Action Learning for Managers | Mike Pedler | Summary
This book -
is a practical introduction to Action Learning
helps managers explore how Action Learning could help them
offers advise on how to promote Action Learning in your workplace.
Action Learning is an approach to individual and organisational development. Working in small groups - Sets - people tackle actual problems and learn from their attempts to change things.
Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning said, ‘There is no learning without action and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning’. He said, people flourish only when their rate of learning ( L ) is greater than the rate of change ( C ) being experienced.
L > C
Learning has 2 elements - traditional instruction (Programmed Knowledge) and critical reflection (Questioning Insight)
L = P + Q
P(rogrammed knowledge) can solve puzzles. Puzzles have one best answer. But Q(uestioning insight) is needed to solve problems. Problems have no one right answer and different people can solve same problem in different ways. Problems mirror real life.
doableAction Q is more important than P. P is helpful. You can google for P. Find it in [[Summaries]]. Ask Experts. Yet, P should only be sought after careful reflection (Q) on what knowledge is needed and why.
In Action Learning, few people work together over a period of time. This is a Set.
A Set -
Works on real problems of managing and organising.
It must be a voluntary commitment from the set member. The problems (or opportunity) must personally engage.
Checks individual perceptions of the problems to clarify, explore options and form action. More heads are better than one - like the 7 blind men of Hindustan, feeling up an elephant from different sides and experiencing differing versions of reality, when starting out.
Takes action, in light of new insight
Provide the balance of nudge and nurture that will enable each member to act and learn effectively.
Remains aware of group processes to be able to develop effective teamwork. A facilitator may help, or they may self-facilitate.
Focusses on Learning at 3 levels (Last 2 levels help transfer learning to other situations)
problem or opportunity which is being tackled
about what is being learnt about oneself
about the process of learning itself (learning to learn)
2. Will it work, in my Organization?
Organizations that encourage confident and able people to question their work and work processes - indicate robust organisational health. It is not easy and many a career has been limited by those attempting to do so :)
doableAction if you consciously want to create an organisational culture of enquiry and questioning then Action Learning is for you. The reverse is also true!
This is an important consideration if your organisation is presently, severely top down. Action Learning will promote people to run their jobs as if they were their own small businesses (without running off in independent directions of course)
This mindset requires long term commitment and it might actually be easier to ‘train them’ on a need to basis, rather than teaching them ‘learn and act for themselves’.
Get your target population to rate each of these on a scale of 1 (not like us) to 5 (exactly like us)
People are rewarded for asking good questions
People often come up with good ideas
There is a fairly free flow of communications
Conflict is surfaced and death with, rather than suppressed
We are encouraged to learn new skills
We take time out to reflect on experiences
There are plenty of books, materials and resources for learning
People help, encourage and constructively criticise each other
We are flexible in our working patterns and used to working on several jobs at once
Senior people never pull rank and always encourage others to speak their minds.
Total up the scores and -
Between 10-20 - Action Learning probably won’t work, until things open up
Between 21-40 - Action Learning should work well
Over 40 - You don’t need Action Learning :)
It is clear that Action Learning pushes you to a certain way of working. If your scores are short of desired, you might want to look at possible benefits and payoffs more deeply.
doableAction Ask around for results and benefits around productivity, boost in managerial capability, improved team work and continued use of Action Learning amongst practitioners, after the intervention is over.
3. What does an Action Learning Program look like?
There is no one single format. People may simply meet at their own initiative. A large organisational program many have many groups linked together in a complex network.
A formal program will probably have 4 main components -
Meeting for full or half day, every 4-6 weeks, over several months or a year. These will be planned according to what needs to be accomplished. Self management is an important 1st step in administering them.
Set meetings focus on member’s problems or tasks - these form the agenda and the vehicles for action and learning.
Offline senior people, who have a stake in the results. They must be willing to act as mentors to members.
They nudge and nurture. They facilitate the process, in the beginning. But most importantly, they make the learning processes of the set, explicit.
In self-facilitating sets, members take turns to play facilitator role. Most sets arrive to this.
They are great for kick-off and conclusion of program. They fit Action Learning into organisational context. Senior people also attend to influence possibilities (kick-off) and see results (conclusion)
A conference can also have a ‘taster session’ to give every one a flavour of Action Learning.
Longer programs may warrant interim conferences too with focus on review and re-energization.
4. How does an Action Learning Set work?
In the 1st meeting -
Facilitator encourages people to introduce, disclose and explore intentions and arrive at ground rules for working together.
Set members, each bring a problem to the table. This is prior preparation and requires context setting ahead of launch too.
This problem can be tentative, unexplored or incomplete. It is beginning. Stating it as, ‘How can I ...?’ is a great way to begin.
Sets come up with their own practices for subsequent rounds. A popular format is -
Catching up - allows each person to share immediate news and helps re-integrate the group.
Agenda setting - based on what they heard in Catching Up, members set the agenda, decide on a ‘batting order’ and allocate available time. In principle, everyone has equal time, unless otherwise needed.
Progress reports - each person reports on progress since last meeting. Other set members primarily help the person learn from what happened and explore next actions. They do this by keeping focus on the person and their problem, questioning, supporting, challenging and offering help of various sorts. Actions emerge and need to be reported upon, in the next month’s progress report.
Review - Set takes a few minutes to feedback and discuss process. ‘What worked well?’, ‘How could we be more effective?’
doableAction In the beginning, Reviews are important. Take longer, as needed. Use them to -
Develop work practices and clarify ground rules.
Reinforce the focus on Supporting and Questioning during the Set meeting
Reinforce the focus on completion of volunteered actions, between Set meetings
doableAction Being Present, Being Willing to Help, Nudging and Nurturing, Taking Action - these are important mindsets for each member. If found weak, the review should also self evaluate everyone on this.
