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An ArtsProfessional article in partnership with Boosting Resilience banner

Action learning, part of the Boosting Resilience programme, is highly valued by participants and facilitators. But what is it exactly, and what benefits does it offer?

Photo of multicoloured paper lanterns

A key element of the Boosting Resilience programme, in addition to the more formalised residential retreats and open learning programme, are two action learning sets, one running in Manchester and the other in London. Programme evaluation and feedback show that this part of the programme is highly valued, especially by participants working within micro-organisations or on a freelance basis.

Your peers become invested in your situation and a fantastic sounding board for ongoing decisions

The sets have proved particularly important in supporting the personal resilience of members, which has increasingly come to the fore as an area where further support within the sector is needed.

Action and reflection

Action learning is an approach to solving real-life problems. It involves taking action and then reflecting upon the results. The approach, originally developed by Reg Revans in 1982, was applied to support organisational and business development initiatives and improve problem-solving within teams. The process involves:

  • the consideration of a real problem that is important, critical and usually complex
  • a problem-solving team or ‘set’
  • an inclination towards curiosity, inquiry and reflection
  • a requirement that talk be converted into action and, ultimately, a solution
  • a commitment to learning.

There are several different individual protocols around action learning that have been developed since its invention. We have been using the GROW model which asks participants to reflect on:

  • Goal (What do you want?)
  • Reality (Where are you now?)
  • Options (What could you do?)
  • Will (What will you do?)

Action learning sets also have important structures around listening, questioning and confidentiality to ensure a respectful and positive learning environment.

Decision-making confidence

An action learning facilitator of several years, Claire Pattison, says: “I continue to be blown away by the power of action learning. The effect it has on people’s working lives is quite profound. People leave sessions with actions to make and big decisions to take that deal with issues, such as new strategic direction for growth or difficult members of staff that are draining the organisation. The action learning increases their decision-making confidence, capability and resilience.”

The message that Claire would like to share is that if you get the opportunity to take part in action learning, grab it with both hands. Not only does it give you the chance to share issues, challenges and opportunities with a small group of arts leaders, you also receive ongoing support from this group. Your peers become invested in your situation and a sounding board for ongoing decisions.

A logical framework

Boosting Resilience participant Kevin Rivett from Calderdale Music Trust believes the following: “The power of action learning lies in its ability to give a framework for us to work logically through any aspect presented to an individual or organisation.” He believes that action learning has been an important source of additional value for those on the programme. For instance, he notes that the sets are brilliant for workforce development and organisational co-design.

The power of action learning is evident as Kevin claims “the process de-personalises the situation and triggers and develops creative solutions which then lead to a crystallisation of ways forward. The action learning provides a tool for use both in our personal and business life and its power adds immediate clarity for visioning and strategic process”.

Ongoing support

As a new facilitator but long-term participant in action learning, Suzie Leighton is not surprised by the positive impacts on personal resilience that arise. Suzie was fortunate enough to join an action learning group funded by the former London Arts Board back in the 1990s. The group continued to self-facilitate for more than a decade after the funding ended, and still remains close and supportive. Over time, members of the group moved into other sectors and industries, enhancing the range of knowledge and perspectives shared within the set.

Suzie says: “At the time of establishing the set, all of us were at middle management level in very small arts organisations, with little or no internal development support, some of us quite isolated and struggling. As well as helping us to develop key skills, such as active listening and open questioning, the group became a key personal as well as professional support.

“We used the action learning protocol to support each other through problem-solving and changes, against a constantly evolving backdrop of other key life events such as marriage, relationship breakdown, births and deaths. Having a group of engaged and expert people you know well and trust, focussed on helping you actively solve problems is a priceless resource.”

Acknowledging skills

Kat Bridge, another member of the cohort, agrees that action learning can be profoundly supportive of personal resilience. Kat joined the programme at a time of major change: “My whole situation was a big problem. The organisation where I was the co-CEO had unravelled quite spectacularly at the hands of a few individuals and my self-esteem had followed close behind.”

Kat had to manage a slew of redundancies (including her own) and resignations of almost the entire loyal and long-standing team. She was able to share how her personal resilience, ethics and idea of leadership were being rocked alongside other intriguing challenges of intellectual property, project design and complex archiving. A big dose of empathy from peers on the programme and the structure of action learning kept the sessions solution-focussed and supportive.

Kat also states: “Having to answer questions that weren’t the ones running around my mind prompted perspective. My confidence and understanding of my value grew again differently, and more accurately, as a direct result of these sessions. In turn, I realised afresh I was good at asking questions and getting to grips with the situations of others, a skill I’m trying to reflect more in my freelance work.”

Cost-effective solution

At a time when arts and cultural leaders are under increasing pressure to become ever more resilient and innovative in an environment of fast-paced change and uncertainty, action learning offers a valuable and cost-effective source of peer support and personal development.

The four contributors to this article are Claire Pattison, Enterprise Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University; Kevin Rivett, Director of Calderdale Music Trust; Kat Bridge, an independent producer and curator; and Suzie Leighton, Director of The Culture Capital Exchange and chair of Jasmin Vardamon Dance Company.

Action learning taster sessions will be available at Beyond Resilience: Co-Designing Our Creative Futures on 14 March.

The article, contributed and sponsored by Boosting Resilience, is part of a series on making the arts and cultural sector more resilient.