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Action learning sets

Action learning sets are a simple way to stimulate learning and help solve complex problems.

They involve a group of individuals coming together (often from different teams, jobs or even different organisations) to focus on real problems and offer different insights and ideas.

Action learning sets work well because they force the individual with the problem to look at things from a new perspective, and take a step back from their issue. Other members of the 'set' do not have to be familiar with the problem being discussed. In fact, it often helps if they have no prior knowledge. Key behaviours for set members are to listen, support and challenge.

You can run an action learning set with almost anyone, e.g. your work team, a group of fellow-managers, a mix of University staff. Sets work best with approximately five to seven people.

There are a number of different ways to run an action learning set, but one suggested method is set out below:

For each 'run' of the set

One person, who has a problem or issue they would like help with, is the 'presenter'.

One person acts as 'facilitator' and makes sure that the stages of the process are followed.

The process

  1. The presenter explains their issue to the rest of the set in as much detail as possible. During this time the presenter is in control - everyone else must simply listen. They are not allowed to interrupt or ask questions. 5 minutes.
  2. The other members of the set are given the chance to ask clarifying questions. It is very important that the others do not judge the presenter (do not ask "why?" questions) or offer advice at this stage. 5 minutes.
  3. The other set members now discuss the issue amongst themselves. During this time the presenter is not allowed to speak or comment (apart from answering a few clarifying questions if absolutely essential). They must simply sit and listen. Without being able to interrupt or dismiss ideas, often the presenter will gain a new perspective on their problem. 30 minutes.
  4. The presenter now comments on the discussion they have heard and draws up a list of action points - steps they are going to take to help progress their issue. 5 minutes.

If you are interested in taking part in an action learning set or running your own, contact CAPOD. We can help out, act as facilitator and/or give advice.


Reg Revans (1983) The ABC of Action Learning. Chartwell-Bratt.

Ian McGill & Liz Beaty  (1995) Action Learning. Kogan Page.