Action Research Consulting

LOD Action Research Concept Paper
Shannon M. Blood
LIOS 7520 Fall 2013 Organizational Systems (LOD) 1st Year
LIOS Masters’ Programs of Saybrook University
December 29, 2013
            There are many techniques and tricks-of-the-trade in consultant-client helping skills at the individual and group level. Flawless Consulting by Peter Block offers concrete suggestions and guidance to consultants in an approach that can “. . . bring people together to create and plan how to make something work . . . . [through] . . . shifts in intangibles – relationships, commitment, accountability” (1981/2000, p. xviii).  This approach is based on an underlying framework, known as action research.  Developed by Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), a pioneer in the social sciences field who had a primary interest in resolving social conflict especially for minority groups, action research offers a systematic approach to describing, understanding and influencing group behavior. Lewin studied the dynamics and interactions in group membership, developing theories and formulas to describe how groups act and react to changing circumstances (Lewin, 1947). This paper will define action research; explore the goals of action research; and discuss the importance of applying democratic leadership principles to the action research process.
Defining Action Research
Action research, simply put, describes a process for how a consultant can work with individuals and groups to describe the interactions that led to the conditions and experiences they live with on a daily basis. Taken a step further, it also provides a process for identifying possible solutions to creating the change individuals and groups decide they want in their collective community.  Democratic leadership, a crucial component of action research as conceived by Lewin, recognizes the profound influence group membership has on changing social conduct. According to Lewin, “. . . it is usually easier to change individuals formed into a group than to change any one of them separately” (1947, p.34). In other words, a person’s individual conduct will stabilize at a new group level when the group standards have been successfully changed (p. 36). Change does not occur in a vacuum. Lewin’s contributions to the social sciences field included developing methodologies to describe the individual and group forces impacting change.
In Burnes’ article, “Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to Change: A Reappraisal” group behavior is described as being based on “. . . quasi-stationary equilibrium supported by a complex field of driving and restraining forces” (2000/2006, p 142). Borrowing from theoretical physics, Lewin advanced the field of applied behavioral psychology by developing guiding concepts and framework that could be used to “. . . map out the totality and complexity of the field in which the [group] behavior takes place.” (Burnes, 2000/2006, p. 137)  The ability to understand and describe both more fully and objectively the group experience is a critical skill for the consultant to develop in the work he or she does with the client to support the change process.
According to Burnes, a strong interest of Lewin’s was in “resolving social conflict through behavioral change” (2000/2006, p. 143). In the 1940’s, Lewin combined his understanding of group dynamics — based on his personal and professional understanding of how those forces created the social environments in which communities existed — with the end goal of creating change to address social conflict and problems. Resolution was possible both within organizations and the wider society using action research. According to Burnes (2000/2006), Lewis’ work on leadership style and group dynamics set the stage for the next several decades of research into group dynamics and the implementation of change programs. This work has significantly impacted the field of organizational development and leadership.
In Flawless Consulting (2000) chapter 10, Peter Block compares a traditional research approach to an action approach in working with organizations to implement change. In the action approach, the stance is both narrowed and expanded, as the process looks at a smaller range of data while allowing for personal bias, experience and judgment to inform the discovery process. Block states that “the purpose . . . of discovery is to mobilize action on a problem” (p. 176). As Block describes it (p. 177), the consultant explores factors that are under the control of the client and that affect the problem, and restricts the data shared to that which is necessary to effectively describe the issue or problem. Additionally, this process is relationally based between the consultant and the client – although the gathering and presentation of the data is neutrally and objectively described and presented.
The end goal of an action research process is described by Hybrid Consulting from the United Kingdom as an approach that “. . . produces workable outputs, leaves organisations stronger, and ensures opportunities for staff development after having carried out research for themselves, considered the problems and produced the solutions, facilitated . . . within a creative learning framework” (Creative/Action Research, 2013).
A relatively new field, known as implementation science, reframes action research with new terminology. In this field, the various individual and systemic factors (known as implementation drivers) are defined and described through strict data collection and evaluation, with the intent of building best practice and organizational sustainability through a continuous quality improvement cycle (Fixsen,, 2005, p. 95).
Action Research: A Democratic Process at Work
            Lewin’s action research theory was strongly grounded in democratic principles, recognizing that the “restrictive character of autocracy . . . [led] . . . to frustration of the group members and therefore to an increase . . . of more aggression” (Lewin, 1947, p.20). As a German Jew during the rise of the Nazi Party, Lewin deeply experienced the reality of being a marginalized minority subjected to the aggression fostered with the group dynamics of the Nazi Party. This experience informed his interests and research into understanding and influencing group dynamics through applied behavioral science.
Lewin strongly believed that only the “. . . permeation of democratic values into all facets of society could prevent the worst extremes of social conflict” (Burnes, 2000/2006, p. 135). Further, Lewin stated that “the greater the range of activities permitted by the democratic leader . . . [the] . . . greater differences of conduct among the individuals” (Lewin, p.18).  In a democratic system, individuals appear to be more willing to step outside the norms of group behavior, whether in taking a stand against perceived injustice or in stepping to their own internal drumbeat.
