Dial Up Learning with Seven Action Learning Strategies that We Use at Southwest Airlines

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

Seven action learning strategies that create impact for learners, leaders and the business in one of Southwest Airlines' high-potential leadership development programs.


Action learning is an excellent way to dial up the learning in leadership development. It requires learners to apply newly acquired skills, provides great business value and deepens the network of up-and-coming leaders. Yes, you want those results for your leadership development programs, too.

In this article we'll focus on the use of action learning in leadership development programs, and I'll point you to a few resources you can use to learn more about how to design, develop and implement action learning in your programs. As an example, I'll tell you a bit about the action learning project we employ in one of the high-potential leadership development programs at Southwest, along with seven strategies that helped us create a dynamic experience, amp up the learning and add value to the bottom line.


If this is the first article you're reading about Southwest Airlines' MIT Level II program, and you'd like context, check out the first article in the series here.

Southwest's Action Learning Project

The action learning element of one of Southwest's high-potential leadership development programs, called MIT Level II, is a cornerstone of the six-week curricula. Not only do participants test out and apply newly acquired skills, they also deepen their relationships due to the time and teamwork required to work through a challenging assignment. They gain an understanding of how to introduce, socialize and present a fresh idea throughout the organization. Plus, the executive team loves it - it's like an internal shark tank with four to five new ideas presented each year.

Classes for MIT II are between 16 to 20 leaders. We begin to learn about the style, strengths, opportunities and expertise of participants from day one. Based on that knowledge, we organize the class into small cohorts to work through a training module together. The original training centered on strategic thinking. Several years ago we changed the module to focus on rapid innovation. Minor adjustments to teams ensue, then we introduce the project. Each team receives a different strategic priority, aligning with Southwest's strategic priorities, such as:

  • Improve the customer experience

  • Grow revenues & win customers

  • Improve operational efficiency

  • Be the best place to work

They are given specific parameters for each of the priorities, such as reducing operating costs by $5M or improving the employee experience with a $0 cost basis. They then have four months to develop a proposal, which they present to the full executive team of 50+ leaders on a formal day in late summer.

The executive team loves this day, as they have a chance to see and assess up-and-coming leaders, as well as hear innovative recommendations that are both feasible and often successful. More than 50% of the recommendations presented have gone into "production" mode.

It is also one of the components of the MIT II program that participants tell us challenges and develops them the most. Guidance from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) shares the importance of learning "on the job" with 70/20/10. 70/20/10 reflects that people learn 70% of what they know from job-related experiences, 20% from interactions with others and only 10% from formal education. Bingo. Action learning is all about that 70%.

Action Learning

If you can't already tell, I'm an advocate of action learning. It's a fantastic development strategy when you have the time and structure to accommodate it. I will also own that I am not an expert. There's a great body of work on action learning that is worth diving into if training & development is your profession.

The World Institute for Action Learning defines action learning as a process that involves a small group working on real problems, taking action and learning as individuals, as a team and as an organization. It was developed by a professor and consultant, Reginald Revans in the mid 1900's. I like this definition. I see how it focuses action learning to both improve learning outcomes + provide business value.

There are plenty of resources for you to draw upon to help you get up-to-speed and ideate on how to incorporate action learning into your programs. Here are a couple to get you thinking:

  • ATD (Association for Talent Development) provides an overview of the action learning process in this members-only article. The process outlined is similar to the process we used during the strategic thinking training we provided participants.

  • This article from MIT Sloan outlines an action learning process they use for students, but it applies well to corporate learning. I especially like their five learning objectives as they relate to action learning.


Strategies Southwest Uses that Make an Impact

There are seven strategies we employ at Southwest to make the most of the action learning project in MIT II. But let me tell you a story first.

