Action Learning

by Steve Roche

An Action Learning Set meeting

This page describes a typical Action Learning Set meeting.

The set is run by a facilitator, who has specific skills in running groups, dealing with people and handling conflict, and who is thoroughly familiar with the Action Learning process. Often the facilitator performs only that role, but in some sets the facilitator is also a member and may contribute issues of their own.

There will probably be around half a dozen set members. It is hard to operate with fewer than four, and more than eight becomes unwieldy.

Set members arrive at the regular time at the arranged place. The facilitator begins the meeting by welcoming people and making announcements. A brief contribution is invited from each member, to include a progress report from the previous meeting.

Members are then invited to put in a bid for time in this session. A set that meets for three hours would probably address two issues in that time. Once it is agreed which issues will be covered and in what order, the timing for the remainder of the meeting (including breaks) can be finalised.

If the facilitator is also a member, it is helpful for someone else temporarily to take over the facilitator role while that person works on their issue.

Members are expected to commit to attend every meeting, to stay for the whole of the time, and to actively contribute to other people’s work.

The process steps

Each meeting is carefully structured with these 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.

The problem-holder begins (tell the story) by simply recounting the facts of the situation, without interruption. In the second step they are encouraged by the others to focus on and articulate the feelings aroused by the problem.

In step 3, other members ask questions to help the problem-holder towards a deeper understand of their issue. Towards the end of this stage the facilitator takes the lead in getting a clear statement of the problem and (ideally) a written outcome.

Step 4 is where most of the work is done on the problem. It deals with identifying what parts of the story are directly relevant, what is outside the current scope or outside the control of the problem-holder, what actions they have already tried and what possibilities there are at this point.

In step 5 the set helps the problem-holder to find something that is positive and of value in their situation, however dire it may seem. In step 6, and on the basis of the preceding discussion, the problem-holder is strongly encouraged to identify for themselves ways in which they could move forward. Other members may, by invitation only, offer suggestions.

Then (step 7) next steps can be identified, plus actions that will be taken before the next meeting, in the expectation of a report back next time. Step 8 is a brief check that the process is complete and the problem-holder has everything they need.

The set may choose at this point to conduct a brief review of its performance in order to contribute to its continuous improvement. After a short break the set reconvenes and repeats the process for the second issue.

Action Learning interventions

Set members are free to offer interventions at most stages. These may be reflections such as, ‘I notice you are looking a bit upset right now’, or ‘You sound quite angry about that’, but will mostly be in the form of questions.

Questions should always be framed to assist the problem-holder and move them forwards – never to satisfy the curiosity of the questioner. Good questions help the person to consider something they had not thought of before, to see things in a different way, or to highlight limited thinking. There is more on this in the Questioning Skills topic, and much relevant material in Coaching skills.

Example interventions:
1) Problem-holder: I always screw up in that situation
  Set member: Always? Was there ever a time when you were successful? (challenging the generalisation)
2) Problem-holder: She never says ‘good morning’ because she obviously doesn’t like me.
  Set member: How do you know she doesn’t like you? (asking for evidence) Could there be another reason why she doesn’t say good morning? (challenging the distortion)
3) Problem-holder: I’m sick and tired of trying to change things.
  Set member: You’re sick... and tired...? (listening skills – reflecting)
  Set member: What can you see yourself doing before the next set? (using visual language, where this is the preference of the problem holder)
4) Problem-holder: I’ve wasted a whole year in that department.
  Set member: What have you learned about yourself during this time?
  Set member: Which people have you met this year who might be able to help you?
  Set member: Suppose you’d spent the year gaining valuable insight and awareness, and preparing yourself for the next move? (all examples of reframing)