How to construct leadership development programs?

Action learning has become a feature of many leadership development programmes. In this post, it is an element of the storytelling, the Dea...

Action learning has become a feature of many leadership development programmes. In this post, it is an element of the storytelling, the Deakin University, and the NHS case studies. As an idea, it is having a bit of a renaissance as it registers well with leadership through complexity and uncertainty. It fulfils the need for leaders to begin to work things out collectively and support each other. It is sometimes about working in the organization, and sometimes about working on the organization. As such it is a powerful addition to the portfolio of activities out of which leadership programmes are built, it requires some detailed investigation.

leadership development programs

Action learning, as it has come to be known, was devised by a mercurial figure called Reg Revans. Revans was born in 1907 and died in January 2003. He was an academic, astrophysicist (in his early career) and latterly a writer and management consultant. His career encompassed a local authority education officer, director of education for the National Coal Board, and the first Professor of Industrial Management at the University of Manchester. His philosophy was based on the growing recognition that adults working together as non-experts could solve problems that eluded individual expert attention. So far so good, but the term was never really pinned down by Revans (Pedler, 2015 ) and later developments have made the term completely familiar and rather confusing at the same time. It is familiar because the term is in widespread use and it sounds simple. It is confusing because it gets caught up with a whole clutch of similar terms like action research, action inquiry or appreciative inquiry, and it is sometimes very hard to tell them apart. Add the fact that the term, invented by Reg Revans in the 1970s, has been extended and developed ever since and sometimes in a way that Revans may not have recognized and you have a recipe for error and confusion. The outcome of this is that people proudly share their action learning programmes that are not really action learning at all, and others describe activities that are clearly close to action learning but never use the term.

In this post I want to resurrect what is helpful and useful about action learning, and give some practical guidelines to make it work for you. I am not going to have a semantic argument about which practice is ‘purer’ than any other. The explicit aim is to unwrap the concept and allow you to use it extensively in a way that makes it your own, and not force you down a rigid, ideological corridor with a checklist of dos and don’ts. But before that, it is important to share the historical context in which action learning grew and flourished and demonstrate that it is not a separate disconnected concept, but one that emerged from a rich vein of thought and experimentation after the Second World War in both Europe and the United States. And the concept continues to evolve through practitioners in many countries. If we claim that the origins are British, then we miss the extensive development in Asia, notably South Korea and China. And if we hang on to Revans too tightly we ignore the contribution that Dr Michael Marquardt from George Washington University, and his World Institute for Action Learning, has made over the last 20 years to popularize, codify and certify action learning practitioners. It is important to acknowledge that at its most fundamental level, everyone agrees what it is: small groups solving leadership or organizational problems, by asking questions and taking action, and getting better at what they do by taking action and building their capability.

Integrating leadership development programs with action learning

To fully answer that question we have to return to the 1940s and the beginnings of applied psychology led by a remarkable German Jewish psychologist, Kurt Lewin. Lewin was a social theorist who focused on action research and social communication. He had been part of the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt in the 1930s but was forced into exile (first to Britain and then to the United States) when Hitler came to power. Notably, he set up ‘sensitivity training’ at the behest of the director of the Connecticut State Interracial Commission, which was designed to make people aware of their own prejudices and become more sensitive to others. He developed these ideas in the National Training Laboratories, which he established in Bethel, Maine, in 1947 from his academic base at MIT. This research and practice had a massive impact on the direction and development of the London-based Tavistock Institute under its then director Eric Trist, and jointly they established The Journal of Human Relations . There are many accounts of this, but the University of Sheffield has a website dedicated to Action Inquiry and Action Research which covers the early history (see University of Sheffield, 2016).

Lewin pioneered Training Groups or T-Groups at this centre in Bethel, which focused on group development and group exploration. Meanwhile psychologists like Carl Rogers and John Rawling Rees in the United States, and Trist at the Tavistock Clinic in London, focused on helping ex-soldiers deal with post-war stress disorders. Due to the large numbers involved, this work became group based and these became known as ‘Encounter Groups’. Over the next 10 to 15 years these ideas merged and splintered, but the focus on self-exploration, inquiry, and the encouragement to take action remained as a spine that linked them. At the heart of this was a new and fundamental concept of knowledge, known as an iterative process (Pedler, 2015 ); if you have an idea, act upon it and see what emerges. Learn from that process. This is essentially an experiential model of learning and you can trace its origins right back to the educational philosophy and ideas of the US educationalist and philosopher John Dewey.

