Action Learning

With an ever-increasing pressure on time and resources many Action Learning Sets (ALS) are now half-day sessions.  An on-going debate with fellow facilitators is therefore about how to divide time within a Set.

There are two main approaches. The first is allocating equal time, where , as the name implies, everyone has an equal amount of time to work on their chosen topic. The second is a “ bid for time” approach where time is allocated based on who has a pressing topic they want to work on in the session and how much time they want. If a number of people want time the set considers the requests and prioritises them. From this they then agree the amount of time and running order. In this approach there may only be two or three people who present.

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Whilst in conversation about strategy with a fellow Action Learning Centre colleague, Helen Crane, she mentioned divergent and convergent thinking and how we each have a preference to one way of thinking or the other.

Instantly, I recognized myself as a divergent thinker and both the value and limitations – dare I say frustrations of it.  As ever, I got curious so I took a deeper look as I could recognize its relevance to working in Action Learning Sets (ALS) and how it is implicit within the Action Learning process.

Divergent thinking lends itself to open-ended problems and encourages people to develop their own solutions to problems. It’s about creating options and possibilities and not judging the ideas and suggestions that arise. It’s akin to De Bono’s Green Thinking Hat and engaging the imagination – the ‘what if…, what’s possible and what’s impossible…?’. Whilst in divergent thinking we create potential solutions, however unrealistic or impractical they might be. It’s a creative, non-judging process.

If divergent thinking is about creating options, widening the field then convergent thinking is about narrowing down and making choices. Not any old choice. Whereas divergent is non-judgmental convergent does apply judgments. Convergent thinking weeds out the impractical through considered criteria, analysis and evaluation. It supports us gain clarity, make conclusions and choices, grounding ideas before shaping them into plans and action steps.

What is powerful about the Action Learning process is the Presenter is engaged in both.  The divergent phase comes after identifying the issue and clarifying the outcomes when the Set starts to explore though asking open, discovery questions.

These questions invite the Presenter to view their problem from different viewpoints and therefore open up new vistas never previously considered.  This leads to emerging ideas, sparks new thinking and new levels of understanding of the issue at hand.

The convergent stage comes through evaluating options and the Presenter making choices of which options and avenues to follow through on. It’s that reality checking and planning followed by agreeing actions. The “What will you do” stage?

What my recent reading and reflection on my practice has sparked is how well do we do the convergent thinking? I know ALS are great at generating ideas and options yet how good are we at helping the Presenter evaluate options, or identify the criteria by which the evaluation and assessment will be made?

It has also got me wondering if the personal preference of the facilitator influences the Set. I’m a divergent so very comfortable with this way of thinking. If that is the case do I have a blind spot? Do I step over the essential stage in the creative thinking process that moves ideas from ‘Blue sky’ thinking to workable solutions and action steps? Do I leave things hanging, so to speak!

It really has given my food for thought about the process, how to use the understanding and the model within my facilitation and how it will influence my practice and ultimately the success of my Set members.

And after many years a penny has dropped. When I was first introduced to AL the facilitator used the following.  He would say “Are you solutionising too soon?” I finally, truly get it after all these years. We were moving the Presenter too quickly to the convergent thinking and pinning ideas down without really engaging fully in the divergent, idea generating stage.

I always loved the phrase yet never used it. Now that I have a greater understanding of what underpins it I feel comfortable to use it.



I recently attended an ALF event on using Action Learning in multi-cultural contexts. It was such a rich, thought provoking session.

I went because the topic is highly relevant to AL facilitators, now and in the future. Sets are created from people from many cultural backgrounds and also age, experience, religion. Although the session was titled ‘Action Learning in multi-cultural contexts’ it was about diversity. This is highly relevant as we are working with increasingly diverse populations as the world metaphorically shrinks owing to technology, people moving and businesses expand accordingly

I vividly remember my first time of experiencing the impact of culture in an ALS. Some years ago I was running an Action Learning facilitators programme for Imperial College Hospital. Because it’s a teaching hospital it has staff from around the world, and one of the Set members was a woman from the Philippines.

Half way through the programme she shared that she was finding the experience very difficult. In her culture the style of questions was rude and inappropriate. You would never ask such direct questions of another person. She chose to withdraw from the programme. I’ll be honest, at the time I was taken aback and unsure of what to do.

I now realise that Action Learning is culturally biased. It was created by a western man in a western culture, for a western work culture. So how do we as facilitators make sure it’s sensitive to diversity and culture? How do we ensure we recognise, celebrate and harness the diversity present?

This reminds me that AL has its roots in the Quaker Clearness Committees. In these meetings the person whose issue it was, was responsible for gathering together the most diverse group of 6-7 people they could. It was recognised back in the 1660’s  that with diversity came a richness of experience, difference in perspectives and fertile ground for generating greater understanding and decisive, informed action.

Our biggest danger, as facilitators, is to ignore the issue or make assumptions. Our biggest asset is to acknowledge it, discuss it and bring it in as part of the Set’s ways of working. Here’s a little check list I’ve created for myself. What else would you add?

  1. Be aware of my own cultural norms and biases
  2. Take time to consider the culture of organisation or sector I’m working in. What are their values and ways of doing things? How does it sit with AL?
  3. At the beginning of a new Set think about the culture I want to create. What information about AL principles and skills will they need to know?
  4. Don’t assume anything – ask. Not only are you modelling AL but you are allowing a vital conversation to take place. It will provide great opportunities to unearth potential conflict, levels of understanding and create awareness.
  5. Explain AL and its processes then ask ‘What would not be culturally appropriate to your country/cultural/organisation? ‘If this is AL, its context and skills what will you find easy, struggle with and be an area of real stretch?’
  6. Incorporate the discussion outcomes into the Set’s groundrules/contract.

Finally, one last comment on questions in general and in relation to culture/diversity. As a facilitator, I can take asking questions for granted – it’s part of my job. I have on occasion assumed people understood what good open questions are so I didn’t make it explicit – to my peril I might add. One thing I took away from the ALF event were two stories.

One facilitator shared how they are working with people from particular cultural groups. What he observed was these participants give their opinion and advice instead of asking questions, which is counter to the principles of AL. In those cultures if you have status or social standing you are seen to have answers, not questions.
Yet to be successful in the AL Set the challenge is to adopt the questioning/listening style – and for some this is culturally a big stretch.
The second was the experience of training a group of international workers in asking questions. The trainer instructed them to work in triads and practice listening and asking questions. They ask questions – that were laden with advice, asked long, multiple questions and closed questions. The trainer had assumed a level of knowledge and understanding about questions. She had not been explicit.

The task had to be broken down further. First ask questions to clarify, questions to probe understanding, questions that challenge, feel risky and uncomfortable to ask, and questions to help forward action. She gave examples and the resulting conversations were radically transformed.

This is what I love about this work – how it transforms conversation, understanding and people. I’d also love to hear your views and experiences of using AL across cultures. What have been your challenges and learning?

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