One of the greatest benefits of Action Learning is the opportunity to receive questions from people who know little or nothing about the issue, people or context about which a person is presenting. Why is that? Well, mainly because people standing on the outside of a person’s situation are less likely to make the same assumptions as the person standing within it.
Questions they pose can often unlock new avenues of insight and open up fresh options for action. For this reason, it can be very valuable to create as much diversity as possible in the composition of an Action Learning set.
Action learning with diverse sets
A global non-governmental organisation (NGO) I worked with decided to use this diversity principle in Action Learning as part of a wider senior leadership development programme. I’ll share briefly some of what happened and what we-they learned through it.
Participants in the programme were allocated to Action Learning sets based principally on differences in (a) geographical location and (b) role. The idea was to have a rich mix of participants in each group. In order to manage well the complexities that such diversity would create, they allocated an experienced facilitator to each set.
The first challenge, logistically, was to find optimal times that sets could meet, given that participants were living and working in different time zones across the world.
The next challenge was that, given the contexts in which the NGO was operating, some participants didn’t have reliable access to the internet. Their connections were unstable and this created significant communication problems across all groups. If you haven’t (yet) had that experience, have a glance at Tripp & Tyler’s humorous Conference Call on YouTube!
The third and more significant challenge was to address cultural differences within sets, especially as the NGO hadn’t tackled this overtly and adequately from the outset.
Some participants came from backgrounds where e.g. inviting, posing and receiving open questions was common practice; some from backgrounds where posing questions in a group setting was frowned upon for fear of causing embarrassment or shame if a person was unable to answer a question; some from backgrounds where posing open questions felt immature and providing expert, directive advice was the norm.
So, what did we-they learn from this? Firstly, pragmatically, to balance the diversity principle in Action Learning sets with the logistics and human implications (e.g. participant tiredness) of working across very different time zones.
Secondly, to ensure in advance that participants have access to stable communication technologies for set meetings.
Thirdly, to explore and address cross-cultural assumptions, beliefs, values and behaviours explicitly as part of Action Learning induction; and to draw on such differences as opportunities arise to develop global leadership awareness and skills.
With the correct preparation, and keeping all participants fully briefed on what to expect from their participation in an action learning set, the sets were successful, making a positive contribution to the senior leadership development programme.
Participants discovered, experientially, the enormous value of diversity in Action Learning sets, enabling presenters to question and challenge their own beliefs and assumptions and to find creative and innovative solutions. In doing so, they also grew in understanding of cultural similarities and differences and learned how to capitalise on them for greatest positive effect.
This, in turn, enabled them to move career-wise from national leadership roles within their own cultural contexts to wider regional or international roles.