You could also argue that this idea of iteration from action applies equally to the development of organizations, so it is not hard to see a link between individual growth, change and organizational development. The concept of action learning links into all three of these.

There is also a strong link to the idea of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’. Appreciative Inquiry emerged in the 1980s, notably in an article called ‘Appreciative inquiry in organizational life’, by David L Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, published in 1987. It is a model for organizational change based on affirming what is great about a particular organization and building on that positive potential, and is a development built out of the concept of action research.

What is action learning?

The point is that, in a world increasingly dominated by online learning, often aimed at individuals working alone, space has to be found for social interactions and myriad discussions. In order for adults to improve effectively as learners and have the competences available to take charge of their learning destiny, they need to be exposed to social learning in as many ways as possible. The rise of action learning is partly a response to the need for getting people together to learn from each other and support each other as they begin to take action to improve their situation in the workplace.

The article pays implicit lip service to the idea of action learning. I will look at it from its original definition and exposition by Reg Revans in the 1970s, through to contemporary uses as part of larger leadership development programs, or as a standalone process for developing leaders. Action learning is, predominantly, a structured mode of social learning. At its heart it is quite straightforward. It is predicated on Reg Revans’ claim that ‘there is no learning without action and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning’ (Revans, 2011 ). It takes a midpoint stance between a completely informal process and one requiring formal or rigid structures. It is a specific and unique approach to participative adult learning, and group problem-solving and is therefore potentially an important element in any model of leadership development, particularly when much of the input is online or aimed at individual learners.

In his own words, Revans described action learning as ‘sets of comrades in adversity, meeting regularly to discuss and work on each other’s problems’ (Revans interview, 1984 ). This is probably the simplest and most succinct definition possible! But there are a number of clues in that definition, which point to the heart of Revans’ philosophy and approach. Firstly it is a group of ‘comrades’ who meet – peers who know and respect each other. These are not random groups, or forced groups, but colleagues who know each other well and freely choose to join the action learning set. They are comrades in adversity. They have a unique collection of shared problems, together with a strong motivation to improve their lot or the lot of their organization. Action learning sets do not form for one-off meetings, but become a regular meeting where they work on one of their colleagues’ issues before moving on to another issue, and so on round the table. And this process holds good meeting after meeting, until the action learning process of asking good questions, and helping the person who is seeking advice, continues through the groups and on to action of some sort. And, of course, the problems have to be complex enough to sustain the interest of the group, so that they cannot be subject to simple, expert resolution.

The basic philosophy

There is nothing particularly complex about action learning. The model of learning is based on the idea that adult learning comprises two elements. The first is the programmed element. Revans calls this ‘getting new knowledge that exists, but you were not aware of’ (Revans interview, 1984 ). The programme element can come from a lecture, book, structured learning materials, etc. The second element is asking questions and getting better at asking questions, that explore the unknown, and help you move forward to solve your own problem. Revans would argue that the difference between action learning and other forms of learning is simply the balance between the content delivered (P) and the questions asked in response (Q). In action learning there is much more Q than P. In more conventional learning modes, it is the other way round, ie lots of input and very few, if any, questions. The core element of action learning, however, is the action! Revans believed axiomatically that one led to the other. There was no learning without an action and no action without resulting learning (Revans, 2011 : 5).

 Why is action learning important?

Action learning has been around since the 1970s, and if you look at Google search data historically, it was being searched for quite extensively in the 1990s and the early part of this century. It then declines hugely in popularity as a search term. If you look at the Google data now, there is an uptick occurring once again. Many people are discovering its relevance in an age of uncertainty, rapid change and complexity.

I have direct experience of action learning. Under Mike Pedler’s influence, the leadership programme at the BBC became one of the biggest action learning rollouts anywhere in the world at that time. The BBC ran hundreds of action learning sets and I have talked to many individuals and organizations that see the enduring value of action learning as part of knowledge sharing, management and leadership development, as well as community building. It is important, and it needs more people to know about it and feel confident to use it as a tool for individual and organizational development.

Reg Revans was born in 1907 and died in 2003. He had an extraordinarily long, and varied life. He attended the funeral of Florence Nightingale! He met Albert Einstein, and Einstein’s advice to him – ‘if you think you understand the problem, make sure you are not deceiving yourself’ (which was quoted in his Times obituary) – helped him to develop his theory of problem-solving and the role of the non-expert. Revans therefore began a research process that distinguished fundamentally between knowledge and wisdom. This distinction is somewhere at the core of action learning.

