and encouraged, then better solutions will result.

However the downside of diversity is conflict. Different viewpoints will inevitably lead to disagreement and it is only the committed learning team that can use the diversity of views in a positive way.

Many of the work content issues of diversity can be addressed through a preference model like the Team Management Wheel. This model highlights the different ways that team members like to approach work situations. The model is summarized below:

Reporter-Advisers enjoy gathering information and putting it together in a way that makes it easily understood. Usually they are patient people who prefer to have all the information before they take action.

Creator-Innovators enjoy thinking up new ideas and new ways of doing things. Usually they are very independent and will pursue their ideas regardless of existing systems and methods.

Explorer-Promoters like to take ideas and promote them to others, both inside and outside the organization. They are often advocates of change and are highly energized, active people who like to have several projects on the go at once.

Assessor-Developers usually display a strong analytical approach and are at their best where several different possibilities need to be analyzed and developed. They are often sociable, outgoing people who enjoy looking for new markets or opportunities.

Thruster-Organizers are people who enjoy making things happen. They are analytical decision-makers, always doing what is best for the task, even if their actions sometimes upset others. Their great ability is to get things done, and for this reason they are often found working in project management positions.

Concluder-Producers are practical people who can be counted on to carry things through to the end. Their strength is in setting up plans and standard systems so that outputs can be achieved on a regular basis, in an orderly and controlled fashion.

Controller-Inspectors are quiet, reflective people who enjoy the detailed side of work, such as dealing with facts and figures. They are usually careful and meticulous and can spend long periods of time on a particular task, working quietly on their own.

Upholder-Maintainers are people with strong personal values and principles which are of prime importance in their decision making. Usually they have a high concern for people and will be strongly supportive of those who share the same ideals and values as they do.

The Linker role is a shared role that is held in conjunction with the other roles. It comprises key skills focusing on the linking of people, linking of tasks and leadership linking.

It is immediately obvious that this model is related to the Types of Work Wheel. Someone with a preference to be a Reporter-Adviser will most likely enjoy Advising work and can be assigned responsibility for the information processes. Someone with a preference to be a Thruster-Organizer will most likely prefer to work in the sharp end of the team, organizing and making things happen.

The Wheel highlights the diversity problem in a team. The Explorer-Promoter, for example, will look at situations totally differently to a Controller-Inspector, which may cause frustration or conflict.

However, once team members understand their individual work preferences, they have a language for discussing potential problems that might occur. It helps everyone understand, for example, why the Thruster-Organizers in the team may get impatient when too much time is spent in green or yellow meetings.

Team Management Wheel role preferences are measured by the Team Management Profile Questionnaire - a 60-item profile questionnaire focusing on Relationships, Information, Decision Making, and Organization. Feedback is a 4000 word report on individual work patterns.


Communication is the essential process that links a team together. In Senge's books the authors talk about dialogue or skillful discussion. In Team Management Systems, we prefer to talk about the seven key influencing skills that ensure team processes are at an optimum.

The Influencing Skills Model can help achieve this.

Pacing, Enquiry and Diagnosis are shown as problem-centered skills, as they are commonly used when the discussion focuses on problems. Leading, Proposing and Directing are solution-centered skills as they are commonly used to move discussions towards solutions. Summarizing is in the middle as it can be used in either situation. Communicating within the Team Learning discipline is a dynamic process which constantly moves through all seven skills.

Pacing is the technique of varying your communication style to match that of other people. When dealing with a Controller-Inspector, for example, you may need to focus on the details, slow down your rate of speaking and make the connections between the past and the future. With an Explorer-Promoter you need to be future oriented, enthusiastic and full of ideas. Pacing establishes a rapport with the other person, enabling an open and honest dialogue to take place.

Enquiry is listening carefully to what people are saying and asking questions to fill in the gaps. Knowing when to use closed-ended enquiry or open-ended enquiry and when to focus on the facts or the feelings are the skills associated with this sector.

A joint diagnosis of the root cause of a problem is essential before any discussion on solutions is attempted. Many a team implements a solution to the problem they think they have, rather than to the problem they actually have!

When team discussions are complex and long, everyone will lose track of the important points. Summarizing is therefore essential to ensure that everyone has the same understanding.

Leading is one of the most critical solution-centered skills as it can focus the conversation on the important issues. It is a process of transmitting information in a way that leads people to talk about possible solutions rather than your imposing solutions upon them. Leading can be done overtly (simple leading) or covertly (complex leading) and can involve advanced techniques like storytelling.

Proposing involves presenting possible solutions as a choice of options. The number of choices will often depend upon the various role preferences of the team.

Directing is the technique that managers use without thinking! It involves telling others what to do. There is a time and place for directing which should be done only when:

  • you know what the problem is
  • you know what the solution is
  • you have good reason to believe that people will accept your direction

Learning Review

Learning is an iterative process that takes place through feedback. We are all used to performance reviews and individual feedback, but rarely do we experience team feedback.

At the end of each team meeting (or at the start of the next), it is a good idea to review how the meeting went. Was the questioning process adequate? Did we value diversity? How well did we communicate?

If conflicts did arise in the meeting everyone should be encouraged to personally review what went on. A useful technique here is the three position process.

Review how the interaction seemed from your position, replaying the scene with dialogue. Now transpose yourself into the body of the other person, listening and feeling the interaction from their perspective. Finally 'zoom' out and take a position outside the group and observe the interaction from a distance. Notice how it would seem and feel to an observer. These three positions will give you valuable information on how the discussion should have perhaps gone.


Team Learning is fundamental to the performance of a team. Without it, a team can never achieve its potential. Team members can attend strategic planning sessions, learn techniques of quality assurance or learn how to run a meeting, but unless the principles of Team Learning are fully implemented, improvements will be short-lived.

Copyright © Dick McCann. All rights reserved.

About the Author

With a background in science, engineering, finance and organizational behavior, Dick McCann has consulted widely for organizations such as BP, Hewlett Packard and Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. Dick is co-author and developer of the Team Management Systems concepts and products and also author of the QO2TM, Window on Work Values and The Linking Leader. Involved in TMS operations worldwide for over 15 years, Dick is Managing Director of TMS Australia, a Director of TMS Development International and President of Team Management Systems Inc.

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