Action Learning Sets
Solving Problems by Doing and Discussing
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. – Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and inventor.
"A problem shared is a problem halved," as the saying goes. Action Learning Sets work on this basis, and build on it by bringing people with experience of a problem together to explore possible solutions, try them out, and develop them further.
A new solution isn't the only outcome, either. Participants learn from their fellow set members' practical experience of trying to solve parts of the problem, and by reflecting on the ideas shared in the group.
In this article, we'll look at how you can use Action Learning Sets to solve problems and help people learn from them.
What Are Action Learning Sets?
Professor Reginald Revans developed Action Learning Sets in the mid-1940s. He wrote extensively about them in his 1983 book, "ABC of Action Learning."
Revans' approach was applied first in the U.K., and then in Belgium. According to later research, Revans' work in Belgium significantly improved the country's productivity. In the 1990s, action learning was reintroduced into the U.K. by consultants working in the banking industry.
The idea behind Action Learning Sets is that adults learn best when they can talk with one-another, reflect, and plan. Revans summed this up in the steps of his Action Learning Cycle (see figure 1, below):
Figure 1 – The Action Learning Cycle
Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Books UK. ABC of Action Learning. Reg Revan, Copyright © 2011 and Routledge.
Action Learning Sets put this theory into practice.
When used in a business context, they bring together small groups of people to think about a problem, try out solutions, and discuss and question the results. These people repeat the Action Learning Cycle until they've developed a good solution.
Revans chose the term "set" to differentiate action learning work from other kinds of group work – and in particular, from more therapeutic approaches. If you find this word confusing, consider using "group" or "team" instead.
Revans' theories have largely stayed the same since their inception, but they have been further developed by researchers looking into how they can be applied in different situations – for example, in virtual environments.
Why Use Action Learning Sets?
Action Learning Sets differ from many other good approaches to problem solving (such as Root Cause Analysis, Cause and Effect Analysis and Simplex) in that they're useful where you need to "feel your way" to a full solution through repeated cycles of work or experimentation.
Action Learning Sets also foster good work relationships, as people work closely to find the best approach to a problem.
They rely on conversation, criticism, and challenge within the group. This can make some people feel uncomfortable, but it can also encourage innovation and creative thinking on a more general basis.
When to Use Action Learning Sets
You can use Action Learning Sets to explore problems that are complex, that lack an apparent solution, or that would benefit from people's shared experience. You can also use them to look at long-term problems that need to be addressed with ongoing efforts.
For example, imagine that you want to address the high levels of stress that people experience in a specific role. You could create an Action Learning Set made up of people in that particular job. Everyone in the set will share the need to address this issue, and they all have a stake in the outcome.
How to Organize an Action Learning Set
Follow the steps below to organize and run an Action Learning Set. In these steps, we assume that you will be responsible for presenting the problem to the set. (In Revans' terminology, you are the "issue bringer.")
Step 1: Confirm the Topic to Address
Your first step is to confirm that the issue or problem you need to address is appropriate for an Action Learning Set.
Consider these questions:
- Is this issue open-ended?
- Can you take action on this issue?
- Does this issue affect a wider group of people?
If you can't answer "yes" to all of these questions, you may want to consider a different problem-solving approach.
Step 2: Appoint Set Members
Next, choose participants who have a stake in the problem at hand, as they will be more likely to take responsibility for their actions and advice.
Try to choose participants with a variety of backgrounds, and make sure that members take part voluntarily, so that they have a genuine interest in solving the problem.
Limit your set to five or six people: this will give everyone a chance to participate.
Step 3: Appoint a Leader
Other people believe that learners lead themselves best. Revans himself took this view: he felt that, sometimes, inexperienced set leaders could interfere with, or even limit, the set's achievement.
One solution is to use a set leader for the first few cycles, and then let group members decide whether to continue with this approach or lead the set from within.
Step 4: Choose a Setting
Action Learning Sets are often most effective when they take place in an unfamiliar setting. This can break members out of established ways of thinking, and give them a fresh perspective.
Step 5: Run the Session
Use Revans' Action Learning Cycle as a basis for your set. As we show above, the four steps are:
Let's look at each step in more detail.
First, present the problem. Set members should then ask questions about the issue, check assumptions, and discuss potential solutions.
Once they have completed the first round of the cycle, members will need to use this stage to reflect on their progress and the obstacles they have encountered, as well as the issue itself.
After the initial discussion, talk about what each person has learned from it. Consider these questions:
- What new ideas or information did we discover?
- What assumptions did we dispel?
- What past mistakes can we learn from and avoid in the future?
- What barriers, if any, do we still face, and how has our view of them changed?
- What are our options for moving forward?
- What new approaches do our experiences suggest?
The learning phase is vital. Without it, the Action Learning Set could be just another project team tasked with solving a problem.
Your goal in this phase is to identify activities that could help resolve the problem, and develop an effective plan to undertake them.
If appropriate, each set member can agree to carry out or manage one of the proposed solutions, and report on it at the next meeting.
Agree when your next meeting will be, and who will report on which tasks.
Now it's time to take action. Between meetings, everyone must work on their agreed activity, and monitor it so that they can report back to other set members.
In your next meeting, start the Action Learning Cycle again. Listen to members' reports, and examine what worked, what didn't, and what action members need to take now. Then, schedule another meeting to reflect and discuss your newly agreed action.
You can agree to a set number of meetings (after which the set will disband) or you can continue the action learning process until everyone is confident that the problem has been fully resolved.
Professor Reginald Revans developed Action Learning Sets in the mid-1940s, and wrote about the approach his 1983 book, "ABC of Action Learning."
In business, you can use Action Learning Sets to bring together small groups of people to brainstorm and challenge an issue. They take action, meet to reflect on their results, and refine their approach until they solve the problem.
Action Learning Sets strengthen work relationships and improve teamwork. They can unite professionals with diverse backgrounds and experience to solve problems, and tackle complex issues.