action learning, learning and development, team building

Action Learning: Collaborative problem-solving

Next week I’m running an Action Learning session for an alumni group. I’m excited to see how the Harvard Women’s Hive Mind approaches the opportunities and challenges that people are facing! And I thought it would be useful opportunity to say a bit about this mode of peer learning and support.

What is Action Learning?

Action Learning allows people to gather knowledge in a group setting as they try to find a solution to a problem or an approach to an opportunity. It’s a method that combines creative thinking and collaboration. It brings together people with diverse experiences to work on a problem together and workshop possible solutions. In these sessions, people use insightful questions, reflective listening, and pooled experience. And, crucially, they develop some concrete actions that can be taken.

A Hive Mind is a great way of thinking about it, but the focus is always on take-away actions, not just answering knowledge questions.

How does it work versus coaching or mentoring?

I’m a coach and a mentor, so of course I extol their virtues too! But they’re useful for different purposes, and what you need at one point in your life is different to what you need at another. Coaching and mentoring are usually 1:1, but team coaching also exists. Like coaching, Action Learning relies on incisive questioning to produce insight. However, team coaching sessions tend to focus on team dynamics and their problem-solving approach. Action Learning sessions tend to do the actual problem-solving.

What’s the benefit?

Quite how Action Learning sessions run varies, whether they’re one-off or involve a long-term working relationship between the group. But what I like about them most is the opportunity for reflective listening. In most problem-solving conversations the person who ‘owns’ the problem tends to have some fixed thought patterns that can be limiting. It’s easy to dismiss possible solutions because they don’t fit those patterns, or the usual pattern of behaviours the person uses in their work environment. We all have our favourite problem-solving approaches!

What Action Learning does is ask the person who owns the problem to be quiet, listen and think. That might seem counterintuitive. But it relies on exactly the same mechanism as good coaching, which uses silence and insightful questions to promote deep thinking. It asks us to change our way of thinking. But while coaching focuses on promoting your use of your inner resources, Action Learning can create powerful support groups.

But don’t take it from me! It’s a little old now, but I really enjoyed this piece from AdvanceHE about a five-year-long Action Learning Set (a long-term peer group) and its positive outputs for a group of female academics.

If you’re interested in finding out more, or running an Action Learning event with your organisation, get in touch here, or via social media.