Action Learning: I meet a programme leader

Action Learning – I meet a programme leader

Regular group meetings feature in many recent development programmes for SMEs, so I asked an expert on Action Learning: what is it; what is its magic; how does it work; where does it take place; who manages it; and what are its credentials?

What is Action Learning?

It is an intimate process in which people who want to get things done come together to support and help each other:

  • to clarify individual’s goals;
  • to benefit from the ideas of others in determining how to tackle obstacles;
  • and commit each other to progress towards objectives.

It is for people who come together on their own authority, whose decisions have significant consequences, and who are committed to this kind of process.

(Prospective candidates need to understand what it will be like, to have met one another, and to commit to a number of days for its meetings.)

What is its essence?

It is a way of helping people who are inspired by working with others to resolve their problems, to make use of challenge and support in equal measure, and to do things differently. It aims to draw on the personal experience and insights of other people whose fields of interest/activity are similar but different, in order to help you in your way forward. (It is on a completely different plane to a board or committee meeting.)

“It empowers you to play at a higher level.”

What happens at meetings?

Getting in the right mood (‘How do you feel to-day?’ ‘What has happened in your world since we last met?’) is the launch point for the day; then everyone has a slice of time in which to air a big issue that is bugging them and elicit the thoughts and ideas about it from the others. (Members will have given thought in advance to how they want to use their slice of time, which will include talking about how things have gone since the previous meeting of the group.)

They share their current objectives – problems or opportunities – and invite help from the knowledge and experience of the others (‘ruthlessly, compassionate with one another’); and aim to clarify thoughts and to identify plans. (And at the end of the day, they reflect in the same frame of mind on the process.)

“Support from another planet!”

How does it work?

Groups meet regularly – every several weeks (people from different organisations commonly meet every four to six weeks) – often enough to maintain the unity and commitment of the group, but not so often as to interfere with people’s jobs. ‘It is like losing an arm if one person fails to turn up.’

Where do meetings take place?

They usually meet in a relaxing space, for a day at a time, and each time in a different location – often on the premises of different members of the group (or in locations that are of common interest to the members eg a research organisation or an innovative developer, with a tour during the day.)

How is the process managed?

Someone – sometimes a member of the group – handles the organisation, prepares and/or circulates material, arranges the day’s happenings, leads the process, and articulates the plans that members have concluded, as well as the group’s decisions.

What are its credentials?

Professor Reg Revans first formulated the process in the 1940s, drawing on his experience of scientific method, and put it to use in the Coal Board, where substantial increases on productivity were attributed to it; and it found applications later in the Health Service. It has only rarely featured in academic work on management.

Lately, Growth Builder programmes (like the Judge Institute programme and the UCL/RBS programme, and others) have made use of its techniques (which could also be beneficial in incubators) – especially in terms of drawing from other people’s experience, perhaps because collaboration is increasingly valued in a disruptive world.

John Whatmore, November, 2016

 

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