For people not embroiled in the world of research, it seems a strange suggestion to use a standard research practice to enhance your career. Nevertheless that is what this article intends to do. Because action research has proven itself "a tool for complex times", great success can be enjoyed by employing it in the personal arena. After all, our lives are nothing if not complex. In this article, I will introduce the three steps involved in action research, and give examples as to their importance in each of the three main time periods within a career: 1) as you get started, 2) making strategic plans midway, and 3) transitioning to new endeavors.
The first step in any action research project is to discover what is going on in the world that you want to study. This usually involves work on the web, in libraries, interviewing people, or generally asking questions in any format that comes your way. As you can tell this is a good way to get started on any project, because it grounds us in what is already known, making it less likely we "reinvent the wheel". As example, a person just starting off on their career should spend some time investigating the lifestyle involved in the jobs they are applying for. It is not often understood how much our work constrains the quality of our lives, and people need to make conscious decisions about not only what they are suited to do, but what the impact of that work will be short-term and long-term. For mid-career strategic planning, the discovery phase takes the professional into the literature of their work, ensuring that decisions are made with some broader understanding of what others are doing in similar situations but in other contexts. An example of this might be a woman I worked with who wanted to lead virtual teams. She used her discovery phase to uncover the fact that communication would be the biggest area of concern and prepared herself with course work and other research to develop systems of communication prior to situations that would require them. At the end of our careers, as we are transitioning into a new kind of life, a discovery process also serves us well. If, for example, we will soon be retired, a day or more searching the web about what retired people are doing will enlarge our view of the potential of our new life. I think one of the most exciting aspects of the discovery phase, no matter when we engage it, is that it opens us to potential and that enlivens our spirit. We are always better off moving into measurable action when we start from the potential of growth rather than in reacting to situations.
The second step in action research combines two of its major components - taking action to move things forward and measuring the outcome of those actions when we do. For example, going back to our person just entering their career, strategically sending out cover letters with resumes to organizations that have openings is a natural step. But this becomes exponentially stronger when the person opens a spreadsheet and tracks: the date, the person they contacted, when they called back, the results of those calls, whether they were introduced by someone or session application because of an advertisement, and what they learned subsequent to that application. Over a period of time this spreadsheet helps them see what strategies were more successful. For instance, it would be likely the person would see that they got farther on the interview process through personal introduction.
Mid-career strategic plans have much in common with transition situations in the measurable action phase. They both involve mature decision-making and tracking results, perhaps over a period of time. The criteria for this phase is that no matter how small your action, you take it having predetermined your baseline. This allows you to measure your results. For instance, people that I have worked with who have used action research will take measurable actions in the following laundry list of circumstances: 1) to develop professional training, 2) to work through risk management situations, 3) to understand the value of contractors within their industry, 4) to explore the efficacy of teaching classes using an online platform for delivery, 5) to narrowly define leadership options, and 6) to allow people to move into a multicultural settings easily. In all of these cases, mid-career or end of career professionals first investigated what needed to happen next to the discovery phase, and then took actions over a period of time tracking the outcome of each staff using the measurable action criteria.
I find that most mid - to end of career professionals consider themselves reflective practitioners. However when I ask them how they keep notes and what value they find from referring to them, this opinion breaks down. Reflection is more than looking back on what has happened and thinking about it. Quality reflection requires a protocol of regular use. It is like exercising the muscle, if you only do it once in while you don't have it's full range or strength available to you when you need it. So what does reflection involve and how might our three career professionals use it to their advantage?
The beginning career person could set up a weekly protocol of giving themselves on a Friday afternoon a half hour to review what they have done to find a job that week and how they are feeling. Writing the feelings down is important because it becomes data for later. I have found that men have more trouble with this then women can, so let me quote one of the bank personnel that I worked with, "My biggest take away was the functional benefit of using qualitative data from journals and meeting notes in a qualitative manner. Journaling was new to me and didn't come easy to a few of us (men). Converting it into data demonstrated the functional value and has made a believer out of me". If our early career example had to apply for work over a period of time, their reflective data would record the differences in outcomes in the morning this week to week. Patterns would become clear, such as that on a Friday they feel better if they have applied for work on a Thursday than if it has been the beginning of the week and they have heard no answer. Since it likely makes little difference to the human resource professionals to whom they apply, they may conclude that for the quality of their own lives they will apply for work later in the week, giving themselves happier weekends.
Our mid-career professional uses reflective practice to track a myriad of ongoing strategic issues. Consider it data collection and assessment for ongoing projects you are managing. Again, it is useful to have irregular reflective practice on a Friday so that you can put your body of work for the week to rest knowing what to pick up and do when you come back in on Monday, also allowing your weekend to be free of straggling thoughts.
Finally, our end up career transition professional uses reflective practice for dreaming. Remembering what our intentions were for our lives when we started them, gives us a lovely reflective backdrop against which to figure out what we want to do next. Some of those early dreams are worth picking up and pursuing now. Some of the things that gave us joy and as mid-career professionals can now become hobbies, or active volunteer work, or show us other ways we can contribute to our world without having to "work". In this case I recommend a daily reflective practice during a consistent period of time, often just after we wake up in the morning, or after lunch on a full stomach, or at the end of the day. Reflection during those times makes use of the natural rhythms of when our mind and body are relaxed our subconscious and be more active in our dreams more fruitful.
Action Research in Total
This article is too short to tease out all the various ways in which these three steps of discovery, measurable action, and reflection successfully underpin our careers and our lives as we grow. My own personal research has shown it to be vastly beneficial as professional development for people working in groups to solve very complex problems. But why not use the same tools that we use in our work lives to help solve the complexities in our personal life? I end this hoping that everyone reading it takes some small step today to discover something new, measure the actions they're taking towards their goals, and reflect upon: where they are where they wanted me and what will get them the results they are looking for.