‘It’s changed my life’ – participant feedback on Action Learning as Leadership Development

One of the most successful parts of the Arts Council England funded Unlimited Value project has been the Action Learning inspired leadership development programme that informed our  participatory Action Research.  Action Learning is an important leadership development tool because it enables participants to tackle live challenges as they arise, and to help one another develop practical solutions and next steps for tricky issues that are often seen as ‘too difficult’.

Our first Social Value Champions, with the research team and Ciara Eastell, then CEO of Libraries Unlimited, at the first Research Summit.

For some, this experience can be truly transformative:

“I do really think it has changed my life, and I think that if more people had the chance to take part in action learning, it’s got the potential to build a very strong organisation…” (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

Together, the University of Exeter Business School and Libraries Unlimited enlisted a team of Social Value Champions, to work on developing a better understanding of Social Value over time.  The programme centred on 6 action learning sets of up to 4 hours’ duration each, spread over 9 months.  Between meetings, participants also attended research summits, staff conferences, colllaboration days and other training workshops.  The sets provided an important data source for the project, showing the researchers how individuals learn to share new ideas and translate learning into action.  Equally importantly, they helped Libraries Unlimited to embed,  across the organization, a better understanding of how to connect social value to the daily experience of working in frontline library services.

It’s often said that a good action learning challenge begins with ‘How Can I…’?  And certainly, at the heart of action learning is an open-ended peer questioning technique that develops practical problem-solving skills. Feedback from participants supports this argument:

‘[I] approach problems a lot more analytically now and I find I open things up to my team a lot more… I’ll invite them to have an input, feed back, say what they think we could do to move things forward.  And [Action Learning techniques] really helped me with breaking down what I needed to do [for a major piece of recent work] putting it into a plan and working out who I needed to talk to…’ (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

As the programme progressed, we noticed that the Champions became more confident about their ability to enact change.  They moved from focusing on small, individual challenges, towards tackling more challenging and systemic organizational issues.  As one participant reflects:

“I have found the open question technique invaluable; absolutely fantastic.  It allows me to have challenging conversations in a really collaborative way, it’s enabled me to open up conversations with people that I have previously found difficult.  It has given me confidence to have a greater say.” (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

An important legacy of the Unlimited Value project is a greater awareness within libraries sector of the power of Action Learning to develop leaders and change agents at all levels of the organization. Stand by for our free Action Learning Toolkit, based on the process developed through Unlimited Value, to help you create the next generation of leaders.