Action Learning Sets

Posted by: Faye Simpson - Posted on:

I am currently on a train travelling back from an action learning set (ALS) which I attended today along with 7 fellow regional trainees and our facilitator, at a mutually convenient venue in London. It’s been quite an exhausting session, as today I brought along an issue to share with the group. Spending some time grappling with my challenge with the support of colleagues and engaging in some other leadership activities too has left me feeling a strange combination of tired, reflective and energised. I’ve come away with clarity over my issue and prepared to take the actions I committed to in the session, plus I’ve been given plenty of food for thought from our other activities – which will be useful not only in my current placement, but more widely in working life and leadership practice.

You may have come across action learning before, or perhaps even taken part in sessions previously. However, when I joined the scheme, the concept was completely new to me. ALS is essentially a safe space to share issues, problems, challenges or anything you’ve been thinking about or may be facing at work. In the sessions, you can discuss each challenge as a group, explore different approaches and perspectives on the issue, and find solutions or improve practice. It’s not about giving you the answers or telling you what to do in a situation; the idea is that through exploring and challenging the issue, whatever it might be, you are supported to come up with the answers yourself. It’s something I enjoy and find effective.

Importantly, at ALS there is no judgement from grads or facilitators on what is discussed in the room, and topics remain confidential if you wish them to, which makes it a truly safe space to open up and share difficulties away from your other work environments such as placement or education. Today, after I described the challenge I was facing, I was encouraged by my peers’ questions and opinions think of the situation in ways I hadn’t previously, and consider things I wouldn’t have come up with on my own – no matter how long I’d spent thinking about the problem. Having a diverse group of people, especially when they know relatively little about the individuals or context involved in the problem, is really helpful because that distance, and their different perspectives, cause them to ask probing questions, which prompts you to reflect on the issue and therefore find the solution(s).

As no one else in the group had an issue to bring today, our facilitator then took us through a number of other activities that come under the umbrella of action learning. We practiced mindfulness, which is a very valuable technique in what can be a busy and stressful world of health and social care. In the afternoon, we did some exercises around feedback and exploring our group dynamic, which were really insightful. While ALS on the scheme is protected time out from other commitments, it isn’t necessarily strictly structured time, so different methods and approaches can be explored during the sessions, with the guidance of the facilitator(s).

ALS isn’t always easy, but it’s a good opportunity to practice being uncomfortable. That might sound a bit odd. However, it’s beneficial to get experience in voicing difficulties, bringing up something that might feel strange, awkward or emotional, or working through something you would usually avoid. Doing so in a supportive group of graduate trainees is useful, as you gain strength, practical experience and learning that can be applied to the “real world”. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, learning to address difficulties is important, whether that’s speaking up about a placement that isn’t quite right, a challenging working relationship, talking to a manager about workload, or something else.

ALS can be a really powerful tool and I find that it sits alongside placement, formal education, experiential learning and the other opportunities we are presented with on the scheme nicely. Combined with everything else we are faced with, and challenges we might have thrown at us, the space to raise, discuss, explore and find solutions to issues is one that is appreciated by the graduates.

There are 9 sessions over the 2 years (2.5 for finance), each with the same group and facilitator(s). So far we’ve had 7, and have learned a lot about ourselves, each other, and our group dynamic in that time. Next session, I will feed back the progress on my issue and the actions I took, and someone else will have the chance to bring a new issue to the group for us to explore. In the meantime, it’s over to me to put the ‘action’ part of action learning in place, and tackle my problem back at the workplace, using the techniques and advice discussed at the session.

Right now, though, there’s just enough time left on this train journey to close my eyes for a little while, as I process everything that has happened today. Hopefully I don’t nod off and miss my stop…

You can follow me on Twitter or ask any questions about the scheme @faye_nhs

Faye Simpson

I’m Faye, I joined the HR stream 2016 intake. I graduated from University of Birmingham in 2013 with a BSc Hons in Psychology, which is where I discovered my passion for people. After a year out doing bar work and travelling abroad, I started my HR career in the private sector. While I loved HR, I found that my personal values were less suited to a profit-seeking organisation and would be more aligned to the public sector. The NHS Graduate Scheme offers just that plus a fantastic structured development programme, which suits me well. I’m looking forward to making a positive difference to a service that we, and our loved ones, rely on.

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Applications for the September 2021 intake will open in October 2020