Action Learning Set

What is Action Learning?

Action Learning is an approach to solving real problems that involves taking action and reflecting upon the results.

The learning that results helps improve the problem-solving process as well as the solutions the team develops.  Put simply, it is about getting things done.

Because Action Learning has has been demonstrated to be very effective in developing a number of individual leadership and team problem solving skills (Leonard and Marquardt, 2010), it was been used extensively as a component in corporate and organisational leadership development programs.

Because complex problems require many skills, individual team members can develop a customised learning agenda for themselves. This strategy is quite different from the “one size fits all” curriculum that is characteristic of many training and development programs.

The theory of Action Learning  was developed originally by Reg Revans (1982) who applied it to support organisational and business development, problem solving and improvement.

What is an Action Learning Set?

An Action Learning Set includes:

  1. a real problem that is important, critical, and usually complex; brought to the Set by an ‘issue owner’
  2. a diverse problem-solving team or “action learning set”
  3. a process that promotes curiosity, inquiry, reflection and self determination
  4. a requirement that, through talking, can be converted into action and, ultimately, a solution
  5. a commitment to learning

A set should consist of no more than 9 members, with 6-7 being the optimum size.  All members have to commit to attending every Action Learning Set meeting, which will occur for 4 x full days (9am-5pm) every 4/6 weeks.

A facilitator can be helpful when starting up Action Learning Sets; to guide the group through the process, to promote learning and ultimately to encourage the team to be self managing.

What can I expect, if I am part of an Action Learning Set?

  • Contracting – A new set needs to agree conventions and ground rules, in order to build trust.    Trust is established so that it is ‘safe’ to bring an issue.
  • Telling the story – An issue owner, at the start of ‘taking the space’, states what they want to achieve in the time. Only one person brings an issue at a time and the whole set will look at each issue in turn. The issue owner describes the issue.  Often it is helpful to express the feelings that go with the issue.
  • Action Learning Set - A web of support (UEA Estate, Norwich)

    Action Learning Set – A web of support (Photo: Andrea Rippon. UEA Estate/Norwich)

    Clarification – Set members respect one another’s differences and have a desire to offer mutual support.  The set members clarify their understanding of the issue.  They do not offer advice or interpretation. The issue owner, through this facilitative style of listening and questioning, discovers if there is an underpinning issue.  The Set may discuss/brainstorm the individual’s issue (at his/her request only) whilst he/she listens, only.  He/she will not be a participant in that discussion/brainstorm.   Set members speak from their own experience and do not retreat into principles, concepts or other people’s situations.  Statements are owned, using ‘I’ language.  Everyone has opportunities to gain new understanding.

  • Options – Everyone takes responsibility for their own learning, and the fact that they have the power to solve their own problems. The aim of the Set is not to resolve issues together; it is to help each indivdidual member resolve his/her own issues with the support and challenge of the rest.  The Set helps the issue owner find their own solution.  The issue owner, with the help of the set, identifies and explores potential options for the way forward; and reflects on what resources are available – within and without the Set.
  • Action – The issue owner makes choices and decides the next step.  They will be encouraged by the Set to have at least three action points to address after the Set has finished.
  • Confidentiality – The first rule of the Action Learning Set, is not to talk about the Action Learning Set with anyone outside the set; with set members outside the set; or with the issue owner,  except at the issue owner’s instigation.  (The issue owner can seek further help from whoever they want, outside of the set.)
  • Process – Any problems about the process are sorted in the group.   This includes reflections on group and individual process.

Next steps

If you would like to initiate Action Learning Sets in your business/organisation, please email me.  We will arrange to meet and talk about your expectations; and how these might be met.

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