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Change Assessment:
Referencing this week’s lecture, assess the changes you have made in your personal or
professional life and evaluate how well you maintained the change. Do you agree with the
argument that change is easier to make than maintain? Why or Why not?
Action Research: The Planning
Monty Rakusen/Corbis
Learning Objectives
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
• Describe action research and compare Lewin’s model to those of at least two other OD theorists.
• State the importance of a consideration of levels of analysis in the planning phase.
• Identify the steps of the planning phase.
• Describe different types of research and research methodologies.
• Discuss five methods of gathering organization data, including strengths and weaknesses of each.
• Discuss methods of analyzing the data collected.
• Explain how to prepare for and manage the feedback meeting, including how to address confidentiality
concerns and manage defensiveness and resistance.
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In Chapter 3, the QuickCo vignette provided one example of how OD consultants work. Jack,
the internal OD consultant at QuickCo, led his clients, Ned (the shipping supervisor) and Sarah
(the manufacturing manager), through an action research process to solve communication and
teamwork problems in the shipping department. Action research, the process OD consultants
follow to plan and implement change, follows three general phases:
1. Planning. Data are collected, analyzed, and shared with the client to determine corrective action.
2. Doing. Action is taken to correct the problem.
3. Checking. The effectiveness of the intervention is evaluated, and the cycle is repeated
as needed.
Let us return to the QuickCo vignette and examine the action research steps taken. Ned and
Sarah met with Jack to outline how employees were at each other’s throats, letting conflicts
fester, and failing to work well together. Their first meeting incorporated their planning phase.
As explained in Chapter 3, this initial meeting is known as contracting. During the meeting,
Jack asked questions to begin identifying the root cause of the conflicted department. The three
struck a collaborative agreement and worked to devise a plan for resolving the issues.
The first action they took was to collect data. Jack reviewed the performance trends and customer complaints from the shipping department and interviewed the employees individually
about their views on the problems.
The planning also involved analyzing the data Jack collected to arrive at a diagnosis. When he
met with Ned and Sarah to share feedback from the data collection, Jack presented his analysis,
noting: “Ned and Sarah, you have a dysfunctional team on your hands. They have no ground
rules, collaboration, or means of handling conflict. Everyone needs to be more understanding
and respectful toward each other. It would also be helpful to create some guidelines for how the
team wants to operate and manage conflict. Ned, you also need to take a more active role in
resolving issues.”
Jack laid the problems out in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way. Once all the analyzed data
were presented, the three worked jointly to plan an intervention to address the problems. They
agreed to take the group through a facilitated process to address communication and team
effectiveness. They also agreed that Ned would benefit from individualized executive coaching to
help him learn behaviors that would be more productive for dealing with conflict.
The second phase of action research, doing, occurred when Jack, Ned, and Sarah scheduled the
intervention with the shipping department and implemented it. The outcome of the inter-vention
was a tangible plan for the department for how to be more effective, including specific actions they
would take to address conflict.
The final phase, checking, involved Ned, Sarah, and Jack continuing to monitor the shipping
department after the intervention. Ned helped the department uphold its new ground rules on a
daily basis and coached employees to help them stick to the plan. He also asked for regular feedback on his own management skills as part of his ongoing coaching. Ned, Sarah, and Jack reviewed
departmental data on productivity and customer complaints and learned that the timeliness and
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Section 4.1
A Review of Action Research
accuracy of shipped orders had significantly improved. Jack followed up a few
months later by conducting individual
interviews with shipping department
members. He discovered that the solutions had been maintained. If and when
new conflicts arise or new members join
the team, it may be time to start the
action research process over again to
address new issues.
Catherine Yeulet/iStock/Thinkstock
Following the action research process helped the
QuickCo shipping department resolve employees’
interpersonal conflicts.
The QuickCo vignette demonstrates
all three phases of the action research
process. This chapter focuses on the
first phase, planning. Chapters 5 and
6 provide a similarly detailed look at
the second and final phases, doing and
checking, respectively. But before turning to the planning phase, let us review
action research.
4.1 A Review of Action Research
Chapter 1 defined OD as a process of planned change that is grounded in a humanistic, democratic ethic. This specific process of planned change is known as action research.
Defining Action Research
Action research is a recurring, collaborative effort between organization members and OD
consultants to use data to resolve problems. As such, it involves data collection, analysis, intervention, and evaluation. Essentially, it is a repeating cycle of action and research, action and
research. However, the words action research reverse the actual sequence (Brown, 1972), in
that “research is conducted first and then action is taken as a direct result of what the research
data are interpreted to indicate” (Burke, 1992, p. 54). Moreover, the cycle yields new knowledge
about the organization and its issues that becomes useful for addressing future problems. It
thereby allows organizations to improve processes and practices while simultaneously learning
about those practices and processes, the organization, and the change process itself.