            Wise practitioners in organizational development and social change apply democratically driven action research to their work. An understanding of power dynamics within the group is critical to understanding to what extent democracy exists in organizations. As Peter Block in Flawless Consulting (2000) points out, in current organizational structures it is still more common to find top-down management styles in which managers “. . . get rewarded for keeping control and have to have political smarts or they wouldn’t be managers” (p. 51). Block further points out that the desire to maintain control in organizations can be so strong that it impedes performance, productivity and effectiveness (p. 151).
            Understanding the nexus of control in an organization is critical for the consultant when dealing with organizational resistance to exploring the client’s questions and concerns with the organization’s functioning. Block makes it clear that organizations are competitive and political systems in which “organizations operate like political systems, except there is no voting” (2000, p. 152). The savvy consultant is attentive to these power dynamics, and works to stay present in the moment, gather information, and present objective descriptions of what is observed. Further, the consultant sets the stage and models a participatory process that supports a neutral exploration of the information gathered and problem-solving.
In considering planned social change and probable resistance to change (also known as stuck points), Lewin described the change process as one that was “composed of unfreezing, change of level, and freezing on the new level” (p. 36). The application of action research principles can be used to counteract organizational power dynamics preventing democratic processes. According to Burnes, stuck points could be effectively addressed using Lewin’s three-step model which included unfreezing or breaking open the old behavior; moving or creating motivation for change; and refreezing, or group stabilization of the new behavior (pp. 142-143).
Common criticisms of Lewin’s theory included a discontent with treating change as a “series of linear events, rather than a complex and dynamic process” (Burnes, 2000/2006, p.147). The discontent is quite bluntly stated in Hybrid Consulting’s webpage (2013): “Lewin’s model, of unfreezing and refreezing, is a useful measure, if only we were working with blocks of ice! Remember . . . human systems . . . offer surprises along the way . . .” And this is true! Change is a constant element across all life, but it does not presuppose that change progresses in a straight line. There is no permanent change.
A deeper reading of Lewin’s work suggests that he was well aware of the non-linear, impermanent nature of change, as indicated by his recognition that “always we deal with a relation between an individual or group and a task” (p.28) and that the “structural properties . . . [of groups] . . . are characterized by relationsbetween parts rather than by the parts or elements themselves (p.8). The element of interrelationships and human surprise is not discounted by Lewin.  In fact, he also states that “it would be incorrect to attribute the permanence of the new level to the freezing effect . . . . other factors are probably more important” (p. 38).
Perhaps some of the discontent by current day practitioners is based on an oversimplification of Lewin’s three-step model.  Lewin makes it clear that attempts to “predict or identify a specific outcome from planned change is very difficult because of the complexity of the forces concerned (Burnes, 2000/2006, p. 142).”  Lewin’s three-step model is not a stand-alone technique, but one that should incorporate field theory, group dynamics and action research into one integrated approach “. . . to analyzing, understanding, and bringing about change at the group, organizational, and societal levels” (Burnes, 2000/2006, p.141).
Current theory and practice in the organizational development field make note of the fluid nature of change. Action research allows the consultant to frame the task at hand to one of “. . . discovery and dialogue more than an act of diagnosis and prescription” (Block, 2000, p.174). In this viewpoint, the consultant guides the client in a client-owned process, which increases the client’s sense of ownership and subsequent buy-in and follow-through to the discovered solution. This is a more current day restatement of Lewin’s earlier work in which he demonstrates that individual change made in the context of a democratic group process generally results in more effective and lasting change (Lewin, 1947).
The keys to creating effective, lasting and measurablechange is a hot topic in today’s organizational development debates, particularly as it relates to social services. The democracy of the change process is crucial to the success of the desired change and must include the voice of the consumer as well as the business and other stakeholders. Organizations such as NIRN (National Implementation Research Network) are working with social service organizations to actively build capacity and scale-up programs and innovations through implementation science – essentially, an iterative process of purposefully describing in sufficient detail the activities required to improve measurable outcomes across the spectrum of human services (Implementation Defined, 2013). Funders require organizations to show credible outcomes and achieved savings through cost-benefit analysis to continue being willing to fund the organization. The ability of organizations to prove their effectiveness adds an additional stressor or change agent to social service work already fraught with high emotional impact. This in turn adds to the challenges faced by the consultant called in to work with organizations that may already feel as though they are under the gun to prove their worth and effectiveness, and hence be even more resistant to exploring areas of challenge and growth.
            Action research provides the consultant with a framework in which to practice participatory exploration of the client’s concerns and questions relating to the client’s organization or community. Additionally, it lays the ground work for an iterative discovery process that allows for continuing evaluation and growth. As Block states, the purpose of discovery is “. . . to mobilize action on a problem” (2000, p. 176). As the consultant engages in the process of side-by-side exploration and discovery with the client, democratic principles can further expand the ability of the consultant to gather data and explore meaning and options with the client in the context of the group or community’s functioning. This increases the possibility of the group’s buy-in and continuing commitment to growth and change. Action research is a practical method to address desired social change in response to perceived social ills, not just business-based organizational functioning. Why think at only an organization development level, when the consultant can gain the tools to leverage potential social change?
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