Cover Image
close this bookGuide for Managing Change for Urban Managers and Trainers (HABITAT, 1991, 190 p.)
close this folderPart I
close this folderAction research and planning
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentBuilding a problem-solving relationship
View the documentProblem identification
View the documentAnalysing the problem
View the documentPlanning a course of action
View the documentExperimentation and redesign, implementation, evaluation





Topic: Action research and planning

Time required: Approximately 1 1/2 - 2 hours

This session is designed to provide participants with an overview of the Action Research and Planning process and to form work groups around performance deficiencies common to their individual organizations.

The assumption is made for this session and following ones that it is most effective to have the training participants apply the various steps in the Action Research and Planning process to specific performance problems they are experiencing in their organization.


1. Give a short lecture on the seven steps involved in Action Research and Planning and how it can prepare participants to be more effective decision makers and problem solvers. Leave time for questions and discussions.

2. Ask each participant to fill out the Performance Discrepancy Indicators Checklist, entitled “Taking the Temperature of Your Organization.”

3. Divide the total group into smaller groups of 3 to 5 participants based upon common interests. You may want to list the most common discrepancies from the individual checklists on newsprint or a blackboard to facilitate the formation of groups.

4. If there is time, each group can spend the remainder of the session clarifying the discrepancy indicator they will address during the remaining sessions on AR.


Making decisions and solving problems are two of the most important tasks that managers perform. They permeate day-to-day operations and affect the long term health of any organization. In spite of the common nature of these two activities in organizational life, many managers are under skilled in carrying out the processes of decision making and problem solving. Skills, of course, are only one aspect of managerial performance in these two vital areas of concern. Motivation, resources, timing, and the overall environment of the work setting are also important to the acts of making decisions and solving problems.

On the other hand, one can argue that all of these factors are integral to decision making and problem solving. The effective manager’s “skillfulness” should not only include a well-honed set of tactics but an overall philosophy and strategy of management.

The manager’s effectiveness will be judged not only by his or her ability to make decisions or to solve problems, but to perform these acts within the larger context Mature judgement, consideration for others, involvement of colleagues, attention to long term as well as short term consequences and many other factors and qualities make for good management

As basic as decision making and problem solving skills are to the effective performance of all managers, they are often overlooked in management courses and woefully absent in many organizations.


What do research and planning have to do with the manager’s ability to “make” decisions or to “solve” problems. After all, research and planning sound a bit academic and most organizations relegate these activities to staff personnel - not line managers.

Since many managers hold these perceptions of research and planning, I believe it is important to look at these two management strategies in some depth.

The act of planning, in most organizations, has been misunderstood, misallocated and misused. Sometimes, planning is seen as “the thing to do”. Your organization is not considered a modern organization if it doesn’t have a “planning department”. Planners are frequently viewed as staff functionaries far removed from the day-to-day action. Consequently, top managers often ignore their advice when it comes to making decisions.

Planning is all too often seen as a pre-management function. How often have you seen the terms “planning and management”, “planning and implementation”? On the other side of the planning conundrum is the belief that making decisions is an integral part of implementation. Decision making is management work. Planning is planner’s work. WRONG! Planning is decision making. When managers are engaged in determining what the potential problems and opportunities are in their organization, and sorting among the best options to be considered in addressing them, and figuring out how to allocate scarce resources, they are not only planning, they are making decisions. Planning is decision making - and managers should plan. It is too important to be left to staff personnel who are labeled as planners.


While you may be convinced that planning belongs in the manager’s tool kit, research is a very different issue. If we are talking about basic research, or even applied research, I would tend to agree with you. But, the issue on the table is action research. It is, as the saying goes, a horse of a different color. Action research is very much an operating strategy. As an operating strategy, it produces both knowledge and change. In the dynamic world in which most organizations and their managers operate, increased knowledge is critical and planned change is expected. Action research is an approach that can accomplish both.

Action research, as a management strategy, involves more than just a set of working tools. Action research is a conceptual framework for thinking about problems as well as a managerial philosophy that can be used to center all activities.

Action research, because it is both conceptual and practical, philosophical and pragmatic, must be embraced not only as a logical sequence of steps to be taken (seven, in the case of these training materials) but as an overall strategy for improving individual and organizational performance. Consequently, action research is different from most approaches to decision making and problem solving. The differences are worth noting.

· Action research involves widespread participation

Everyone who is involved in the problem is seen as capable of making a contribution.

AR is based on the fundamental belief that people are more likely to change if they participate in exploring the reasons for, and the means of, change.

· Action research puts a premium on learning

Training is built into the heart of the process. The intent is not simply to solve immediate problems, but to help those involved to gain the knowledge and skills needed to solve future problems. This is critical in organizations that are thin on management capacity.

· Action research is practical and direct

It is carried out within the context of real issues and concerns defined by those involved; and involves practical research as a means of gathering the information which can be use immediately to enhance the process of problem solving.

· Action research is developmental

A major task of AR is to develop individuals, organizations and communities to help them become more self-reliant.

· Action research is experimental

It is an approach which is flexible and open to new changes. It encourages experimentation and practice; recognizing the importance of using that which is learned to guide that which is yet to be done.

· Action research is dynamic

It attempts to comprehend an ever widening range of factors and consequences in an effort to be congruent with the needs and environment of the client system.


Action research involves seven interrelated steps, or tactics, within the overall strategy. These steps are summarized as follows:

(a) Building A Problem Solving Relationship

Like the foundation of a house, the relationship of the people engaged in problem-solving is the base upon which all future actions rest. When that relationship is one of mutual trust and understanding, the process of making decisions and solving problems is greatly improved.