Action research provides evidence, thereby enabling a consultant to avoid guesswork about
what the issue is and how to resolve it. According to French and Bell (1999):
Action research is the process of systematically collecting research data about
an ongoing system relative to some objective, goal, or need of that system;
feeding these data back into to the system; taking actions by altering selected
variables within the system based both on the data and on hypotheses; and
evaluating the results of actions by collecting more data. (p. 130)
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A Review of Action Research
Section 4.1
Action Research Is a Democratic Approach to Problem Solving
Many theorists have characterized action research as democratic and collaborative:
“Action research is a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing
practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes, grounded in a participatory worldview” (Reason & Bradbury, 2008, p. 1).
“Action research is the application of the scientific method of fact-finding and experimentation to practical problems requiring action solutions and involving the collaboration and cooperation of scientists, practitioners, and laypersons” (French &
Bell, 1999, p. 131).
“Action research approaches are radical to the extent that they advocate replacing
existing forms of social organization” (Coghlan & Brannick, 2010, p. 6).
In addition, Coghlan and Brannick (2010) identified broad characteristics of action research
to include:
Research in action, rather than research about action
A collaborative, democratic partnership
Research concurrent with action
A sequence of events and an approach to problem solving. (p. 4)
These definitions are similar in that they all characterize action research as a democratic,
data-driven, problem-solving, learning-based approach to organization improvement. Can
you recall a project in your organization that involved members in a collaborative problemsolving mission? Chances are it was action research, even if that terminology was not used.
Some other examples of how organizations apply action research include a nonprofit organization that surveys donors or beneficiaries before engaging in strategic planning; a government department that conducts a needs analysis prior to a training program; or a corporation
that conducts exit interviews before initiating recruitment for positions. What other examples can you think of?
Action Research Helps Clients Build Capacity for Future Problem Solving
Although typically guided by a consultant, action research engages key stakeholders in the
process. Indeed, its effectiveness depends on the active engagement and accountability of
the stakeholders. As discussed in Chapter 3, OD consultants are responsible for influencing
the action research process while at the same time exercising restraint to avoid solving the
problem for the client.
An example can illuminate how action research helps the client build problem-solving capacity. Suppose an organization introduces a process of assimilating new leaders when they join
it (action). The organization hires a consultant to survey team members about this initiative’s
effectiveness (research). The client and the consultant collaborate to develop the survey and
analyze the results. What is learned informs continued assimilation of new leaders and the
way the process gets modified (action). The client is initially engaged to learn the process so
that it can be repeated in the future without the help of a consultant. The action research process helps the organization collect, analyze, and apply data to make informed decisions and
not waste time and money on inappropriate interventions. Helping organizations become
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Section 4.1
A Review of Action Research
proficient at the action research process is the outcome of effective consulting, since the best
consultants work themselves out of a job.
Who Invented That? Plan, Do, Check Cycle
Although often attributed to quality guru W. Edwards Deming, the plan, do, check cycle
was created by Walter A. Shewhart of Bell Labs. Shewhart was an American physicist,
engineer, and statistician who was one of the originators of statistical quality control that
preceded the total quality movement.
Although this plan, do, check model seems to suggest that planning change is a neat,
orderly, and rational process, in reality it can be chaotic, shifting continually in response
to unexpected developments and outcomes. Nevertheless, learning the action research
process equips consultants with a proven method for navigating such shifts as they work
with clients on organization challenges.
Models of Action Research
Recall from Chapter 1 that action research originated with the work of Kurt Lewin, the father
of OD. Lewin’s model (1946/1997) includes a prestep (in which the context and purpose of
the OD effort are identified), followed by planning, action, and fact finding (evaluation). Several models of action research generally follow Lewin’s, although the number and names of
steps may vary. See Table 4.1 for a comparison.
Table 4.1: Comparison of action research models to Lewin’s original model
Lewin’s (1946/1997)
original action
research steps
Cummings & Worley
Coghlan & Brannick
1. Prestep to
determine context
and purpose
1. Entering and
1. Prestep
2. Planning
2. Diagnosing
2. Planning action
3. Action
3. Planning and implementing change
3. Taking action
4. Fact finding
4. Evaluating and institutionalizing change
4. Evaluating action
Stringer (2013)
1. Look
a. Gather relevant
b. Build a picture;
describe the
2. Think
a. Explore and
b. Interpret and
3. Act
a. Plan
b. Implement
c. Evaluate
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Section 4.1
A Review of Action Research
The model of action research used in this book has
three phases of planning, doing, and checking, paralleling Lewin’s (1946/1997) model (Figure 4.1). Each
phase has substeps derived from multiple action
research models:
1. Planning (the discovery phase)
a. Diagnosing the issue
b. Gathering data on the issue
c. Analyzing the data gathered
d. Sharing feedback (data analysis) with
the client
e. Planning of action to address the issue
Figure 4.1: Plan, do, check
action research cycle
The plan, do, check model of action
research was popularized by the total
quality movement. The contemporary
research cycle has more steps, although
essentially accomplishes the same steps of
diagnosing and designing (plan),
implementing (do), and evaluating (check).
