What about the pitfalls and risks of action learning?

When commissioners are considering using action learning to meet their professional development needs, I am sometimes asked “what happens if it goes wrong?” and “what are the classic mistakes or pitfalls of action learning?”

These are fair questions, and it’s important to explore what might go wrong, and how, in our experience, we manage and mitigate any potential risk of failure.


Careful contracting within an action learning set makes clear the importance of all participants being present. The challenge is to agree dates for attendance and to secure full participation at all set meetings in the face of often very busy work schedules.

This is a reflection of the pressurised organisations we work with and the number of external priorities set participants face from other stakeholders. People can find themselves under pressure to release their own development time for whatever organisational or team challenge is happening at the time.

Poor set attendance will impact the cohesion of the set because members will not be able to participate in each other’s presentations and won’t necessarily be there to feedback on actions. We are very clear at the outset of the importance of regular set attendance and that everyone involved (including the managers or line managers of those attending) understands the commitment required to gain the most benefit.

Appreciation of what action learning can achieve

Behind the organisational pressures on set members, it’s possible that action learning is not well understood or development activities generally have poor internal support within the organisation. It is important for everyone to understand the nature of the development work being undertaken, and the commitment required from them. Only when participants are fully immersed in an action learning programme, are they best placed to gain the most from it.

Having faith in the process

On occasions a set may have difficult moments if set members struggle with the concept of action learning and to develop the patience for exploring a subject in depth rather than giving into temptation to offer solutions or advice. Here we set ground rules from the start of an action learning set, and as facilitators are able to manage and steer the progress of a set meeting to remain true to the action learning ethos.

Creating a safe environment for real issues to be aired

Set presentations can sometimes bring up sensitive issues which reveal feelings or behaviours that are not always comfortable. People may be reminded of the effort they have put in to change something and not been successful. This can lead to uncomfortable feelings. Doing this work in a group by its very nature is a more courageous place than one to one.

The facilitator’s role here is to create an environment of trust from the outset, one where it feels safe to speak and explore often complex issues. It may also be appropriate to acknowledge a difficulty, to make observations about what is taking place. Holding up a mirror in an open minded, neutral and accepting way will support the set in exploring their thoughts and feelings and so reduce any anxiety and also increase trust within the set.

During the life of a set the nature of the individual learning may have an element of risk or exposure, which may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Open, reflective facilitation, as well as the skills which the participants are developing can serve to hold this space. It can also create one of the real joys of action learning – seeing the trust and skill level rise within a set, and the growth and development and individual and set level.

There are often ‘light bulb’ moments during the course of an action learning set. Sometimes it may take some difficult conversations and searching questions to get there but ultimately the results are worth it and we can categorically say that no one (yet) has said they wished they hadn’t taken part.

So, yes there are risks, there is potential for things to go wrong, but with careful management and facilitation, full commitment from commissioners, participants and their organisation, there is no reason why a successful outcome shouldn’t be achieved.

What next? Take a look at the merits of running action learning sets for organisational development here.


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