Action Learning Sets

I have been involved running several Action Learning Sets over a number of years, both as a Facilitator and as a current member of two, and find them a wonderfully fluid and affirming way to develop.

This article explains the principle of Learning sets, how they work, the role of the Facilitator, along with a “sprinkling” of quotes from recent evaluations of people involved in Learning set programmes.

Action learning is a development process. Over several months (sometimes longer) people working in a small group tackle problems they face as individuals, or sometimes wider organisational issues, and learn from their attempts to change things. Action learning is not management or skills training in a formal sense, but undoubtedly development focussed.

Each individual is supported, challenged and encouraged to take action on their own challenges and learn from this. The reflection and review within the group enables learning to happen and effective action to be taken.

Sometimes, Action Learning sets can be “topic based” where the group agrees to look at a particular topic like change management or management style, where they might do some reading around the topic before the session, discuss at the start of the set and then go onto the Learning set element looking at individual challenges. I run a number of Coaching and Mentoring Learning sets on this basis, where the first part of the set introduces new ideas and models and the second half looks at challenges for individuals.

Reg Revans, who invented action learning, wrote “there is no learning without action and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning”; so there is a need for individuals to follow through from agreed actions at the Learning set, and report back on progress at the next one.

“The problem”

Each person brings to the group a managerial or individual problem, which they own. The problem must be current, may have been resistant to other solutions and they must want to act to resolve it. Each member of the action learning group is helped by the other members of the group to review a problem, situation or opportunity in such a way that new approaches begin to emerge.

Action learning is most effective in helping to solve problems rather than puzzles. “Puzzles” have “best” solutions and can be solved by the application of knowledge or with the help of experts. Problems have no right answers and are best tackled in different ways by questioning and insight. Knowledge can be helpful but should only be sought after careful reflection on what knowledge is needed and why.

“I feel that it has enabled us to form a stronger bond within the ‘team’ and has given us a forum to discuss areas where we have all found difficulty. Also knowing that other people in a similar position encounter the same/ similar issues, has been reassuring and we have supported each other to resolve these”

The Action learning group works on problems which individually and personally engage the group members- situations in which “I am part of the problem and the problem is part of me”

The client starts by giving:
  • Sufficient context and background information
  • The help they need from the group
  • Their own view of the problem
  • What they have already done and tried
  • What they are thinking of doing

The group 

The group acts as a team to help the individual reflect, learn and importantly, take action to solve their problem. They help each other think through the issues, create options, take action and learn from the effects of that action. Learning about how groups work is an added benefit.

Time and space is given to one person at a time. Each other group members objective is to make the client work as hard as possible. A key question for the process is “is this helping the client?” Often, once the client has outlined the problem, they sit outside the group to work through it, before taking feedback.

The process assists the client to check their own and others perceptions of the problem, to clarify and make it more manageable, and to create and explore alternatives for action. They are then encouraged to take action in the light of the new insight. The insight begins to change the situation. An account of the consequences of the action is brought back to the group at the next meeting for further shared reflection and exploration.

“This sort of training is much more interesting than the normal run of mill stuff and I feel that all staff could benefit from a similar experience”

The role of each person in the group is to help the client by:

  • Listening; giving their full attention
  • Reflecting back
  • Summarising
  • Letting their intuition work
  • Asking questions
  • Noticing their own and others feelings
  • Offering a hypothesis
  • Advice
  • NOT by trying to solve their problem for them

The group provides a balance of support and challenge, which enables each member to act and learn effectively; becoming aware of group processes and gradually developing effective team work.

Individuals within an action learning group focus on learning at 3 levels:

  • About the problem which is being tackled
  • About what is being learned about oneself
  • About the process of learning itself: i.e. learning to learn

To prepare for an action learning meeting each individual thinks about the other members’ problems and situations, remembering what they planned to do and the key features of the situation. Group members do not need to prepare for their problem solving session other than to have an idea of which issue they will talk about.

The Facilitator

Action Learning sets have a facilitator whose problem is to help the set develop, to facilitate the supporting and challenging process and to help members reflect on their learning. The Facilitator must create a place where the learning for each individual can be maximised.

The facilitator also holds members of the group to their agreed task, and models a style of questioning. They may also draw member’s attention to the process of the group, how they are behaving and feeling. However, the management of the group is vested in all members.

A typical Action Learning set process

Check in

Group members talk briefly about what has happened since the last meeting or about any significant issues they have on their mind at the start of the meeting

Setting the agenda

  • This involves negotiating the amount of time for each person
  • Identifying any other issues for which time needs to be scheduled; if there is a topic area to be covered initially at the set, an agreed time is allocated
Individual Time Slots
  • Each time slot is self managed
  • Individuals decide what they want to discuss and what help they want from the group
  • Time keeping is the responsibility of the whole group
Group Issues

Some time may be needed to review how the group is working as a team and talk through group processes and issues

“I have grown in confidence as a person: I have acquired and developed skills, especially when dealing with difficult staff and service users, and also at team meetings”