Action Learning

by Steve Roche

Facilitating an Action Learning Set

The need for a facilitator

An Action Learning Set needs to be run by someone with strong Facilitation Skills, particularly in the early stages. A mature group may successfully self-facilitate, by rotating the role.

It is essential that one individual takes responsibility for this function. It is very difficult for people to fully focus on someone’s story or feelings if they are also trying to follow process steps and watch the timing.

The facilitator is selected to do the job because they have specialised skills in running groups, dealing with people and handling conflict. Ideally they have been trained specifically to run an Action Learning Set and are thoroughly familiar with the process.

It is best if this person is neither too senior nor too junior to the set members.

In the first case it may inhibit others from speaking freely; in the second they may themselves feel inhibited from intervening effectively. A good solution, at least to begin with, is an external facilitator for whom it is much easier to remain neutral.

If this is not possible, 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.

The role of the facilitator

Action Learners need to be constantly aware that challenges like those described in the page on Action Learning Set meetings can easily knock the problem holder out of rapport with the group. If this happens someone (usually the facilitator) needs to re-build rapport.

The facilitator will also be monitoring the group for unexpressed feelings and reactions, checking that people are still engaged with the group and able to handle their emotional states, and ensuring adherence to ground rules.

Sometimes problems may arise such as personality clashes, diversity issues, unacceptable language or offensive views. It is the job of the facilitator to step in and resolve these issues, having respect for the feelings of all involved and adhering to the Action Learning process. Very occasionally it may be necessary to ask someone to leave the set, or to review their suitability for membership.

Key ideas

Action Learning philosophy works on the assumptions that:

  • People have their own solutions within themselves
  • If someone is given access to the resources they need, they will make better choices
  • Individual and organisational success benefits from behavioural flexibility.