2. Doing (the action phase)
a. Learning related to the issue
b. Changing related to the issue
3. Checking (the evaluative phase)
a. Assessing changes
b. Adjusting processes
c. Ending or recycling (back to the
planning stage) the action research
The action research steps may look simple, and it
may appear that planning change is a neat, orderly,
and rational process. In reality, though, it can be chaotic, political, and shifting, with unexpected developments and outcomes.
Take Away 4.1: A Review of Action Research
Action research is a recurring, collaborative effort between organization
members and OD consultants to use data to resolve problems.
The three phases of action research are planning, doing, and checking.
A variety of OD theorists follow Lewin’s model, although the number and names
of steps may vary.
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Section 4.2
Planning: The Discovery Phase
4.2 Planning: The Discovery Phase
When beginning an OD intervention, the initial steps taken to identify the problem and gather
data about it are known as planning. The planning phase is a diagnostic one. The client and
consultant work with other organization stakeholders to study the problem and determine
the difference between desired outcomes and actual outcomes. The discrepancy between
what is and what should be is known as a performance gap. For example, if an organization
aspires to be first in quality in the industry but lags behind in second or third place, that
would be the performance gap between being first versus second or third.
Organizations perform gap analysis to assess reasons for a gap between reality and the
desired outcome. The performance gap idea can also be applied to yourself. Let us say you
aspire to a managerial position but have not achieved it. Upon analyzing the gap, you realize
you lack the training and experience to attain the position. If you decide to eliminate the gap,
you might enroll in a graduate program, attain a leadership certificate, or find a mentor to
help you attain your goal. Consider a performance gap you have experienced and complete
the chart in Figure 4.2. What other performance gaps have you experienced?
Figure 4.2: Performance gap analysis
Use this chart to assess your own performance gap. Identify a desired reality—perhaps running a 5K.
Next, honestly note your current reality: Can you run around the block? Run or walk for a mile? Once you
determine the gap, fill out the middle column with specific action steps to move closer to your goal—how
will you close the gap?
Steps to Close
the Gap
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Planning: The Discovery Phase
Section 4.2
Benefits of the Planning Phase
Planning is a critical phase of OD, because poor plans will result in poor outcomes such as fixing
the wrong problem, wasting time and resources, and frustrating organization members. The
benefits of good planning include setting the OD process up for success through careful analysis
and diagnosis of the problem; engaging organization members from the beginning in the processes of collaboration, ongoing learning, and capacity building in the action research process;
and prioritiz-ing issues.
Tips and Wisdom
Time management guru Alan Lakein is credited with coining the phrase “Failing to plan is
planning to fail” (as cited in Delaney, 2011). This advice is to be heeded in OD. Planning is key
to effective interventions. How does Lakein’s quote apply to your experience?
Levels of Analysis
Before we delve into the steps of the planning phase, we should understand the location of the
OD effort; that is, the level at which the action research might occur. This is known as the level
of analysis. The OD effort might focus on the individual, group, organization, or system. Each
level comes with its own issues, needs, and appropriate interventions. These levels, along
with appropriate interventions, were discussed in Chapter 2.
All levels of analysis, from the individual to the system, face similar issues. Cockman, Evans,
and Reynolds (1996) categorize organization issues according to purpose and task, structure,
people, rewards, procedures, or technology:
Purpose and task refers to identifying the reason the organization exists and how its
members advance its mission.
Structure pertains to reporting relationships and how formal and informal power
relations affect the organization.
People issues relate to relationships, leadership, training, communication, emotions,
motivation and morale, and organization culture.
Rewards systems include financial and nonfinancial incentives available for performance and perceived equity among employees.
Procedures include decision-making processes, formal communication channels, and
policies. These are an important category for analysis.
Technology involves assessing whether the organization has the necessary equipment, machinery, technology, information, and transport to accomplish its tasks.
Table 4.2 identifies questions to ask about each area of Cockman, Evans, and Reynolds’s levels
of analysis.
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Section 4.2
Planning: The Discovery Phase
Table 4.2: Cockman, Evans, and Reynolds’s organizational issues and
diagnostic questions
Organizational issues
Diagnostic questions
• Purpose and tasks
• What business are we in?
• What do people do?
• People
• Structure
• Rewards
• Pr …
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