In this section we will help you to understand Action Learning and Group Coaching approaches that you can use to help you solve problems, answer questions and work on issues.
Often these terms are used interchangeably and distinctions have become blurred so here we will help you understand a range of group problem-solving interventions all of which involves the development of individuals through a supportive group environment.
As a coach and facilitator I have used a range of group problem solving methods from Action Learning in its purest form to other types of group mentoring, coaching and masterminding, all of which help group or set members work on specific issues or problems, whether individual or shared. However not one approach fits all and it is about choosing the most appropriate one for what you are aiming to achieve.
In this section you will find information to help you understand some of these different approaches, how they differ from one another and when each may be appropriate. You will also find tips on how to run successful action learning and group coaching sessions.
Action learning is a powerful process used in a group setting to tackle problems where there are no clear-cut or simple solutions. It draws upon the principle that we learn most effectively when we address problems within a small group which provides a supportive yet challenging environment.
It was originally developed as a concept by Reg Revans in the 1940’s. He believed that the most effective learning arose from combining the existing knowledge held by the problem-holder with insightful questioning of this knowledge by others. In other words it is based on the principle that we have all the knowledge and resources inside us to solve our own problems, it just requires someone to ask those questions to help unearth these resources from within us.
It is called ‘action’ because the issue holder is expected to ‘taking action’ as a key component of the process and is held accountable to the group for achieving this action. The ‘learning’ element is also important, not only for the issue holder but also for other set members. The process of reflection plays a large part in aiding the learning process with space for the issue holder to reflect on their issue.
So, in effect this it is what I would describe as coaching, just carried out in the mutually supportive environment of a group where all members at some point bring issues to the group whilst all other members play the role of coach. It differs from other group problem solving interventions in that in its purest form it is about the set members asking coaching questions of the issue holder to help them reflect on their issue and identify their own solutions for moving forward and not about advice giving.
Some action learning processes allow for a ‘resources round’ where after set members have helped the issue holder identify their own solution they offer their own reflections, thoughts and ideas based on experience. But even these are given more as ideas and options rather than advice or recommendations.
By properly developing questioning, listening and reflective skills set members are equipping themselves with the ability to solve problems themselves in the future when there are not set members to ask the questions
There is a set of underlying learning principles that underpin the process and a nominated facilitator plays a key role in managing the group process and ensuring the principles are adhered to. In additional to this the set members may also create their own ground rules for working together and again the facilitator will play a role in ensuring these are met.
One point worth noting is that action learning is term that has been used to describe various other group coaching methods some of which allow set members to only offer their thoughts, reflections and suggestions and omit the insightful questioning. Whist this approach certainly has its time and place (and I have used these to great effect) I would tend to refer to this process as Business Masterminding.
Here is an example of a typical action learning model which you can use when running an action learning set. This is just one structure you can use and you will find that different models are appropriate for different groups. This is the model that I have used and found to be successful particularly with those used to asking quality coaching questions. The challenge I have found is using the action learning model with those less experienced at asking open questions where the tendency has been to provide solutions or ask leading questions which direct the issue holder to a particular solution. Of course over time where these skills can be developed set members will be equipped with a set of invaluable tools for using in the workplace.
All set members bring an issue, question or problem they would like to work on to the set and these are charted up by the facilitator. Set members choose in which order they would like to tackle these issues. It is helpful if the issue is articulated concisely as a question
e.g. How do I market my business?
e.g. How can I manage my time more effectively?
The issue holder presents their issue to the set as clearly and concisely as possible so that the group has an understanding of the issue to be resolved and what outcomes they would like to achieve from the set
Set members ask questions for clarification only to understand more about the issue. The facilitator ideally does not take part in this questioning instead ensures that appropriate questions are asked and that no one person takes up too much air time.
At this stage set members ask open ‘coaching’ questions to help the issue holder gain clarity on their issue, provoke deeper thinking, explore options and help the issue holder find a way forward. The facilitator’s role is again to keep the group on track and ensure that members ask open and non-leading questions. e.g:
The issue holder summarises the progress made and their course of action, whilst the other set members remain silent.
At the request of the issue holder the set members offer their reflections, thoughts, positive affirmations and ideas based on their observations of the issue and their own experiences. As each set member contributes the issue holder should just listen without comment or judgment, as should the other set members.