Building the relationship means:

· Sharing people’s expectations and values
· Setting ground rules
· Assuming useful roles and responsibilities
· Learning how to work as a team

(b) Identifying Problems and Opportunities

This is the initial process of determining what problem the group is trying to solve or what opportunity it hopes to capture. Sometimes this also means redefining the problem or opportunity. This step generally involves:

· Identifying potential problems and opportunities
· Discussing and sorting out those items
· Deciding which items are most important and which can be ignored

(c) Analyzing the Problem

Once the critical problem area is determined, the problem solving team needs to:

· Explore the nature and extent of the problem
· Translate the problem into an objective statement
· Analyze the forces working for and against the achievement of that objective

(d) Planning a Course of Action

Having analyzed the problem, the next step is to decide how best to tackle it. This entails:

· Identifying a full range of options
· Analyzing each option
· Developing a plan of action (usually one, or a combination of options)
· Devising a method of evaluating the proposed action

(e) Experimenting and Redesigning

Too many promising solutions are “implemented” without a trial period and, in effect, are never successfully implemented. AR calls for a period of experimentation and practice. This allows the problem solving team to assess how effective and workable its proposed plan of action will be, and to redesign it if necessary.

(f) Implementing the desired course of action

This is doing it for real; it is putting into effect the plan of action and managing the changes that accompany that plan. Even at this stage there is room for modifications and improvements.

(g) Evaluating the Results

At various points during the implementation stage, the plan of action is evaluated against the original objectives established in Step C.

While each of these steps will be more detailed in the materials that follow, it may be helpful to review a graphic representation of the total process, following this discussion. The Action Research process is deliberately shown as a cyclical and not a straight line process. There are reasons for this:

(a) The idea of recycling is built into the approach. Once the cycle is complete, it should lead to another cycle, based upon what has been learned and accomplished.

(b) The process can be entered into at any stage in the life of an organization or community.

(c) The process is often untidy, moving back and forth between the steps as required in any particular situation. This is represented by the arrows that connect the various parts with the hub of the cycle.

It is often necessary to return to a previous step for one reason or another. One may realize, for example, that it is impossible to set objectives (c) without a better understanding of the problem or opportunity (b). At other times, steps in the process might be skipped. For example, the course of action (d) may be so clear and the time so short that experimentation (e) doesn’t make sense. The important point is to view the process as dynamic, one which is flexible and responsive to the needs and desires of those who use it.

Think like a man of action; act like a man of thought

Henri Bergson




Time Required: 30 minutes

The following exercise is designed to highlight performance discrepancies common to most organizations. It is also a way for the trainer(s) and workshop participants to identify a number of problems/issues to work on as they go through the various steps in the action research process (which represents a major focus of the workshop).

By using this exercise to form workshop groups, you can be more assured that the participants are working on performance discrepancies they are also experiencing in their individual organizations. Anyway you, as the trainer, can make the training more relevant to the participants’ experience back on the job will not only have an impact on their motivation to learn, but have an impact on the potential application of the learning.

The tasks to be undertaken by the training participants, in completing the Performance Discrepancy Indicator Exercise, are outlined on the sheets that will be provided to the trainees. Review these tasks before using the exercise in the classroom. Better yet, complete the checklist yourself before you use it. This is good advice for all training exercises of this kind. To paraphrase the “golden rule” - don’t do to others what you haven’t done to yourself beforehand.


1. Ask each participant to complete the Performance Discrepancy Indicator Questionnaire and score their responses. Explain how the scoring works. After each indicator is a scale of 0 to 50; 1 means there is no discrepancy and, therefore, no action is needed at this time. At the other end of the continuum is 50 which indicates a discrepancy of the highest order. Do something immediately! In between are 49 other choices, depending on the participant’s perception of the particular discrepancy and its state of existence in the organization. After scoring each, the participant is to total the scores and divide by 10. This will give each respondent a “temperature” score to record on the thermometer.

2. After they have scored, convene the participants into small groups of two to four to discuss their individual scores further. You can also ask them to give you their scores so you can do a group profile of temperatures for later discussion.

3. Close the session by reflecting on the importance of looking at performance discrepancies as a management tactic.

Taking the Temperature of Your Organization
A Checklist of Performance Discrepancy Indicators

I. Indicators of Known Discrepancies

Check each on the scale of 0 to 50 and record your response on the line at the right.

Remember: 0 = no problem; 50 = serious problem


costs are rising in relation to output

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


work quality is below expectations

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


short term goals are not being met

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


employee grievances are increasing

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


customer complaints are increasing

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


work loads are not evenly distributed

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


employees are not getting needed information

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


equipment failures are common

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


work is running behind schedule

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


staff turnovers/vacancies are higher than usual

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


employee morale is declining

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


personal conflicts are common

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


creative ideas or suggestions are rare

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


employees are unwilling to take risks

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


non-compliance with regulations is common

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


accident and injury rates are high

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


cooperation among work units is low

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


mistakes are often repeated

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


equipment and material shortages are common

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50


misuse or misappropriation of funds, equipment and supplies is common

0 ....10 ....15 ....20 ....25 ....30 ....35 ....40 ....45 ....50

Total 1-20

Divide the raw score by 10 and record here

This represents the “temperature” of your organization.

Take the temperature of your organization

Take the effective score from the previous page and mark it on the thermometer. Discuss it with your work colleagues.


II. Pick the highest scoring performance discrepancy, based upon the organizational assessment you just completed and list it below. (Alternative: Pick a discrepancy which is particularly troubling to you personally as the problem you want to address in the problem solving session.)

III. Identify up to four other individuals in the course who have identified the same performance discrepancy as being indicative of a problem in their organizations and form a work team. This team will work together for the next few days to apply the action research process for decision making and problem solving. The course instructor will assist with identifying and organizing teams around specific performance discrepancy indicators.