PM Book Review

Action Learning for Managers – by Mike Pedler

Build your Expertise by Solving Real Problems and Learning from them, in small groups  

Brij Sethi

Brij Sethi, Partner – Dost Expertise LLP. Brij helps you apply Head Heart Hands to work. Head – Build and Share Expertise. Heart – Care and Persist. Hands – Stay Healthy and Get things done with grace and ease.

This book –

  • is a practical introduction to Action Learning
  • helps managers explore how Action Learning could help them
  • offers advice on how to promote Action Learning in your workplace.


Action Learning is an approach to individual and organisational development. Working in small groups – Sets – people tackle actual problems and learn from their attempts to change things.

Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning said, ‘There is no learning without action and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning’. He said, people flourish only when their rate of learning ( L ) is greater than the rate of change ( C ) being experienced.

L > C

Learning has 2 elements – traditional instruction (Programmed Knowledge) and critical reflection (Questioning Insight)

L = P + Q

P(rogrammed knowledge) can solve puzzles. Puzzles have one best answer. But Q(uestioning insight) is needed to solve problems. Problems have no one right answer and different people can solve same problem in different ways. Problems mirror real life.

#doableAction Q is more important than P. P is helpful. You can google for P. Find it in books. Ask Experts. Yet, P should only be sought after careful reflection (Q) on what knowledge is needed and why.

In Action Learning, few people work together over a period of time. This is a Set.

A Set –

  • Works on real problems of managing and organising.
  • It must be a voluntary commitment from the set member. The problems (or opportunity) must personally engage.
  • Checks individual perceptions of the problems to clarify, explore options and form action. More heads are better than one – like the 7 blind men of Hindustan, feeling up an elephant from different sides and experiencing differing versions of reality, when starting out.
  • Takes action, in light of new insight
  • Provides the balance of nudge and nurture that enables action effective learning
  • Remains aware of group processes to be able to develop effective teamwork.
  • Focuses on Learning at 3 levels


            –           problem or opportunity which is being tackled

            –           about what is being learnt about oneself

            –           about the process of learning itself (learning to learn)

Will it work in my Organization?

Organizations that encourage confident and able people to question their work and work processes – indicate robust organisational health. It is not always easy to do this.

#doableAction if you consciously want to create an organisational culture of enquiry and questioning then Action Learning is an easy way for your people to learn this by doing.

How does an Action Learning Set work?

In the 1st meeting –

  • Facilitator encourages people to introduce, disclose, and explore intentions and arrive at ground rules for working together.
  • Set members, each bring a problem to the table. This is prior preparation and requires context setting ahead of launch too.
  • This problem can be tentative, unexplored or incomplete. It is a beginning.



Sets come up with their own practices for subsequent rounds. A popular format is –

  • Catching up – allows each person to share news and helps re-integrate the group.
  • Agenda setting – based on what they heard in Catching Up, members set the agenda, decide on a ‘batting order’ and allocate available time equally.
  • Progress reports – each person reports on progress since last meeting. Other set members primarily help the person learn from what happened and explore next actions. They question, support, challenge and offer help of various sorts..
  • Review – Set takes a few minutes to feedback and discuss process. ‘What worked well?’, ‘How could we be more effective?’


#doableAction In the beginning, Reviews are important. Take longer, as needed. Use them to –

  1. Develop work practices and clarify ground rules.
  2. Reinforce the focus on Supporting and Questioning during the Set meeting
  3. Reinforce the focus on completion of volunteered actions, between Set meetings


#doableAction Being Present, Being Willing to Help, Nudging and Nurturing, Taking Action – these are important mindsets for each member.

Ground Rules for Action Learning

Many sets use these –

  • Confidentiality – what gets discussed in the Set, remains in the Set.
  • Commitment – to participate with preparation
  • Everyone has equal rights to Time, but they don’t have to take it
  • Everyone should be listened to
  • We agree to offer each other support and challenge but avoid judgements
  • It is safe here to admit needs, weaknesses and mistakes
  • Punctuality – we should start and finish on time
  • Celebrate achievements without waiting too long


What is an Action Learning Problem

A problem must meet 2 additional criteria –

  1. It is amenable to action and to learning
  2. It has a personal aspect (my ownership) and and an organisational aspect (affects others too).


#doableAction Answer these questions to sharpen the problem, you want to bring to the table.

  1. Describe the problem situation in one sentence
  2. What is it Important? To you? To your organisation?
  3. How will you recognise progress on this problem?
  4. Who else will like to see progress on this problem?
  5. What difficulties do you anticipate?
  6. What are the benefits if this problem is reduced or resolved?


What skills are developed in Action Learning?

While Presenting a Problem – analysis, logical expression, asking for help.

While Helping others with their Problems – Listening, Asking Questions, Taking Action.

While Facilitating the Process – Process awareness, Seeing the big picture.

In many ways it begins with asking good questions.

Evaluating Action Learning

For developmental self evaluation #doableAction each set member can reflect towards the end of the set meeting, on –

  1. 3 key things I have learnt about my problem
  2. 1 key thing I have learnt about myself today
  3. My action steps before the next meeting are
  4. 1 thing, I have learnt about the problem of (put each set member here, turn by turn)
  5. The thing that stands out for me from today’s session is –



Action Learning is a philosophy and not simply an alternative education or training method.

These reflections are from Revan’s writings and indicate the philosophical underpinnings.

  1. Honesty about Self – What is an honest man and what do I need to do to become one?
  2. Attempting to do good in the world – It is not enough to know what is good; you must be able to do it.
  3. For the purpose of friendship – All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship.


#doableAction share this guide and/ or useful YouTube videos with potential set partners to get them interested enough to explore a set, along with you.

#doableAction There are other Action Learning books that can be explored.

You can read Brij’s other book reviews and summaries in