Learning sets, debriefing groups: learning from doing

I've been helping organisations learn how to collaborate better.  One of my clients was interested in boosting their organisation's ability to keep learning from the real-life experiences of the people who I'd trained.

We talked about setting up groups where people could talk about their experiences - good and bad - and reflect together to draw out the learning.  This got me thinking about practical and pragmatic ways to describe and run learning sets.

Action learning sets

An action learning set is – in its purest form – a group of people who come together regularly (say once a month) for a chunk of time (perhaps a full day, depending on group size) to learn from each other’s experiences.  Characteristics of an action learning set include:

  • People have some kind of work-related challenge in common (e.g. they are all health care workers, or all environmental managers, or they all help catalyse collaboration) but are not necessarily all working for the same organisation or doing the same job.
  • The conversations in the 'set' meetings are structured in a disciplined way: each person gets a share of time (e.g. an hour) to explain a particular challenge or experience, and when they have done so the others ask them questions about it which are intended to illuminate the situation. If the person wants, they can also ask for advice or information which might help them, but advice and information shouldn’t be given unless requested.  Then the next person gets to share their challenge (which may be completely different) and this continues until everyone has had a turn or until the time has been used up (the group can decide for itself how it wants to allocate time).
  • Sometimes, the set will then discuss the common themes or patterns in the challenges, identifying things that they want to pay particular attention to or experiment with in their work.  These can then be talked about as part of the sharing and questioning in the next meeting of the set.
  • So the learning comes not from an expert bringing new information or insight, but from the members of the set sharing their experiences and reflecting together.  The ‘action’ bit comes from the commitment to actively experiment with different ways of doing their day job between meetings of the set.
  • Classically, an action learning set will have a facilitator whose job is to help people get to grips with the method and then to help the group stick to the method.

If you want to learn a little bit more about action learning sets, there's a great briefing here, from BOND who do a great job building capacity in UK-based development NGOs.

A debriefing group

A different approach which has some of the same benefits might be a ‘debriefing group’. This is not a recognised ‘thing’ in the same way that an action learning set it.  I’ve made the term up!   This particular client organisation is global, so getting people together face to face is a big deal. Even finding a suitable time for a telecon that works for all time zones is a challenge. So I came up with this idea:

  • A regular slot, say monthly, for a telecon or other virtual meeting.
  • The meeting would last for an hour, give or take.
  • The times would vary so that over the course of a year, everyone around the world has access to some timeslots which are convenient for them.
  • One person volunteers to be in the spotlight for each meeting. They may have completed a successful piece of work, or indeed they may be stuck at the start or part-way through.
  • They tell their story, good and bad, and draw out what they think the unresolved dilemmas or key learning points are.
  • The rest of the group then get to ask questions – both for their own curiosity / clarification, and to help illuminate the situation.  The volunteer responds.
  • As with the action learning set, if the volunteer requests it, the group can also offer information and suggestions.
  • People could choose to make notes of the key points for wider sharing afterwards, but this needs to be done in a careful way so as to not affect the essentially trusting and open space for the free discussion and learning to emerge.
  • Likewise, people need to know that they won’t be judged or evaluated from these meetings – they are safe spaces where they can explore freely and share failures as well as a successes.
  • Someone would need to organise each meeting (fix the time, invite people, send round reminders and joining instructions, identify the volunteer and help them understand the purpose / brief, and manage the conversation). This could be one person or a small team, and once people understand the process it could be a different person or team each time.

For peer learning, not for making decisions

Neither approach is a ‘decision making’ forum, and neither approach is about developing case studies: they are focused on the immediate learning of the people who are in the conversation, and the insight and learning comes from what the people in the group already know (even if they don’t realise that they know it). In that sense they are 100% tailored to the learners’ needs and they are also incredibly flexible and responsive to the challenges and circumstances that unfold over time.