Many Faces of Action Learning: A Key to Learning from Experience

Sections of this topic

    Need for Flexible Approaches to Action Learning

    My hope is that Action Learning practitioners throughout the world will fully embrace the passion for discovery and active experimentation—the pillars on which our practice is built. Both are essential factors in adapting Action Learning to the evolving needs of our clients. My purpose as an Action Learning educator and practitioner is to encourage the importance of a flexible approach to the practice of Action Learning, and to suggest the need to adapt our practices to the evolving challenges and opportunities our clients are facing. This intention is at the heart of Action Learning Source—an organization I founded with Dr. Carter McNamara and Teri McNamara of Authenticity Consulting. (

    The Importance of Learning in Survival

    It goes without saying that that the global rate of change continues to accelerate. Reg Revans—a physicist at Cambridge University and the founder of Action Learning—observed that if organizations don’t learn faster than the rate of change, they will not survive. This chilling reality no doubt contributed to his approach to generating new knowledge—insights to supplement knowledge of experts. This new knowledge, in his concept, came from powerful questions asked by a small group of people dedicated to solve emerging challenges. Team members learned from their actions and took new actions based on their learning.

    Learning from Experience

    Revans, in effect, was one of the pioneers in experiential learning. We know from research that the vast majority of learning comes from experience—from actions we take. The second most important means is the coaching we get from managers, mentors, peers, and trained coaches. Action Learning combines both learning from experience and coaching into an intentional, disciplined, and repeatable problem-solving and learning method.

    Unfortunately, research tells us that most people are only getting a fraction of the value of learning from their experiences. Our ability to leverage experience depends to a great extent on fostering “learning agility.” Mastering learning agility requires the development of what Dr. Steve Terrell calls “learning mindset” and “learning practices.” (

    Understanding — and Cultivating — Mindset in Learning

    Research by Dr. Carol Dweck and Dr. Steve Terrell has shown the benefit to leaders whose attitude or mindset toward learning embodies (a) a belief in their own learning and growth potential; (b) openness to experience; (c) motivation, willingness, and desire to learn; (d) curiosity about others and how they do what they do; (e) an attitude of discovery and exploration; and (f) the intention and willingness to gain something positive from experience. These leaders experience more growth and contribution to organizational success than leaders who do not have these attitudes toward learning.

    The learning mindset facilitates the use of key practices that leverage learning from experience including (a) taking responsibility for your own learning and development; (b) approaching new assignments/opportunities with openness to experience and positive intention to learn; (c) seeking and using feedback; (d) developing a clear understanding of your strengths and areas for development; (e) asking great questions; (f) actively reflecting; (g) experimenting with new approaches; and (h) observing and learning from others.

    Action Learning Accelerates the Development of Learning Mindset and Learning Practices

    A learning mindset and learning practices are no strangers to experienced Action Learning practitioners; both are common outcomes for participants in Action Learning programs. So what is it that Action Learning does to increase the likelihood of learning from experience? If we look at the many approaches to Action Learning around the world, there are certain elements that are common to all that foster a learning mindset and learning practices. Action Learning is an intentional process in which a small, diverse group of people is committed to addressing a real challenge faced by at least one member of the group and learning from their experience together. They do this through the use of powerful questions to both frame and solve the challenge. The taking of action and the reflection on the action taken are integral parts of the process. In many cases, there is a facilitator or coach involved who guides the group’s search for clarity and learning; in some cases, the groups can be successful in self facilitating as well.

    Many Factors to Consider When Customizing Action Learning

    Major differences of approach arise in 4 key areas: (a) the role and participation of the coach/facilitator; (b) the specific ground rules that govern the process; (c) the level of diversity of the Action Learning team and (d) the use of specific learning and problem solving tools and techniques. For example, in some models, the Action Learning coach (or facilitator) is a very passive participant—intervening only to help the group gain clarity and to facilitate learning. In another model, the Action Learning coach is an active participant in the group. For another example, in one model, there is a very prescriptive set of steps taken with tools provided for each step. In another model, there is a very loose set of steps and minimal tools provided by the coach to facilitate addressing the challenge and learning. Here is a concise depiction of many of the parameters that must be considered when customizing Action Learning.

    Success of Action Learning Starts Before Groups Meet

    I have had the benefit of great mentors and colleagues including Dr. Mike Marquardt and Dr. Cindy Phillips. I have learned the hard way that a one-size-fits-all approach does not necessarily result in learning from experience. More recently I have partnered with Dr. Carter McNamara of Authenticity Consulting. Carter and his wife Teri, have opened my eyes to ways of thinking about Action Learning.

    What I have learned is that the first principle of accelerating the impact of learning through experience is to tailor the process to the needs of the organization and the needs of the team. It sounds obvious, yet the underlying assumption that you have a flexible process that can be adapted is not true in many approaches to Action Learning. I have concluded that as much as 80 percent of the success of learning from experience in Action Learning comes from what is done to create the conditions of success before the very first team meeting.

    Chuck Appleby, PhD, is founder of Appleby & Associates, and is a leadership and organization development consultant with over 30 years of management, consulting, and coaching experience in government, industry, and non-profits.