Action Learning

by Steve Roche

Common questions

  1. How do I know if Action Learning is right for me?
  2. What benefits might I get from running an Action Learning Set in my business?
  3. How do I select the right people for the set?
  4. How do I find the right person to facilitate?
  5. How does a typical meeting run?

1. How do I know if Action Learning is right for me?

You can use Action Learning to deal with issues you want to resolve, to find ways of performing tasks better and to raise concerns that are causing you problems.

People choose Action Learning because it is:

  • a powerful tool for personal and business development
  • a proven way to get results
  • highly cost-effective compared to other options, such as training or individual coaching.

It creates and develops the culture of enquiry and questioning that is essential to the modern organisation. Energy and commitment are needed to set up an Action Learning Set, and the organisation needs to be ready for Action Learning.

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2. What benefits might I get from running an Action Learning Set in my business?

Action Learning:

  • Supports and challenges people to seek answers, to act and to learn
  • Builds commitment to action with the accountability of a peer group
  • Ensures the learning is fed back into the organisation
  • Creates time out from the pressure of work – literally ‘time to think’.

The kinds of skills people develop include:

  • Asking for and receiving help, advice, assistance, feedback and challenge
  • Staying in charge of their own time, problem and learning
  • Resilience, perseverance, self-belief and being proactive.
  • Understanding other people’s models of the world
  • Empathy, listening, questioning, challenging and supporting.

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3. How do I select the right people for the set?

Action Learning is a means of developing managers, leaders and professionals who want to develop their self-awareness, careers and relationships. It is also valuable for anyone who needs to develop self-understanding and interpersonal skills.

You need to encourage people to think about their reasons and their success criteria for participation; the more specific the criteria the better. What evidence do they need in order to understand that their outcomes are being achieved?

An Action Learning Set can work with almost any group where there is goodwill, a commitment to learn and experiment and some willingness to be open. When setting up a set, look for members who have qualities or experience such as:

  • Empathy and self-awareness
  • Personal development and group work
  • Counselling or consulting skills
  • Mentoring or coaching experience
  • Facilitator training and experience.

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4. How do I find the right person to facilitate?

A facilitator is selected on the basis of relevant skills and experience, such as running groups, dealing with people and handling conflict. Ideally, they are specifically trained to run an Action Learning Set, and are thoroughly familiar with the process.

This person should not be too junior relative to the set members (or they may feel inhibited from intervening effectively), nor too senior (which may inhibit others from speaking freely). To begin with, a good solution may be to employ an external facilitator, who will find it much easier to remain neutral.

Alternatively, identify someone from within the organisation who has the appropriate background and personal qualities, give them some training and invite them to develop their skills by facilitating a group of people with whom they are not closely connected.

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5. How does a typical meeting run?

Set members arrive at the regular time at the arranged place. A brief contribution is invited from each person, then bids for time in this session are invited. Once the issues to be covered are agreed, timing for the rest of the meeting is finalised.

Each meeting is carefully structured with these process steps:

  • Personal updates, including feedback from the last session
  • Bids for space to raise issues and agree agenda
  • For each issue/problem:
  1. Tell the story
  2. Ventilate feelings
  3. Clarify and state outcome
  4. Scope the problem
  5. Identify positive elements
  6. Identify alternative courses of action
  7. Agree next steps and intermediate goals
  8. Final check and completion.
  • Review the process.

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