[How-to] Action Learning Set – practical guidance

This post is the start of a How-to guide on running an Action Learning Set based on my own experiences of being both a participant and a facilitator.

What is an Action Learning Set?

An Action Learning Set is a group of peers that come together to improve their practice through active reflection. The purpose of an Action Learning Set is to help you solve a problem or challenge that you are facing, or expect to face soon.

The way it works is that each member of the Action Learning Set comes to the meeting with their issue. They take it in turns to present, with the others asking questions to help the presenter better understand their issue. The insight reached allows the person to develop their own actions to solve their issue.

The whole premise is based on reflection driving understanding, and that as adults we are able to shape our own solutions.

What skills do I need to facilitate?

If you can facilitate a workshop, chair a meeting or engage people then you probably have many of the skills you need to run an Action Learning Set.

How to run an Action Learning Set

  1. Find a like minded group who want to self improve
  2. Book time and space away from distractions
  3. Set the scene in the first meeting
  4. Agree the ground rules with the people in the Action Learning Set
  5. Help the group prioritise their issues for discussion
  6. Make sure everyone gets the airtime they need for their issues
  7. Keep the sessions going until the set runs out of issues

Before the First Meeting

Finding People

There are several aspects that are important to ensure that your Action Learning Set is effective.

  • People must be volunteers (the group needs active engagement from its members).
  • They should be peers in the organisation (broadly equivalent in level, a small mismatch is fine so long as they aren’t in the same reporting chain).
  • People should also be capable of reflection (otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s time).

You want about five to seven people that meet all of the criteria above. If you have more than this then you might consider trying to form more than one set. There’s no need for people to be strangers, but you do want to try and avoid people with a very close working relationship as they are likely to share common people and that can hinder the necessary objectivity for the set to work.


As the facilitator you need to make sure that the admin is good. You can delegate this if you have a team or an L&D coordinator. However you need to make sure it happens. You want the people in the set to be focussed on their issues and actions rather than distractions.

Some essentials

  • Action Learning Sets work best face to face, so get everyone in the same room
  • Book a quiet meeting room with enough space for everyone to be comfortable, ideally you want a circle of chairs without a table
  • Make sure the room booking is for at least three hours for the first session, and two hours for subsequent sessions
  • Get into the room early and make sure it is set up right and ventilated before your Action Learning Set arrive
  • If you can book refreshments, it’ll help with the informal tone you want
  • Send background material on what Action Learning Sets are and how they work out at least a week in advance of your first session
  • Make sure you have flipchart and working pens (take ones you know work to the meeting room with you, don’t rely on them being in there)

At the First Session

Set the Tone

Be there first. As people arrive chat in a friendly way until you’ve all assembled (or you’ve got to the advertised start time).

  • Keep it informal.
  • Tell people to bring coffee or refreshments if you can’t supply them officially.
  • Stick to first names with introductions.
  • Get the group to set some ground rules
  • Solicit topics/issues to discuss & get the group to prioritise these

Suggested Ground Rules

  • Everything stays in the room
  • One person talks at a time
  • Treat all problems/issues equally
  • Be honest
  • Questioning not interrogating
  • Value all responses

Good Questions

  • What happened?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What could you do differently?
  • What have you learnt from the experience?
  • Why do you think you didn’t get the outcome that you wanted?


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