The focus here is on reviewing the process and not the content of the issue holder’s subject. The whole set reflects on how the set worked – what worked well and what has been learned from the process, an any changes to the process are agreed for next time.
The final stage of the action learning model; the next the set meets the issue holders update the rest of the set members on the progress they have made with the actions agreed.
NB. - It's important to adhere to the timing structure laid out in the action learning model in order to keep the process moving.
There are a set of basic action learning principles which underpin the process of action learning. It is the responsibility of the facilitator to ensure that these principles are adhered to in the set.
The 5 principles are:
Each set member should each be given the opportunity to speak and no one set member should be allowed to dominate the session.
An agreed time is put on each stage session so each set member knows when it will start and finish. The advantage of this is that is prevents excessive time being spent on one issue holder and helps focus the set members to use the time most effectively.
There is an agreed structure to each set which set members agree to. This may be altered for the following session if members agree during the process review.
In each session the focus in on helping one set member present their issue and helping them find a solution.
There is learning for all set members during each session, not just for the issue holder. Learning is gained from the issue itself and also about the process of learning.
When you are running a group coaching session or an action learning set it is critical that members develop a set of ground rules which specify the way they will work together.
Establishing these at the outset gives the set clear and agreed guidelines to work to. It is important that the group takes ownership of the ground rules so must be involved in formulating them themselves rather than having them imposed upon them. However it can be helpful to give examples of typical ground rules to help start the thought process. Here are some examples that you might use:
Although these are described as Ground Rules they may be applied to any group problem-solving scenario where groups will be required to work together.
There are three action learning set roles that are fundamental to running a successful action learning session.
This could be an experienced facilitator who is there to guide the set members in the first few sessions of the group or they may be a set member. The role of the facilitator is to ensure they help draw up the initial ground rules for working together,
principles of action learning, process and keep to time. The facilitator also plays a role in helping the set develop the skills of questioning , listening , reflecting and giving and receiving feedback). Ultimately if the facilitator an external facilitator their role is to help the group become self-facilitating and in doing so develops the facilitation skills of set members.
Usually the facilitator is the only one of the action learning set roles that doesn't take an active role in helping the issue holder work on their issue, instead the facilitator focuses on managing the group processes.
For each action learning session one person presents and works on their issue at a time – this person is referred to as the presenter or issue holder. Each session will typically last around 30 – 40 minutes after which time another person is nominated by the group to present and work on their issue.
During the set the issue holder will first present their issue explaining what outcome they want from the session. They will then reflect upon the questions the set members ask them, formulate options and decide upon a course of action. Since each member is accountable to the group for actions agreed when the set meets again they will then update them on the progress they have made.
Those people not taking the role of facilitator or presenting their issue at a particular time are referred to as set members. The set members each play the role of ‘coach’ during the session firstly listening carefully to the presenters issue, clarifying they understand it and then asking open and insightful questions to help the issue holder to clarify and work though their issue, finally helping them to identify specific action.
Action learning skills very much reflect those skills required for coaching – the ability to ask good open, thought-provoking questions, the ability to allow reflection , excellent listening skills , feedback skills and challenging skills. These are skills that all action learning set members need to posses whilst the facilitator of the set needs to possess additional facilitation skills ensure that they manage the group effectively and develop group members.
The ability to ask powerful insightful questions of the issue holder is one of the key skills required of members of an action learning set. They should be able to ask effective ‘coaching’ questions which stimulate the issue holder to think though their issue, consider their options and choose a course of action. Effective questions are usually open questions (see sample GROW questions ) and are not leading questions in other words do not lead the issue holder to a pre-conceived solution.
All participants in an action learning set need excellent listening skills – the facilitator to accurately follow the process and intervene if it goes off-course or if inappropriate questions are asked, the presenter to listen carefully to questions being asked and any reflections given and for set members to listen to the presenter’s responses, gauge ‘where they are at with their issue, ’listen to the questions of the other members and ask appropriate follow-up questions.
Members must have the mindset that they themselves do not posses the answers and must put their own judgements, ideas and thoughts on the issue to one side until they are invited to. (see Resources Round in Action Learning Process). It is only by putting these thoughts to one side that they will ask questions for the benefit of the coachee and not ask leading questions.
Action learning skills also include the ability to give effective feedback, it's particularly necessary in the resources round for set members to feedback to the presenter what they have observed and they are also crucial skills for the facilitator who needs to feedback to the group their progress as a developing set.
