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Action Learning Sets: making behaviour change stick

The Management Centre

How often do you send your staff on training programmes only to discover that down the line, nothing really seems to have improved or changed, either in skill, practice or results? While you might be able to claim back the money for the course – you’ll never be able to get back the two or three days time invested in training. So the loss is significant.

The reality is that changing behaviours and getting new skills and habits to stick is a tough business.  Some evidence suggests that only 10% of training we receive actually ‘transfers’ to better performance in the workplace.

The reasons for this failure can vary:

  • Sometimes participants on training cannot clearly see how to implement the new skills and ideas. The training is interesting but not useful.
  • Sometimes the training is relevant to a number of the participants on the programme but misses the point for the great majority.
  • And sometimes the training is well targeted and practical but there’s no incentive for the participants to change and take action.

Whatever the reason the result is the learning process stalls. In the context of diminishing budgets and constant change that’s not acceptable. So how can we ensure a convincing return on investment for training?

At =mc, we use a range of action learning techniques to help learning ‘stick’. But there are techniques where the stickiness is built in. This article focuses on a specific way of doing this – Action Learning Sets.

The origins of action learning sets

Reg Revans developed action learning in the 1940s at the National Coal Board. He was a scientist, university professor and management consultant. He was also a very practical man, keen to develop new ways for managers to learn and develop together. Revans was aware that, although it is a valuable starting point, training alone did not always bring better results in the workplace.

Essentially he said that, in order to truly learn, we need to relate training to our own experience and question how to apply it to our own needs and challenges. Action Learning has developed in the last sixty years as a method for individual and organisational development. He was one of the first to encourage nurses, doctors and managers within the National Health Service to talk together, listen and understand one another.

Today action learning is used in a number of organisations across the not for profit sector. At =mc we have run them for organisations as diverse as RNLI, Friends of the Earth, and Macmillan.

What is an Action Learning Set?

There is no single definition of what is an Action Learning Set though there are some general principles. This article focuses on the approach =mc uses.

So an ‘Action Learning Set’ is a group of between 5-7 people.  These are usually peers or at a similar level of responsibility and experience. They can be from one organisation or from a range of organisations.

The group agrees to meet regularly over a fixed period- from as little as 6 weeks to as long as 18 months. They come together find practical ways of addressing the ‘real life’ challenges they face, and to support their own learning and development.

The set normally has a trained facilitator who guides the process, though it is possible to run without this support if participants are experienced and disciplined.

Essentially set members are encouraged to find their own solutions to challenges and issues through a structured process of insightful questioning combined with a balance of support and challenge from the group.

Set members normally agree some ground rules at the beginning of the process and review them throughout the period they’re working together. Over time, and as trust builds, the group learns together.

Assuming the set has a facilitator their job is to help shape the work of the group. They ensure that the ground-rules are followed and that the learning is clarified. They may intervene a lot at the start of the group and much less as the group grows in confidence and competence. A typical set meeting might last 2-3 hours and might have a structure something like this:

  • At the start of the meeting each member ‘checks in’- feeding back on progress or changes since the group’s last meeting. They may well be feeding back on commitments they made at the previous set meeting.
  • One or more members then seeks permission from the others to share/present- an issue they’re dealing with at work they’d like to explore. This should be a concrete project and not one with a simple solvable answer.
  • The set agrees an initial person to focus on and the issue to be addressed- this is sometimes called ‘claiming airspace.’ The presenter outlines the issue or challenge they’d like to consider. They may use statements like: ‘I’d like to explore’, I’m wondering whether’, ‘I’m not sure if’, or ‘I’m puzzled by.’
  • Set members ask questions designed to help the presenter analyse the concern they have, clarify what the challenge is and why they’re struggling to deal with it. The do this by asking open questions moderated by the facilitator.
  • These questions can take a number of forms: e’. g. clarification – ‘Are you saying that…?’, understanding – ‘Could you explain this issue a bit more…?’, checking implications – ‘You said before that.. so If that’s so then what would happen if…?’, to explore possibilities – ‘Have you thought of…?’ or ‘Would x,y,z … be useful’
  • It’s important that set members don’t offer advice, or opinions. They also need to avoid using the airspace for telling their own stories or discussing their issues. The focus must be on the on the presenter and on the issue they’re working to resolve.
  • At the end of a period – 15 minutes or so – the presenter reviews their thinking and selects one or more courses of action which they then commit to. In dong so they are committing to take action and to be held accountable for action at the next meeting. Then another group member presents.
  • The group might then typically reflect on the quality of the group process, and reflecting on what was successful and less successful and how they might improve for next time. The facilitator may take a leading role in this and offer the group feedback on their process.
  • Once back at work the presenter applies the insights they gained to their work issue. They will consciously choose to note what worked and not in order to report back to the group on effectiveness. And they bring that learning back to the next meeting.

Article by Chris Penney and Clare Segal

How we can help

To get a taste of how it works in practice, book onto our 1-day Introduction to Action Learning Sets to see how it might benefit your organisation.

In house: Much of our work is in-house, helping organisations to build action learning into their learning approach. Our ILM accredited Action Learning Facilitators can help you by:

  • Setting up Action Learning Sets following a programme of training 
  • facilitating sets on an on-going basis for your organisation or 
  • supporting you towards self-facilitation of your Action Learning Sets

Open Programme: We offer open programmes in action learning. In a highly interactive one-day workshop we include:

  • The principles of Action Learning
  • The Action Learning Set process 
  • Key roles and responsibilities in a set
  • Coaching, Questioning and Listening skills
  • Practice sessions with the chance to work through your own challenge 

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Clare Segal, Director

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