He began to detest the cult of the ‘expert’. He wrote a Guardian article in the 1980s criticizing our naive faith in experts and their power to solve all our problems, which was widely quoted but not well supported. His view, quite simply stated, was that experts suck all the air out of the room. In other words, we all defer to experts and that stops us thinking and it stops us working out our own problems. He believed that there were problems that were too difficult to be left to experts! He acknowledged that difficult problems were indeed the domain of the expert, but what later came to be known as ‘wicked’ problems (a term coined by Horst Rittel and others) were often poorly dealt with by experts. The problems were ‘wicked’ in the sense that they were complex, not necessarily bad, and had no simple straightforward answer! A wicked problem has no obvious solution. Solving a wicked problem requires wisdom as much as knowledge and, preferably, the wisdom of a diverse group who can share their insights. It is likely that no one person can solve a wicked problem. There is no template or model to follow when attacking a wicked problem, but the solution emerges from questioning and discussion. The solution is neither obvious nor simply hidden – it emerges as the group tries to clarify the issue by asking questions and challenging assumptions.

Increasingly, because of growing complexity in our world, the kinds of problems we face in organizations are more likely to be wicked as opposed to difficult! Revans also believed that when a group commits to helping to solve a wicked problem there is a more complex process going on between members of the group than if the same group were listening to an expert. Action learning builds confidence, encourages knowledge sharing, and helps build strong communities. It is also an enduring process that lasts longer than any learning programme, and becomes a tool going forward for continuing leadership development and problem-solving. Handling any problem outside the organization or the leadership of an organization (such as handing it to consultants) denies, disenfranchises and detracts from establishing an enduring process to deal with those issues. Action learning encourages proactivity and the ownership of challenges and self-help.

Revans started his career as a doctoral student in astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He went on to become an assistant education officer in Essex. He then became Director of Education for the National Coal Board from 1945 until 1950. It was in the National Coal Board that he began to implement what later became known as action learning. Therefore, this process is well over 60 years old. Yet far from being completely mainstream, its implementation is still the exception rather than the rule. There are many reasons for this, but the process of sharing the outcomes of action learning projects does not focus on the process, and there is still some confusion in terms of what it is and what it does.

Following the National Coal Board he had a hand in establishing the University of Manchester Business School and applied – but was rejected – for the top job, largely because he wanted the curriculum of the Business School to be based on an action learning model rather than the Harvard case study model that the founding academics eventually adopted. His failure to secure the top job led to his exit from Manchester University. For the remainder of his career he was a writer, consultant and management guru. He is one of the key figures in the development of management education, certainly in the UK, and probably around the world.

In 1984 Revans recorded a videotaped interview about action learning where he tried to explain what it is and why it is important in straightforward terms (Revans interview, 1984). It is an armchair discussion about the various components of action learning, and the YouTube clip is an extract from a much longer interview that is still available to purchase from the International Foundation for Action Learning, which is a UK-based federation of practitioners and exponents of action learning.

It seems seductively straightforward, but to get it working well requires a number of factors to align. Action learning does not work in organizations held together by fear and where there is a decided lack of honesty between colleagues, or an almost visceral unwillingness to share. The culture has to be right, or action learning has to be introduced as part of an explicit change programme where cooperation, teamwork and knowledge sharing are seen as fundamental.

The best sets are made up of diverse groups of peers drawn from across the organization, so that they can bring their different insights to bear. When one member has bigger problems, or is seen as higher status than the rest, the set will usually fail spectacularly quickly, or under the weight of its own inertia. Therefore, diversity and equality are critical.

Another key element of an action learning set is facilitation. This can be from outside the group, or a revolving responsibility of the group as a whole. The facilitator keeps the group focused, ensures that everyone has an opportunity to speak, clarifies the resulting action that emerges, and seeks the commitment of the individual to take that action.

In an ideal set, every member has the opportunity to share a problem. When time is tight, then a few problems are dealt with, and at the next meeting the other members get their chance to pose a problem. It is often rolled out as part of a bigger learning initiative (eg a leadership development programme) where it can help cement learning, and contribute to permanent behaviour change. There have been so many examples of action learning that is it clear, from the sheer weight of evidence, that it works. And its benefits stretch beyond the problem that has been dealt with or the individual that has been helped. Some of these wider benefits include:

  • It helps peers build trust amongst themselves.
  • It reinforces the commonality of problems across all parts of an organization.
  • It empowers groups to get on with it, and work out ways to deal with very tricky problems with little fuss and small costs.
  • It teaches managers that action is the critical outcome. Thinking and talking are valueless unless they lead to some form of action.
  • It develops accountability.
  • It helps build or sustain knowledge share.
  • It helps organizations develop explicit knowledge and create knowledge pathways throughout the organization.
  • It makes leaders feel less ‘alone in the world’. It offers support when leaders feel unable to cope.
  • It hones questioning skills that can be used elsewhere for analysis and understanding.
  • It develops mutual respect for teams. Everyone can contribute and it is everyone’s contribution that is necessary to deal with the problem in hand.
  • It helps alignment, and empowers leaders to take charge of their own destiny.

