Starting an Action Learning Group

Starting an Action Learning Group by Dr. Greg Waddell

Art effects by author. Original photo available at Flickr.com.

In a previous post, I wrote about how American Higher Education is modeled after the Industrial Revolution and I introduced Action Learning as a possible alternative. In this post, I want to outline for you some guidelines about how to conduct an Action Learning Group (which Reginald Revans, the father of Action Learning, referred to as “sets”).

Participants

Action Learning not only describes a way of thinking but also a type of group interaction call the Action Learning Group. Members of such a group have specific roles they must play for the group to lead to genuine learning. Among these roles are the facilitator, the presenter, and the group participants.

1. Facilitator

The facilitator’s main job is to create an environment where participants can work on their issues. To accomplish this, the facilitator will…

  • Create conditions that allow the presenter to focus completely on the problem;
  • Help group members to assist appropriately (avoid evaluation, ask open questions, help presenter create their own plan of action).
  • Intervene when necessary (for example, the facilitator might remind the group of the “rules of engagement);
  • Be an example of the kinds of actions a good group member should display;
  • Provide feedback to group members on how they are doing at Action Learners;
  • Use probes and prompts to help the presenter stay on task.

2. Presenter

The presenter brings their issue, problem, or project to the attention of the group. He/she …

  • tells the story of the issue or concern;
  • describes how he/she is experiencing this issue in real time, right now;
  • listens to questions from other group participants;
  • responds only to the questions he/she is comfortable with;
  • decides on at least one action step to take toward resolving the issue, and shares that action with the group; and
  • reports to the group on subsequent progress made toward resolving the issue.

3. Group Participants (members who are not presenting)

As a group member, you should …

  • Pay attention not only to the literal message of the presenter but also to their feelings;
  • Actively listen to the presenter;
  • Take note of both verbal and non-verbal communication by the presenter;
  • Restrain yourself from intervening or “solving” the problem for the presenter;
  • Be ready to probe and challenge the presenter’s assumptions and goals;
  • Display an attitude of support, encouragement, and gentleness;
  • Restrain yourself from diagnosing, recommending, or imposing their own solutions.
  • Offer appropriate feedback, speaking the truth in love;
  • Abide by the agreed “Rules of Engagement” established when the group was formed; and
  • Ask thoughtful questions designed to enable the presenter to see their problem from a different perspective.

The Agenda

Action Learning is not just a program, study group, or social gathering; it is a disciplined theory of learning. It is a theory because it deals with how adults solve problems and learn. It is disciplined because it is expressed through a specific procedure with clear rules. Unlike a casual get-together, an Action Learning Group has an agenda. This must be observed carefully for the process to work.

  • Begin with action report updates from the previous meeting (if this is your first meeting, skip to step two).
  • Determine the scheduling for presenters. For the first meeting take volunteers who would like to present their issue now. Then schedule the others for future meetings.
  • The presenter describes a problem, a situation or an opportunity. They can use any means they want to explain the issue (Powerpoint, chalk board, flip chart, a handout, or just talk).
  • Once the presenter has explained the issue, other group members are invited to ask questions for clarification. Make sure to point out that they are NOT to evaluate, judge, or critique the presenter’s handling of the situation, but simply to ask for clarification to enable them to better understand the issue.
  • Once the clarification period has ended, group members help the presenter gain new insight into their problem by asking probing and open questions.
  • As this process continues, the presenter should begin to evolve a plan for tackling their problem. They also should agree to take at least one action step between now and the next meeting.
  • Once that presenter has nailed down a action response or two, the process starts over with the next presenter.
  • When all presenters have developed their plans, the facilitator reviews the session.
  • Leave time at the end of the meeting for participants to reflect on the session and summarize their perspective on what happened.

Times and Durations

  • The optimal duration for an action learning group is between six and twelve months. After this time the members may want to re-form with new members to gain new knowledge and insight.
  • The optimal time between group meetings is from four to six weeks (though 2 weeks between the first and second meetings is recommended).
  • A maximum of 35 minutes should be allowed per presenter and 15 minutes at the end for closure. Given that all group members should be active, the group should make sure they do not try to cram too many presentations into a single session.

Other Considerations

  • Meetings should be relaxed but at the same time upbeat and exciting.
  • Seating arrangements should be comfortable and conducive to face-to-face interaction.
  • Refreshments should be available—either at a particular hour or throughout the session.
  • It is recommended that children not be invited as this would almost guarantee interruptions and make it difficult to maintain the timing necessary for success.

What To Talk About?

The possibilities are almost limitless, but you might encourage group members to consider the following description of a good problem. A good problem for Action Learning is …

  • Important;
  • Complex;
  • Multi-functional (i.e., it affect different functions within the organization);
  • Asks difficult questions;
  • Demands action;
  • Resists structure (hard to define);
  • Cyclical (recurring periodically);
  • Leads to surprises.

Some possible topics might include:

  • An area of personal or spiritual challenge
  • A career choice
  • A difficult work relationship
  • Employee dissatisfaction
  • Organizational bottlenecks
  • Cyclical downturns

I would love to hear from you about your experience with Action Learning. Have you used a different format? What tips can you give our readers for conducting a successful Action Learning group? Also, if you are interested in forming an Action Learning Group, please let me know. I am particularly interested in forming a Christian AL set made up of pastors and business leaders.

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