“What comes first, the project or the set?” – project-focused action learning

I recently ran a session on project-based action learning for the Action Learning Facilitators Forum (ALF) with some 20 people.  We had a lively dialogue about how to construct a learning process around complex change projects, and how action learning can be integral to a business change programme.

We looked at a number of components.  The project lifecycle forms the core around which learning is wrapped.  As shown in the diagram below, each step requires a focus on a range of activities and associated capabilities.  In a learning environment, we have created development events for internal project/change leaders to support each step.

Where does action learning come into this?

Action learning sets with project or change leaders participating provide a process for deep exploration of the dynamics going on in and around the projects they are leading.

What are these dynamics in and around change projects?

The organisational or systemic context will provide the dynamic backdrop for internal change projects.  We can see in the diagram some of the features on the systemic context that may influence the design and implementation of a change project.  There is a constant interaction between that context and the project – and the project leader is at the point of interaction between them.  Action learning sets provide the container for a process of reflection, learning and action for the project leaders.  Additionally, if the participants are from the same organisation, there is scope for group learning about patterns of behaviour that may have an influence on the culture of the organisation.

Ideally, the action learning sets are dispersed along the lifecycle of the projects.  Project leaders meet in the sets and bring issues relating to the projects they are leading.  Typically, issues are explored from three main perspectives: project tasks and outcomes (the business and planning focus); the context (systemic influences, culture, relationships); and the personal role of the project leader (self-authority and in relation to others) – and of course these will interact with each other.  The learning process can include development events to support project leaders in managing the projects.  In my experience, even – and especially – without such events, action learning provides a powerful intervention to help the project leaders make sense of complexity and change.  This chart summarises how a learning process can be wrapped around the projects.


At our ALF workshop, this approach helped us understand how action learning sets can be made integral to supporting a business programme, and not necessarily as part of a separate learning and development process. In the second blog on this subject I will explain how two approaches to action learning can support projects and report on how the ALF group responded to reviewing these approaches.

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