Action Learning

Tell me more about this Action Learning you speak of….

So unfortunately action learning has a massive stigma in the UK. When you talk about action learning the majority of people roll their eyes and sigh (I used to do it too!). This is because we call sooo many things action learning, but they aren’t really action learning. At best they are nice group activities, at worst they have zero impact and turn people off action learning forever, grumbling about the wasted time they will never get back.

This is a massive tragedy!

Now working in HR I have forced (in a friendly way) many a person through action learning sets, insisting it was good for people, but secretly relieved I didn’t have to attend them. So when I got my first job heading up a HR team and action learning was suggested to be included in the leadership development programme I was running, I wasn’t impressed… until I watched a demo of the World Institute of Action Learning (WIAL) method and wow, just wow it is amazing. I attended the next training course to become a Certified Action Learning Coach (CALC) and won an award in September 2019 for best application of action learning – super proud moment!

If you haven’t guessed already, I am now the BIGGEST action learning fan girl!

First, a little bit of history….

Action learning dates back to the 1940s and a guy called Reg Revans. Reg introduced the concept when he was Director of Education at the Coal Board. At the time there were loads of problems which were normally left to the ‘gentlemen’ to fix from their nice offices in London. However, Reg recognised that bringing together a small group of engineers, apprentices and managers to work on the problems faced in the pits, not only fixed the actual problem (as those working closely in the pit where able to share their observations of what was seen and heard rather than what people from a distance thought the problem was), they built strong relationships between workers and managers (they were working on urgent and complex problems – nothing like adversity to build camaraderie) and everyone in the group developed problem solving and leadership capabilities. These groups were so successful action learning was rolled out across the whole industry. The main thing Reg observed was ‘there is no learning without action, and there is no action without learning’ – very wise words!

How does it work?

A group of 4 – 8 people, work on a complex, real and urgent problem. This is facilitated by an action learning coach – who is not involved in the problem solving but focused on the performance of the group.

There are two rules:-

1. Statements can only be made in response to a question

2. Anyone can ask a question of anyone at anytime.

Whilst doing this important work, we also work on identifying and developing our leadership skills – this is an essential and key part of the process.

You can do action learning in 90 mins or over several days/weeks – depends on the size and complexity of the problem.

Why do you love it so much?

I love this method of action learning because it is a powerful problem solving tool. The use of questions and statements enables breakthrough thinking and creativity. The method is inclusive, encourages diversity, it is calm and allows for silence (how often do you experience silence in meetings? probably never! Imagine having space to think in a meeting… ). The process also really helps focus the group on solving the actual problem, so problem exploration is key and ensuring agreement of the problem before solutioneering is essential.

The other thing I love about it is that it focuses on and develops great leadership skills, which we all need no-matter what level of the organisation we operate at. With the fast paced and ever changing world of work, we all need to be effective leaders and action learning creates the environment to practice the skill, receive feedback and self-reflect.

How have you used the method?

I have used action learning in lots and lots of different ways, for example:

  • technical problems on projects
  • strategy problems with the C-Level Executive Team
  • business challenges with leadership groups
  • employee engagement problems identified from engagement/pulse surveys
  • learning circles after leadership development to aid learning transfer

What would be the key take away?

Using the legendary words of Albert Einstein ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes’

Trust the process, you will be amazed!

How can I find out more?

Get in touch with me at

Visit the WIAL website –

Also a great book recommendation (I love a good book) is ‘Optimizing the power of action learning’ by Michael Marquardt, Shannon Banks, Peter Cauwelier and Choon Seng Ng

#coaching, #WIAL, #actionlearning, #leadership