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Action Learning Sets

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

As we move into winter and the potential of rolling lock downs, how do we give ourselves the best chance to succeed?

Processing in real time is one of the most crucial necessities to remaining afloat in stormy waters. Small problems have a terrible habit of accumulating to become insurmountable obstacles. Change and complexity are now daily features of our working life and the lives of our colleagues and direct reports. Stress can have a cumulative effect and if people aren't being given the chance to resolve stressful events or problems as they present themselves then we'll be storing this stress up which will eventually cause us to burn out.

Increasingly I am seeing leaders give more and more of themselves in order to keep others in the best place. Taking on extra work, answering more questions, offering emotional wellbeing and support, and reiterating plans to meet with this constantly evolving professional landscape.

Only last week I was in a coaching session with the MD of a national organisation who was working out where she would find the energy to do all those amazing things that helped them to get through lockdown 1. The novelty of all of this has definitely worn off and leaders have only got so much left in the tank.

As we explored the options for what would suit the organisation, I asked her if she had ever heard of Action Learning? Action Learning, I described, was a great way to nurture peer support, allow people to process things in realtime, build empathy and connection and importantly give people the much needed time to have some high quality thinking to resolve the noisy problems that were consuming so much attention.

We agreed it seemed like a good fit for their work, so I thought I would share the process more widely in the hope that it could help some of the other people I am connected with too. It's a different way to bring people together in your organisation, whilst also doing something productive!

Action Learning Process

I qualified as an Action Learning Facilitator back in 2015 and to this day, I love facilitating Action Learning Sets. It genuinely offers a transformative space for groups to learn and connect. So, if you want to do it in your organisation, how would you go about it?

Action Learning is a process originally developed by Reg Revans in 1982. It's a method that leverages great learning theory such as Kolb's Learning Cycle and Double Loop Learning. In many ways it is about creating a coaching culture. The first principle is, as Nancy Kline explained in her book, Time to Think:

"Usually the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution – often the best one."

The process allows a 'Presenter' to share a challenge or opportunity which is currently consuming a lot of time or cognitive energy. The others in the group don't jump in with suggestions, but instead first seek to understand the situation through clarifying questions before moving into asking only open questions. These typically start with: who, how, when, why and what.

The process creates the space for people to come to their own solution whilst sharing their thinking process with a wider group of people which can often mean that learning is shared.

You can have multiple rounds of Action Learning in each set. I tend to find that 2 to 4 is the perfect number which would typically take 90 mins to 2 hours.

Having a facilitator often helps in the early stages of Action Learning to build the skills and discipline necessary for it to be productive, but the brilliant thing about it, is that once everyone has learnt the basics, the group can continue as 'self-facilitated'.

Whether you're self facilitating or have someone external coming in, it's definitely recommended to check back in with the methodology on a regular basis and to give everyone the chance to review how things are going... Are you still following the process? What's working well? What might still need some attention to get it back to the originally designed process?

If you're keen to know more about Action Learning or perhaps fancy setting up an Action Learning Group for yourselves, then feel free to get in touch.

As always, thanks for reading!

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