Trusting the action learning process

There are times when even the most carefully crafted programme doesn’t go entirely to plan. Such was the case during a three day action learning facilitator training programme recently conducted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  The aim of the programme was to give all participants experience of facilitating action learning sets and to practice and develop all the skills generally associated with action learning. 

Things didn’t get off to the best of starts.  The day before our arrival in Abu Dhabi the client organisation had had a momentous upheaval and a radical change in leadership with knock-on effects to employees, leaving them feeling uncertain and distracted.

The consequences for us as course facilitators were significant.  We had planned for twelve participants working, for the most part, in two action learning sets. Only eight participants arrived for the training on the first day, the other four having been detained or distracted by their operational roles, which were in a state of flux.  Participants were up to two hours late for the start of the training making the all-important beginnings (introductions, programme overviews, trust-building processes) feel rather interrupted and imperfect.  In fact to some degree it felt like beginnings and beginning-agains were all we were doing.

Furthermore, during the course of that first day it became apparent that participants, who were all from the same organisation, were in various line management relationships.  This is something we urge clients to avoid and something we are very clear about in pre-course briefings: it can be difficult to talk openly about personal difficulties if your line manager or direct report is with you in the action learning set.  This is particularly true if your difficulties are in any way linked to your relationship with your line manager or direct report.

It also became apparent during that first day that participants’ relationship with time differed significantly from our own, British idea of time-keeping.  This difference collided head-on with our neatly planned programme schedule and our very British need to manage time precisely.  Again this took us into a place of uncertainty and doubt: do we push hard to impose a rigid time structure or do we tread more carefully, acknowledging that that may not be helpful even if it was what we wanted to do.

At the times when there were eight participants in the room we were able to work as two action learning sets, as our programme schedule dictated.  But with unpredictable time-keeping and understandably distracted participants we sometimes had only six or seven people present.  When this happened we had to flex the programme and work as one action learning set rather than two in order to allow us to continue and give everyone the opportunity to facilitate.  We were very much aware of trying to manage our own anxieties about the various disruptions and our desire to give participants the best possible experience of action learning.  Through the course of the three days both of us felt, at times, stressed and disturbed by the continual emergence of random factors.

In the end, all attending participants had the opportunity to facilitate an action learning set and multiple opportunities to be active set members.  In the sets they had encouragement and ample opportunity to practice and develop all the fundamental and transferable skills associated with action learning practice. Participants reported that the program had been hugely significant for them and that they had learnt a great deal.  They also joked that they had learnt “English time” and by day three time keeping was markedly improved (from our perspective at least) from day one.

Given the erratic nature of the circumstances in which we all found ourselves, it seemed that the only constant was the action learning process itself.  The flow of presenting, questioning, reflecting and reviewing process, ensured we had a solid foundation to keep referring back to.  In what seemed to be an ever-shifting situation the action learning process itself was our touchstone and anchor. Secondly, the mindful practice of working with what is, reflecting and inquiring into what would be most useful served us well.  Thirdly, and equally important, the support and challenge of colleagues, together with the sharing of experience and points of view, helped us as facilitators navigate a way through the work and collaboratively facilitate a positive and worthwhile learning experience.

And the moral of the story is clear – trust the process and your colleagues: no matter the context, they will keep you on track and they won’t let you down.


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