How does action learning work?

In most Action Learning programmes people work in small groups or sets of between 6-8, sometimes with an adviser or facilitator

Action learning sets work by:

Meeting regularly – The frequency and duration can vary depending upon these circumstances, the people and their problems. The set might choose to meet for a full or half day, weekly, fortnightly, monthly or six weekly, over 3 month, 6, 12 or 18 months. People in the set should decide how many meetings to have, where to hold them, for how long, and how to evaluate and so on.

Often they are used for project management and started off by a facilitator who has initiated the action learning programme but it should be handed over to the set as soon as it is established. This project self management is a first step in people taking responsibility for their own actions and learning.

Consistent Membership – It is often impossible for everybody to be at every meeting, but more than one absence of any one member can hold back the effectiveness of the set.

Clients or stakeholders – This could be for example a more senior manager who holds members accountable for tackling the problems in the organisation and who may either be able to help or may turn out to be part of the problem.

Sharing-members perception of the problem to be tackled. This involved self-disclosure as people talk about feelings, fears, hopes, limitations, strengths and so on and also confidential information about their units and colleagues.

Ground rules to govern behaviour inside and outside the set. An example of a rule might be that all members have equal right to the time and attention of the set. Another might be that people cannot discuss ‘set business’ outside.

Supporting people- in their attempts at understanding, action and learning. A good set builds up over time in its ability to offer members both support and challenge to their existing views and perceptions. Warmth (or support) is often needed before light (to challenge) can be accepted.

Questioning where each person presents his or her status report or current understanding of the problem, whilst other members listen, express support, make suggestions, but above all pose questions. This may lead to questions that lead to the person questioning him or herself. It is this process which can lead to questioning insight or Q. Sets improve in their ability both to support and to challenge as they mature.

Group process- whereby the set forms and develops. Members having got to know each other’s problems and then helping each person reflect on that action in order to learn. In a mature set there is that sense of comradeship – of being ‘all for one and one for all’ – where all members take pleasure and satisfaction whenever one person has a small victory and gets a new insight into the situation.

Review- in which the set stops work on problems and reflects on how well the group as a whole is working. “How effective are we in helping each other act and learn?” Facilitation and evaluation are key processes that must happen in any set.

Facilitator- whose ‘role’ is to help the set develop, to facilitate the supporting and challenging processes, and to help members reflect on their learning. The facilitator’s main purpose is to do with helping members towards more profound understanding of themselves and of their worlds. If there is no facilitation in the set, members must ensure these ‘process’ tasks are accomplished.

What does it mean to be involved in action learning? There is no fixed may of running an Action Learning set, no British standards applies! Much will depend on the individuals, and the environment and circumstances from which they come.

Ground Rules

Given the range of expectations which individuals might bring it is extremely important to establish some ground rules early one. These need to be shared and agreed within the group, and everyone needs to sign up to them. Ground rules might cover issues such as timing, format to meetings, confidentiality, smoking, acceptable behaviours etc., and will provide a sound basis for the operation of the set and avoid conflicts. They provide a checklist and legitimise any member ’blowing the whistle’ If they are contravened.

Involvement in action learning required commitment

Involvement in Action Learning can be both challenging and rewarding! Changing (and growth) can be painful processes but success is usually satisfying. Successful action learning requires commitment by individuals to their own development, to the set and its members, ant to taking action in their organisations

Commitment to self awareness

Successful action learning requires the ability and willingness to be able to shift focus between yourself, your ‘problem’ and the other ‘problems’ within the set. If you really ‘own’ the problem, you are likely to be a part if it! Are you clear about how your behaviours, attitudes and skills affect others involved in the problem? Are you clear about where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and how best you might act to make real progress?

You must at least be prepared to think about this. In action learning sets which really perform well you will use other set members to help your challenge your own role and ideas, and to give you useful feedback – plenty of food for thought, some of which may be challenging and even uncomfortable. However, if the set works well then this feedback and challenge will be positive and helpful.

Commitment – to the set and its members

For the set to function well you will need to help others to make progress on their problems – not necessarily by trying to come up with ready-made solutions, but by helping to ensure that key issues are addressed – that the right questions are asked! You will need to challenge others in a helpful and constructive way – to give good feedback, to give support and to listen. Active listening is a skill that too few managers possess or practise! One of the keys to successful action learning sets is their ability as the need arises.

Set members therefore have to be sensitive to each others needs and to be selfless enough to help each other – sometimes at their own expense. Giving time within a set meeting to help one member going through a particularly difficult time can be invaluable, providing that there is sufficient give-and take within the group, and that the focus can change when needs change.

Commitment – to action

Action learning is about producing action on the problem in the organisation. Whilst questioning and reflection help to provide better analysis and generate options for action – this is not enough! It is through action that real learning takes place, and without commitment to action the exercise becomes sterile. Hence you need to be committed to making real progress on the problem, and to be prepared to commit yourself publicly within the action learning set to taking action – to take it – and then to learn from it by discussing the impact with the set members. Set members should aim to help each other be specific about what outcomes are to be expected.

This will then provide a firm basis on which to assess the impact and learn about what works and what does not! The ‘contract’ between you and the rest of the set is important. Fulfilling the contract strengthens the set and makes it more effective and valued. Too many failures to deliver will undermine its credibility and lose commitment from other set members.

It is likely that relationships and processes which have proved valuable throughout the life of the set will be retained into its afterlife, albeit in a different pattern or context. The lessons learned by individuals will remain with then long after the set’s demise.