What is a typical action learning set?

What follows is an account of an action learning set. I used the term ‘typical’ but that is possibly an oversimplification of the concept of action learning. In many ways, each set has to discover its own way of productive working and its own equilibrium, but there are generic elements which can be shared.
Each action learning set has three distinct stages. All three will be discussed in some detail, but before examining that it is worth focusing on how you form groups that are more likely to be successful. There are a number of salient points:

The group should be drawn from the same level in the company, ie peers. They certainly don’t have to know each other before the group meets, but they must see each other as of similar status with roles of equal complexity. It can be disruptive if there is one person who is perceived by the others to be at a higher or lower level than the rest of the group, as this tends to prevent the group gelling or allows the group an excuse to give more or less weight to one set of opinions, rather than to treat them equally.

No one should be forced into an action learning set. Volunteers work best – and it is more effective – if they come to the learning set with at least one wicked problem or nagging concern. Reluctant participants can be encouraged to try it out with the proviso that they can withdraw later if it is simply not working for them, but a group where the majority have been pressed into service is rarely productive.

Ideally the group should meet for a few hours so that more than one issue can be dealt with and there is no time pressure to resolve the problem. But the group has to negotiate what works for the majority. I have seen groups that choose to meet for most of a day, and groups that can only spare an hour for a meeting. Both can work well.

Location is important. A pleasant meeting place with light and air is far preferable to a stuffy basement room. And groups need regular breaks to stretch legs and recharge. It is usually the facilitator’s role to watch for the tell-tale signs of flagging interest and call a break.

Groups that know one another can easily meet online as long as cameras are switched on. If you have an online session, the meeting time is much more compressed (one hour maximum). And the facilitator has the important additional role of keeping people engaged and summing up the point the group has reached on a regular basis, in order that the actions that emerge are captured and shared.

It is also possible for sets to meet where most are present in one location; however, one or two members can choose to join online due to time or location issues. This requires special skills to manage, but it can be done. Again the facilitator role is critical to ensure that the online participants’ voices are heard, and that they feel they are equal participants in the meeting.

A group should ideally commit for at least six months so that it has time to settle and evolve. Clearly, if the group is not working, or there are trust issues, it is better to jettison the group early rather than press on regardless. If successful, by six months the group should feel comfortable with each other and able to make good decisions based on free-flowing questions. If this is the case, the action learning set will continue under its own momentum.

Inviting each member in turn to ‘host’ a meeting can work well, and the rest of the set experience another part of the organization that they are not familiar with. It is also possible to rotate the individual who facilitates the set around the group, meeting by meeting.

The three stages of an action learning set

Stage one: getting settled and getting started

To get the set ready for work requires some effort. People arrive with their own baggage and they need to acquire focus and concentration on the matter in hand if the set is to work. It is an important role for the facilitator to bring the meeting to order and get it started. Questions such as the ones below can be helpful:

‘Are we ready to start? Has anyone got any issues they want to share before we begin?

‘Let’s get some ground rules. Can everyone turn their phones to silent, please? Can everyone stay for the full meeting? Does anyone need to jump out at any time? If not, I can assume that you will all be here for the duration.’

‘Let’s begin with a quick round up since the last meeting. David, what happened when you carried out the three actions you agreed to take forward?’

‘Has anyone anything else they wish to contribute?’

‘What is the challenge you want to share, Mary? It is your turn now to lead off the session.’

‘Can I just clarify, Mary, the challenge is...?’

Stage two: asking questions

It is always worth reminding the set that they are asking questions, not solving problems or adding their views. It can be helpful if the facilitator ensures that no one individual hogs the floor, and that the person who is answering the questions is given time to think and consider the responses, before the next question.

If that person is struggling to answer the question then the facilitator can interrupt to clarify the question or ask that person what the problem is, or perhaps engage in dialogue: ‘What are you thinking, Mary?’ ‘Why are you struggling to answer that question?’ ‘What is your initial thought here?’

Sometimes the best and most illuminating questions are the ones that are most difficult to answer. Time must be allowed so that a response can be thoughtfully formulated. The person should not feel pressured into making a hurried or superficial response.