The leader who shepherded the MIT Program before I joined added the action learning project to the curricula, and it was spot on even in the first year. My first day with Southwest in July 2008, was the day the teams were presenting their recommendations. I was in awe. We have a amphitheater shaped conference room at our headquarters location, and as I walked in with my new Leader, I met many executives eager to hear these recommendations. Colleen Barrett was among that crew, and I received the Southwest hug and welcome that only Colleen can give. I'm sure my eyes were wide and I hope I was smiling. Yep, that day is still one of my fondest since joining Southwest.

Gary and his direct reports sat in the front row, listening intently and asking pointed, sometimes challenging questions, during the Q&A period. Presentations are 20 minutes with 10 minutes of Q&A. I remember looking on in shock as one of the participants presenting was wrapping up a recommendation and walked up to Gary, banged on the front railing and said "Gary, deal or no deal." After a moment of silence, the room broke out into laughter. I remember inwardly cringing, then watching with joy as the laughter began and Gary smiled and rolled his eyes. That leader is now a vice president, and it's a memory I love to bring up now and then.

That day I took note that the outcome of this project they had been working on since April was not just for the learners, though in hearing the debrief, they did indeed walk away from the experience with plenty of new perspectives and skills. Southwest got all leaders involved in the learning journey. It was well supported and provided excellent business return. Gary has said since then that the MIT II Strategic Presentations, as we call them, more than pay for the investment we make in the program. Woohoo!

If I were to net out key strategies that we engage to earn that comment from Gary, they would be these seven things:

  1. We focused participants on building a recommendation with a specific purpose and clear parameters. Cohort teams have full freedom on the recommendation they bring as long as it has not yet been initiated or recommended.

  2. A coach from our strategic planning and innovation functions walk along-side each team to provide guidance, make introductions or assist in the vetting process as needed. It's not a structured relationship, but we invest time when the projects are assigned to introduce each group to their coach and begin the brainstorming process together. Each strategic priority (ie, improving the customer experience or improving operational efficiency) also has an executive that "shepherds" that priority, and that leader acts as an executive advocate for a cohort team.

  3. These projects are real time "shark tanks" for the organization, and we mean it. Over the course of the last 12 years, more than 50% of the recommendations have been used to grow or focus the business. An example are the video displays for customers in most airports. They received an update with more proactive flight information due to one of the MIT II strategic project recommendations.

  4. The executive team is engaged in the strategic projects and opens their doors to the teams. In the first few years, we coached a few executives to allow teams to poke around and ask questions. We did that in part by asking them to share their ideas, and quite a few recommendations were ideas an executive had but didn't have the resources to research and propose. The projects are a win/win for everyone.

  5. We mix up the Teams, ensuring there is balance of personality (sometimes purposefully mixing up folks who we know will clash) and skills. We wait to group teams until two to three weeks into the program so that we have time to get to know them. By then, we've conducted several personality assessments and have spent a week or two learning together. We also don't assign participants a project that is within their area of expertise or in a function they perform in their day jobs. This is meant to be a challenging, uncomfortable stretch project. Plus, we want innovation and sometimes it's not as easy to innovate in an area that you oversee daily.

  6. We begin the strategic projects with training on strategic thinking. Recently that has shifted to training on rapid innovation. Both training modules were challenging and provided guidance on how to vet many options into a feasible, business recommendation. In the strategic thinking module we used a challenging case study focused on a failing bank, purposefully in an industry very different from the airline industry. Now, we host a challenging rapid innovation module to get them started quickly vetting recommendations.

  7. The strategic project recommendations are an event that we schedule before the year begins, and are hopefully a day that executives look forward to. After the presentations, they have lunch with participants and offer further feedback and networking. It's a great opportunity to build in additional exposure for both execs and the high-potential class.

Action learning - it works. And it's worth some time considering how you can add an element of action learning into your programs or get a fresh project going. Action learning does not have to be as involved as the one I've shared from Southwest. Ideating and solving a situation that a participant brings to class is a good way to incorporate action learning.

Please sign-up and share your comments on how you engage action learning in your work. I'd love to hear guidance from some of you experts out there.