Problem solving the ‘action learning’ way involves exploring ideas and solutions with peers and testing these ‘in action’.
In the 1920s, doctoral student Reg Revans worked with eight Nobel-prize winners at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. Every Wednesday, they met to discuss their experiments. However, these eminent scientists gathered not to show off their breakthroughs and triumphs but to discuss the issues they were encountering in their work, in order to learn from one another.
This is the essence of action learning: a group of peers – “comrades in adversity” – each seeking to bring about some change in the world, who meet regularly to discuss where they are each experiencing challenges and then testing, in action, the ideas arising from that discussion.
Professor Revans pioneered the use of action learning, arguing that the key to improving performance lies not with 'experts' but with practitioners themselves.
He certainly enjoyed a long and successful career himself – as an astrophysicist, university professor and, latterly, an international management consultant. He was also a gifted long jumper who represented Britain in the 1928 Summer Olympics.
Action learning sets
Action learning takes place via action learning groups, or sets, usually comprising five-to-nine people, or four-to-five if done virtually. There is a facilitator and a clear structure to meetings, with members focusing on the issues of each person in turn. However, the group sessions are only part of the process.
The other involves testing out of the ideas 'in action' between sessions. At the next meeting, the group then helps participants to explore and reflect on the impact of this action, and to develop ideas for overcoming obstacles to further progress.
As Revans made clear: “There is no learning without action and no action without learning.”
Not only does action learning accelerate our ability to learn and develop from our working experience, listening to and helping others with their learning can be a source of fresh perspective and insights to our own issues.
For action learning to be effective, it is important to understand that:
- the learning context must be a real project or area of focus. Action learning needs to be about ‘live’ issues you are facing. It is not about exploring theory, but working through problems that are challenging you right now. It can be applied to any kind of learning – from specific projects to topics; for example, change management.
- it’s about peer coaching through insightful questioning. Set members use open questions to help their peer (‘the presenter’) to identify options, new ideas and alternative perspectives on their issues. These questions encourage the presenter to explain their problem fully, clarify it, check implications and explore possibilities.
What’s the first step?
Talk about X in more detail.
What could get in the way?
What would happen if…?
- the aim is to find a solution yourself, not for others to do it for you. This makes it a slower but more powerful and lasting process. The idea is not that set members solve the problem for the presenter, but that they provide a balance of challenge and support, listening to them, reflecting back, asking questions and offering advice, thereby empowering them to resolve it.
- the extent to which participants engage in action learning will determine the quality and quantity of learning achieved. To get the best out action learning, you will need to be open, responsive, reflective and receptive to other people’s contributions. You may need to make yourself vulnerable during the process.
There is no overlooking the fact that action learning takes time and dedication. Participants require energy, motivation and commitment to persist with it over weeks and months. However, those who do have the opportunity to work through complex, relevant, real-life issues and to learn from this process, gaining feedback in a safe environment, developing self-awareness, practising their own coaching skills, and networking with a group of trusted colleagues.
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