Department for Work & Pensions
Action Learning Sets Case Study
Department for Work and Pensions
Situation

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) runs a programme of support and learning for its Emerging Talent group of managers. The training team wished to introduce Action Learning Sets (ALS) into the programme, with the intention of:

  • Enabling and supporting participants to take action on specific issues encountered at work.

  • Generating and sharing ideas for dealing with a range of common issues.

  • Encouraging participants to develop their own coaching and facilitation skills.

 

People Vision were engaged to provide a pool of trainers to facilitate the ALS. Many People Vision associates have experience and expertise in this area and over the course of two years a large team has worked on the project, with Jenny Cook and Carol Barnes overseeing the events.


Challenge

The ALS programme represented a significant time commitment for all involved, with each group meeting for 5 full days over the course of a 9 month period. It was therefore important that the facilitators ensured that the work led to specific, tangible outcomes in order to demonstrate value for money.

For each group to work effectively, participants needed to:

  • Build strong, trusting relationships.

  • Be open to challenge and prepared to challenge each other.

  • Listen actively and ask high quality questions.

  • Be patient, not rushing into offering solutions.

 

In order to establish a productive environment, it was essential that the facilitators should always model these same skills and behaviours.


Action 

Each facilitator worked with groups of 8 participants. During each meeting, each participant had the opportunity to present to the group an issue or challenge that they were facing. They were then coached by the facilitator and the group to reflect on the situation and the approach they had taken, to consider a range of possible solutions, and finally to commit to a course of action.

Each participant therefore ‘contracted’ with the group on the action they would take, and at the following meeting this contract was revisited and reviewed. Participants reflected on whether or not they were able to take action and what the outcome was, and the group discussed next steps.

The facilitators provided a structure and framework for the discussions, and introduced theories and models to support the learning, including Merrill and Reid’s social styles questionnaire, John Whitmore’s GROW model, and the Civil Service Competency Framework.

Topics which were discussed included:

  • Managing your team, in particular:

    • ​Taking over a new team, making a positive first impression and understanding the team’s dynamics.

    • Safeguarding your own and your team’s well-being, especially in terms of work/life balance and mental health issues.

  • ​Managing your inbox.

  • Managing your manager.

  • Managing your career, including how to achieve visibility in a senior role.


Results

Attendance on the ALS sessions was 90%, demonstrating the participants’ commitment and indicating that they found the process a valuable use of their time. Many participants also maintained contact with each other between meetings to provide ongoing support.

The facilitators noted a significant improvement in the participants’ skills over the course of the programme, in particular their questioning and listening skills and their effectiveness in coaching each other. All participants gave and received feedback, providing each other with challenge and support.

The process of ‘contracting’ with the group ensured that participants followed through on the actions they agreed to, and as a result a large number of changes have been made. The following is a representative selection:

  • Staff are now providing one manager with more relevant information, allowing the  manager to take action to ensure that performance indicators are being met.

  • One manager has arranged regular update meetings with their own line manager, meaning that their manager has not been unsettling the team with ad hoc visits.

  • One manager is now sharing more open and honest feedback with their own line manager, creating a more trusting and productive working relationship.

  • The manager dealing with mental health issues in a team member helped that person return to work much earlier than anticipated.

  • Several managers have been exploring different ways of managing their inboxes, including asking staff to consider who they copy into their emails, putting on the out of office notice when working on a project, and delegating more correspondence.

  • One manager has set up an ALS with their own team leaders in order to develop their problem solving skills and share ideas.

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