Ground Rules for Action Learning
Many sets use these -
Confidentiality - what gets discussed in the Set, remains in the Set.
Commitment - to participating with preparation or having a really good reason, if you can’t
Everyone has equal rights to Time, but they don’t have to take it
Everyone should be listened to
We agree to offer each other support and challenge but avoid judgements
It is safe here to admit needs, weaknesses and mistakes
Punctuality - we should start and finish on time
Celebrate achievements without waiting too lon
Other ground rules worth considering -
Meetings rotate around each person’s workplace
Each meeting starts with bids for time
At each session, part of the time is given to members to share their expertise
2’s or 3’s meeting separately outside the set is OK
2’s or 3’s meeting separately outside the set is NOT OK
5. What is an Action Learning Problem
An Action Learning problem is a vehicle for learning which requires us to come up with ideas for action, to try them out and then reflect on what is learnt. In this way we learn about the problem and we learn about ourselves. The way we think, act and relate to others. This then influences how we work on all problems.
A problem is a problem (for the Action Learning) only if meets 2 additional criteria -
It is amenable to action and to learning
It has a personal aspect (my ownership) and and an organisational aspect (affects others too).
doableAction Answer these questions to sharpen the problem, you want to bring to the table.
Describe the problem situation in one sentence
What is it Important?
To your organisation?
How will you recognise progress on this problem?
Who else will like to see progress on this problem?
What difficulties do you anticipate?
What are the benefits if this problem is reduced or resolved?
To other people?
To the organization?
6. What skills are developed in Action Learning?
While Presenting a Problem - analysis, logical expression, asking for help.
While Helping others with their Problems - Listening, Asking Questions, Taking Action.
While Facilitating the Process - Process awareness, Seeing big picture.
In many ways it begins with asking good questions.
doableAction Use these questions from Revans to get started -
Who knows .. about the problem?
Who cares .. about the problem?
Who can ..do anything about the problem?
doableAction Use these questions for action and learning
What am I trying to do?
What is stopping me from doing it?
What can I do about it?
Who knows what I am trying to do?
Who cares about what I am trying to do?
Who else can do anything to help?
doableAction Use these questions in the Set to move things forward
What do you want to get out of this session?
Can you tell us the story as it happened?
What have you learned from that?
What do you most need from us now?
How do other people in the situation - colleagues, friends, partner, boss etc. - feel about this?
How do you feel about what is going on?
What questions does this raise?
How can we help you move forward on this issue?
How would someone you admire, deal with this situation?
Can you think of 3 options for action?
What are the pros and cons of each of these options?
What first steps are you going to take, before our next meeting?
On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to do this action?
How can we make this set more effective?
Brij’s Note - In general all conversations can be modelled as expansion, followed by churning and then a contraction or a closure. Questions must be appropriate to the stage and can also be used to push the conversation to the next stage.
7. How do you evaluate Action Learning?
Evaluation should be planned in from the outset, thought it can be hard to keep it simple and efficient.
The developmental evaluation is easier but we can also look for impact or contribution to something (judgemental evaluation).
For developmental self evaluation doableAction each set member can reflect towards the end of the set meeting, on -
3 key things I have learnt about my problem
1 key thing I have learnt about myself today
My action steps before the next meeting are
1 thing, I have learnt about the problem of (put each set member here, turn by turn)
The thing that stands out for me from today’s session is -
A 3 step approach to developmental evaluation can be to -
Identify main stakeholders
For each stakeholder (category) - identify success criteria
For each stakeholder (category) - identify evidence needed to measure success criteria
Benefits can be evaluated at individual, set and organisational levels. You can look for immediate, intermediate and long term outcomes.
doableAction when quantification is hard, averaging over the judgement of knowledgeable people (delphi estimation) can also be done.
8. Surely Action Learning can’t do everything? (limitations of AL)
In Chapter 2, we looked at if it will work for my organization.
If the purpose is to train on specific skills and knowledge, then other methods will probably work better.
An attempt to shift organisation’s systems | way of thinking | culture entirely by using Action Learning only will also be ineffective. It has to be part of a larger approach to be stand-out effective.
Action Learning is a philosophy and not simply an alternative education or training method. doableAction Look for resonance to Action Learning at philosophical level to see if it will work for you.
These reflections are from Revan’s writings and indicate the philosophical underpinnings.
Honesty about Self - What is an honest man and what do I need to do to become one?
Attempting to do good in the world - It is not enough to know what is good; you must be able to do it.
For the purpose of friendship - All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship.
Revans was always on the side of indiuvidual seeking to act and learn but he was also concerned to specify the conditions that best promote action learning. This was his vision of the learning organization.
9. Where can I get more help?
There is really only one way to get going with Action Learning and that is to try it.
Some final words. Please don’t -
try to structure things too much
control the life out of the idea
follow all the advise in this guide!
It will certainly help if you recruit some good friends and allies to be your first action learning set. It will also help to chose a problem that matters and to create the time for putting into this.
doableAction share this guide and/ or useful YouTube videos to get them interested enough to explore a set, along with you.
doableAction Look for IFAL (The International Foundation for Action Learning)
doableAction Look for Journals. Such as - Action Learning: Research and Practice
doableAction Check out these books -
ABC of Action Learning | 1998 | Lemos & Crane
The Origins and Growth of Action Learning | 1982 | Chartwell-Bratt
Action Learning: A Practitioner’s Guide | 2000 | McGill and Beaty
Action Learning - History and Evolution | 2010 | Boshyk and Dilworth
Action Learning and its applications | 2010 | Boshyk and Dilworth
Action Learning in Health, Social and Community Care | 2018 | Edmonstone