If the pressure is building, it is the facilitator’s role to call time out. That single intervention can be critical in keeping the meeting on track and allowing insights to emerge for the individual and the group. Letting people think, as well as talk, is an absolutely fundamental part of the action learning process.

Stage three: moving to action

Reg Revans said that there is no learning without action (Pedler and Abbott, 2013 ). This is a core stage of the process, but it is sometimes hard to know the moment to shift into outcomes and actions and to define those actions clearly enough to be unambiguous. It is also important that the individuals feel accountable for their own actions. Another member of the group can be asked to hold them directly accountable, eg ‘I will phone you next Monday, Mary, to see how you got on when you spoke to Bill.’

You know it is time to move to actions when:
  • the questions dry up or repeat;
  • the individual has no new insights;
  • potential actions are piling up that have emerged from the questions;
  • specific actions have been agreed – enough to get things moving and help tackle the problem.
The facilitator can help this process by suggesting or reminding the questioner of actions that have emerged, or clarifying actions, eg ‘Mary, you need to get more information about this; who specifically are you going to talk to?’

Finally, the facilitator needs to summarize, or gets Mary to summarize. ‘There are five clear actions here. Mary, when can you complete them? Is there anyone in the set who will help Mary achieve the actions, or hold her to account?’

It may be over-egging the pudding to have formal notes, but an account of the actions is always helpful. The key message has to be that Mary is the one who is responsible for carrying out the actions. It is not the facilitator’s role to keep a note, keep track or check back. Once the meeting is finished, the accountabilities should be abundantly clear.


The key points highlight the active role of the set adviser/facilitator. They are working on the group as much as working in the group. Such small roles as ‘nudging’, ‘encouraging’, ‘enabling’, and ‘giving feedback’ are, in themselves, small interventions, but they do add up to a significant nurturing of the set. Given this significance, it is possible to understand why Michael Marquart insists on structuring, defining and credentialing the role (Marquardt, 1999 ). You might feel that how the role works, in practice, in your organization needs to emerge rather than be predefined. The choice is clear. What Pedler and Abbott illustrate is that having five different accounts makes it easier to select what works best in a specific circumstance or for a specific group, rather than have one fixed list that has to be adhered to. Action learning has always been messy and open, and that is part of its enduring appeal and why it works in many different ways in many different organizations.

  • How can you use action learning as part of your own leadership development programme? There are a number of points to consider when you decide to move forward with action learning:
  • Make a conscious decision to include action learning in your leadership programme from the outset, and explain what that will involve. A half-hearted attempt to form groups to discuss ‘something’ with no structure rarely works.
  • Make some effort to define how it will take place and what the facilitator’s role will be without overprescribing every element. The latter is more likely to end in failure. Action learning works best when the sets evolve into a degree of self-ownership. But they still need some structure, particularly at the beginning.
  • Take stock regularly and change the parameters, if necessary, to keep the sets on track. Sometimes a super facilitator can add value by sitting in on a number of sessions and helping share the emerging best practice.
  • Do not force incompatible groups to continue beyond the natural life of the group – this could be limited to one session only. Groups can be reformed at a later date.
  • Allow the sets some leeway in selecting members, but do not allow elites to form.
  • Integrate action learning into the leadership programme. It should not appear to be a bolt-on or an afterthought.
  • Ensure the groups focus on ‘wicked problems’ so that the process of working on those problems raises capability in the group and reflects positively back to the whole organization. The problems have to be meaty enough to sustain the group. Each issue should be intriguing when it is posed to the group.
  • Get feedback. Ask for feedback from the facilitators after each meeting. This should be brief but include problem solving if necessary.

Each wave of action learning should be introduced and evangelized by the previous groups. If it is ‘sold’ on tangible benefits that are shared by the beneficiaries, that will have much greater impact than any other form of introduction. The best outcome is for action learning to become part of the culture of the organization. Potential set members have to take charge once the process has been initiated.

Develop a cadre of action learning experts who can help other groups get started and deal with issues and problems informally. There will be enthusiasts for this way of working. Bring them into the discussion and let them ‘own’ the process and evangelize the methodology.

Do not give up too soon. The dominant culture in the organization may need to evolve to fully embed action learning. This takes time. But if there is a culture of mistrust and dishonesty among the leadership group, action learning could fail. It will encourage more honest responses but cannot work miracles in leadership qualities and toxic leadership cultures.



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Thought Leadership Zen: How to construct leadership development programs?
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