C1 – Page 6

Action Experiment

Analysing something usually means working with the benefit of hindsight, but systems are dynamic, always moving forwards; their context and elements constantly changing. It’s better to look for solutions to complex systems by looking forwards rather than back, by acting and experimenting.

In brief

Action experiment is about trying out different ways of doing things, to see what effect this has.

We experiment, in the mindset of systems thinking (see Section 5), with curiosity, learning, ready to let go, moving to next base – being experimental.

It involves cycles.

  • We frame (set in context) the issue that is energising us,
  • We describe what it is we are aspiring to,
  • We reflect on the current situation to identify questions,
  • We work out how to answer our question by experimenting in action (yes, in action, not by further thinking or reflection),
  • We act.
  • As we act, we notice (and record) what happens, inner and outer (to me, to you, to us, to the system), describing not judging, where ‘everything is data’ (that is, everything that happens could be relevant or evidence of the change you have made to the system).
  • We use what we notice to reflect again, to reframe, to reset our aspiration (if appropriate) and begin a new experiment.
  • We go on until we feel we have gone far enough.

In practice

Action experiment. Possible steps.

  1. Framing. What is your issue? Why do you want it to be different? Set out why this is where your energy is, why this is a learning edge for you (where am I in this).
  2. Aspiration. What would you like to be different? What is your aspiration in relation to what you have framed? An aspiration is something you can hold lightly, ready to change it if needs be.
  3. Reflection. Reflect on the issue. What questions are arising? What is the central question – the one where the edge really makes itself known?
  4. Moving from question to action. Give some shape to your question, then try to reverse it (how would it be if I was to experience the opposite of what my questions is asking). This might suggest an action to take to find an answer. A possible clue is to say, “How do I act in the world if I say I am….” (see example below)
  5. Act in the world. This is the essential part of Action Experiment.
  6. Notice– effect on you, effect on others, the effect on the system. (Things may happen ‘over there’, at the edges)
  7. Record your noticing(inner (what happens inside you) and outer (what happens outside you)), comparing desired with actual frames, actions, outcomes. Explore new frames, new questions, new action
  8. Begin another cycle. Continue until it seems appropriate to desist.


  • Frame: tongue-tied in meetings
  • Aspiration: Become a confident participant in any meeting.
  • Question after reflection: Why do I assume others know the answers?
  • Bridging question: How do I act in the world if I assume others may not know the answer?
  • Action: Deliberately question x by asking how he knows y? (Frame first?)
  • Notice effect and record this.
  • Try another one.
  1. Am I involved in an Action Experiment?

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Am I working differently? (or, are we working differently?)

An Action Experiment is a way of being, and is likely to involve some or all of these:

  • Being as inquisitive and curious as I can be
  • Trying to notice my own stance and how it might get in the way
  • Trying to start conversations, hearing as many points of view as possible, rather than trying to persuade people
  • Trying to notice my (and other people’s) assumptions and check them out
  • Trying to make as many connections as I can with and between others
  • Accepting that there is no right answer – I am learning by doing, letting go of the need to be right


Start small.

  • Start where you feel energised, interested, ‘edgy’.
  • Keep your overall aspiration simple – not trying to change the world (at least not straight away!). Your aspiration may change as the experiment unfolds.

Start alone or with one or two others.

  • Prepare the ground – it may take time to open people up to the possibilities, or even to the idea of experimenting.
  • Work through cycles of action and reflection.
  • Enrol others as appropriate, as you go through these cycles and as you gain confidence. Be ready to shift from ‘my’ experiment to ‘our’ experiment.
  • Work with those who share your purpose, find friends – how to deal with those outside the group is one of the questions that may need to be answered.
  • Work through conversation and relationship.

Try to be in experimental mode, curious, learning, open to what emerges.

  • Answer your questions through action – by acting in the world (which is not the same as just thinking about it).
  • Notice what happens. (Noticing is not judging.)
  • Notice what effect your actions having on the 'system' and what effect it is having on you.
  • Notice what effect you are having on others and what effect they are having on you.
  • Keep a running record. It helps you and others notice what is going on (small things might matter in creating / not creating big changes). 
  • Forgive yourself and others if things are less than easy.

Constantly scan – what is emerging, changing?

  • What knowledge exists already and how do we use it? (This might be an early question and action)
  • What is happening? Be ready to change
  • What might we build on? What opportunities are there?
  • Are there some symbolic things happening which disguise deeper issues?
  • What tools might we use? What is the flow, are there feedbacks, traps etc?

Notice what emerges and how you respond to it – inner and outer.

  • Are you using other ways of knowing – intuition, feeling, action?
  • Reflect on this and on what you learn from it. What new questions arise?

It won’t necessarily be easy!

  • If it gets blocked, be prepared to stop and try something different.
  • Don’t worry if it’s messy.
  • Who are you sharing things with? Who helps you think about where to go next?

Hold an awareness of this key question - where am I in this? What role are my assumptions and beliefs playing?


Judi Marshall (1999). Living Life as Inquiry. Systematic Practice and Action Research, 12(2), 155-171 

Rudolph, J. W., Taylor, S. S., & Foldy, E. G. (2001). Collaborative Off-line Reflection: A way to develop skill in action science and action inquiry. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (pp. 405-412). London: Sage Publications.

Torbert, W. R. (2004). Action Inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Jean McNiff (2002) Action Research – principles and Practice 3rd Edition. Routledge. UK

John Heron and Peter Reason (2006) The Practice of Co-operative Inquiry: Research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people. Handbook of Action Research, Chapter 12. Sage, UK.

Judi Marshall, Gill Coleman and Peter Reason (2011) Leadership for Sustainability – An Action Research Approach Greenleaf Publishing. UK

Torbert William R & Taylor Steven S (2008) Action Inquiry: Interweaving Multiple Qualities of Attention for Timely Action The Sage Handbook of Action Research, Participative Inquiry and Practice. Sage, London

Watton, Collings and Moon on Reflective Writing - http://www.exeter.ac.uk/fch/work-experience/reflective-writing-guidance.pdf


Since action experiment is about practice, everything you need is in the In Practice section above