Our aim is to support leaders, OD & HRD leads and all staff to develop their organisations to be as fit for purpose so they can meet the opportunities, challenges of the and the demands of their mission critical work..
It is about leading change, service improvement initiatives, engaging and motivating staff, developing their talents and improving potential of staff. Great OD is about understanding context and culture, taking a systems approach and enabling staff to design and deliver even better productivity.
All leaders have a responsibility to develop their organisations as well as their team. We want to facilitate leaders in organisations to do this, and support and develop the capability and capacity of those who have particular responsibility for organisational development.
Action learning is a mechanism used by a group of people to explore real-life issues and a range of practical/creative solutions in a safe environment.
The theory behind it is based on a concept developed by Reg Revans who believes that people only really begin to learn effectively when they have the opportunity to reflect on what they do every day. Participants help each other to learn from their experience through reflection, and exploration of issues associated with work. They develop trust and respect for each other and provide a supportive, positive and non-judgemental environment. An effective action learning set will encourage the challenging of norms and “outside-the-box” creative solutions.
This method of personal, managerial and organisational development has been described as “a way of learning from our actions, and what happens to us, and around us, by taking time to question, understand and reflect, to gain insight, and consider how to act in the future.” (Weinstein,1999). Effective action learning focuses on learning by doing, real problems and implementing solutions. The principles of this approach are based on adult learning as described by Emblen & Gray (1990) “Adults learn best when they are actually involved in their own learning about a current life situation.”.
Action Learning Sets can also:
- Provide a practical forum for the sharing of experience, knowledge and philosophies to bring about change
- Facilitate a small group of individuals to test out theories, principles and practical applications and reflect as a group on the outcomes and learning that are generated
- Challenge norms in organisations and consider options and consequences
- Provide a mutually supportive network. The Action Learning Set could meet regularly (e.g. bi-monthly) and agree an agenda for consideration. A range of approaches can be taken. For example:
Participants present a situation/difficulty in their working life and explain in detail what they seek, (it can be a solution or different approach). The group questions the presenter in order to clarify details/challenge assumptions and the group debate the issues thinking through and sharing potential answers.
The facilitator focuses the group around a particular topic area and asks the members to apply it to their organisation to identify the consequences, difficulties and outcomes that result from introduction.
Developmental learning sets can be focused on specific issues and used to further innovative practice or the application of research/organisational models.
The benefits of action learning
These can include:
- Increased confidence
- Increased self awareness
- Ability to approach situations from a broader & more political perspective
- Learning to be more proactive than reactive
- Learning to be more reflective than emotive
- Improved listening skills
- Inclusion of service improvement leadsfor wider context.
Action Learning Sets can develop strong social relationships in a relatively short space of time dealing with sensitive and confidential issues. It is vital therefore that ground rules are drawn up concerning confidentially to prevent inadvertent breeches.
Outline requirements for action learning include:
A trained AL facilitator for each session is recommended. The facilitator does not need experience or knowledge of the company but does need to be skilled in:
Issues regarding group processes
Empowering and building groups
Active listening and open questioning
Supporting and challenging
Judging when and when not to intervene.Venue
An appropriate venue with capacity for the ideal group size of around 6 members is required. Comfortable seating & coffee tables are suggested
Appropriate catering / break time refreshments at each session.
The purpose of questions in action learning sets is to help the presenter with the issue or problem find solutions from within themselves.
Reg Revans, the founder of Action Learning stated that:
“Subjects learn only of their own volition and never at the will of others…they are not taught by others, but learn “within themselves,” largely by the re-organisation or extension of what they already know”.
On this basis the questions asked in action learning sets should aspire to contain what the presenter in an action learning set, ‘already knows’.
Therefore, it is crucial that questions for a presenter are free of the opinions, advice and point of view of fellow set members.
Consider the following 2 exchanges in an action learning set:
Pete: I’m unsure as to whether now is the right time to expand in Eastern Europe
Julia: Don’t you think that would be a bit unwise considering the instability of the Euro right now?
Pete: I’m unsure as to whether now is the right time to expand in Eastern Europe
Mary: What have you thought may be the right time?
Questions like the one in the first exchange take the focus away from the presenter. Peter now has to consider Julia’s point of view. In the second exchange by using Peter’s words Mary’s question allows Peter to look within himself.
Many of the people in the public sector are extremely conditioned to solve problems and sort things out for others. So when first introduced to action learning they may find it difficult not to offer questions to a presenter that contain advice and solutions.
Therefore, an important role for an action learning facilitator is to model asking non-directive questions.
Top tips for set members when asking questions:
- Don’t jump in too early with a question
- Allow silence for the presenter to think
- Listen first, ask questions later
- Use the presenters words and phrases to form the content of your question
- If you haven’t got a question, don’t panic, just ‘pass’
Using Questions in Action Learning:
“The treatment of a problem begins with its first expression as a question.”
When we are helping people to solve problems in an action learning Set, primarily we use a questioning approach rather than offering advice.
Questioning helps the problem holder or “Presenter” to find his or her own answers, thereby developing ability and confidence.
Indeed, it is a fundamental principle of action learning that each person has within them the capacity to find their own solutions. Normally the purpose of asking a question is to obtain information for myself, the questioner. However, in action learning the purpose is completely different. It is to help someone else to:
- think more deeply
- explore new options and perspectives
- use reflection
In order to make better choices and decisions. The questions which are most helpful for this are generally open, rather than closed. What kinds of open question work best? Simple questions are often the most powerful. For example:
- What do you want to achieve?
- What is stopping us from doing it?
- What might we be able to do about it?
- Who knows about the problem?
- Who cares about it?
- Who can do anything about it?
- Where can we find out about it?
- How will you get to what you want to achieve?
- What’s the first step?
- What could get in the way?
- What do you need?
- When will you start?
Notice that these questions are generally short as well as open. You will often find that shorter questions have a much greater impact than longer ones. Most of us find it quite difficult to ask really short, succinct questions because it can feel abrupt or even rude. So when we are asking questions in an action learning set, it is important to be aware of our tone of voice and body language. The aim is to ask challenging questions in a way that helps the other person.