Too many people for an action learning set? Try using a fishbowl technique

I run a development programme for aspiring leaders, with modules such as leadership challenges, collaborative working, performance coaching and strategic thinking.  Each module lasts two days, with the first day and a half focusing on workshop issues, inputs, exercises, diagnostic work and discussion. The afternoon of day two is always given over to action learning – providing an opportunity to explore issues emerging from each workshop.

A recent programme was oversubscribed, so instead of the usual eight delegates there were twelve.  Great for discussion – but too big for a single action learning set (ideally six to eight people).  I decided to use a fishbowl technique with an inner circle (the set), and an outer circle (the observers).  We also use this approach at Action Learning Associates to demonstrate action learning to new clients or large groups of people who may be considering joining a set.

Here is how it progressed. We conducted the bidding round in the larger group (where everyone can propose an issue they would like to explore) and selected two topics for the afternoon.  I then divided the group to create two sets with one of the presenters in each set. We then began the action learning process with six observers sitting around us as the outer circle.  Towards the end of the first set I allowed these observers to participate in the stage where each person can offer feedback to the presenter and share their own learning.

This worked extremely well and when we conducted the final process review the feedback was very positive.  After a short break we swapped circles and the observers became the new set.  It was interesting to see how the second set progressed and how they had learned from observing their colleagues during the previous set.

At the end of both sets we had an overall process review.  The feedback from the presenters was that it was slightly daunting initially presenting in front of such a large group, but they quickly became involved in the process once the questions started.  They found the set process helpful and engaging.  I had wondered if the observers might feel silenced by the process or a bit shut out by not being able to participate.  Instead they found the process extremely engaging commented on how it powerful was to be able to listen and observe without needing to think of questions or to participate.

My overall conclusion was that this could be a very effective process to use with new set members who are less confident asking questions especially to help them develop their questioning technique.


2 thoughts on “Too many people for an action learning set? Try using a fishbowl technique”

  1. I enjoyed your blog.
    I’ve tried something very similar over the last year as part of a coaching development programme. We didn’t have a neat twelve so different people chose to have the observer role for the various sessions and fed back into the set at the end as your group did.
    I agree it was a very safe and useful way to learn about questions. I think it was also useful for people to be able to see how the flow of a conversation can develop, and reflect on the process from the observer perspective. I’m going to try and build it into more sessions next year….

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