A key coaching skill is the skill of challenging which set members may have to use when coaching the issue holder.
A key element of the action learning process is to develop set members’ ability to reflect on their own issues, reflect upon others’ issues and draw learning from the whole experience. Allowing silence after questions have been asked so the issue holder can give time to think through the question and time between questions helps to develop this space for critical reflection. Time should also be given for reflection in the process review so all set members can review the process, learn from it and plan to act differently next time.
The role of Action Learning Facilitator is to manage the smooth running of the set, help the set develop ground rules for working together, develop members questioning, listening and reflection skills and ensure that the process, timings, principles of action learning and ground rules are adhered to.
Ideally the facilitator will not be involved in the questioning process so can focus on managing the process, although there may be times when it is appropriate that they also take on the role of set member to model the skills or to bolster numbers if the set is low in numbers.
A facilitator should be able to posses good ‘process’ skills, in other words be able to manage the action learning process, notice when it is not being kept to and bring members back on track. The facilitator should be able to spot and effectively manage any members who contribute little or conversely dominate the set or are disruptive.
Facilitators ideally should be trained in facilitation or coaching skills and should have the ability to develop the skills of set members to ask effective questions, give and receive effective feedback and listen.
In the early stages of running a set new to action learning a trained facilitator should take this role. However as the set matures and members develop their skills and get used to working with one another then other set members may start to develop their own facilitation skills so they can assume this role.
There are no hard and fast rules although one principle of action learning is that the process is timed to help ensure a focused discussion and also ensures that no one person takes up all the time.
30 – 40 minutes typically is an average time for an issue to be presented, questioned and addressed which can be broken down into the following stages:
The set does need to agree at the outset how rigidly it wants to stick with these timings and the role of action learning facilitator is to oversee this agreement. There are however times when members feel the need to spend longer clarifying a more complex issue before they can help the issue holder and sometimes longer is required to help the issue holder come to a conclusion.
The point of action learning that it is a timed process which helps makes efficient use of the time available and the danger of allowing too much flexibility is having a session which overruns and prevents other members having their own air time.
The only other time to build into the session is time out during the session where the action learning facilitator may want to stop the set to review the process and skills of set members especially in the early stages of a set.
The role of action learning facilitator is key to time management and the success of the group.
It is worth considering the ideal number of members you should have in an action learning and group coaching session.
most effective groups consist of between 5 – 8 members, large enough to
generate a breadth of questions and ideas, small enough for each member
to be able to participate fully both as an issue holder or set member.
Remember that each group should have an issue holder and a facilitator so if you have five participants you have just three members to ask questions and offer their thoughts and reflections to help the issue holder. From experience when there are more set members I find there is a far greater number and variety of ideas generated from the session. If you are working with just five members then I would recommend that the facilitator also plays the part of a set member.
If the group is any bigger than 8 members then it will reduce the frequency of each member being given the opportunity to present an issue to the group. Also I find that set members are keen to contribute and at times it can be more challenging as a facilitator to manage larger less mature groups, as sometimes there is instinctive competition for air time. This also drives the need to lengthen the process.
In my view the ideal number for action learning and group coaching is 6 set members plus a facilitator who focuses solely on managing the process
The lifetime of an action learning program varies depending very much on the reasons for its formation in the first place and the success of the group in practice. Although sets can be formed for ‘one off’ occasions generally the idea is that once a set is formed members continue to meet and support each other over a period of time, say over several months. The real benefit of action learning sets comes being part of a mutually supportive group who can help each other work on their issues. If all members in a typical group of 6 or 7 are to be supported then it is likely that more than one session would be needed to ensure that all members receive the help they are looking for.
Part of the action learning and group coaching process is the accountability to the group for actions agreed and by this definition a group would need to meet again for the issue holders of the previous session to report back on progress.
Also the skills required by members to effectively work together take time to develop and a group generally needs time to gel and get used to the action learning process.
Some successful action learning sets once formed continue to meet over a period of many years benefiting from the strong cohesion between members.
The Action Learning Handbook: Powerful Techniques for Education, Professional Development and Training - by Anne Brockbank and Ian McGill (Paperback - 6 Nov 2003)
Action Learning: A Practical Guide for Managers - by Krystyna Weinstein (Paperback - 16 Nov 1998)