Action Learning Programme

We ran an Action Learning Programme (ALP) to develop practical approaches to applying Common Cause, from September 2013 to February 2014.

Below is a summary of the evaluation report. Download full report here.

Addressing social and environmental challenges by engaging altruistic values.

Common Cause is a values-based approach to addressing social and environmental challenges initiated by several UK Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) with advice from academics. It argues that aiming to change specific behaviours is insufficient and that a more concerted approach is required. This approach is widely applicable and has been used by a number of organisations working on social and environmental issues.

A group of people working with Common Cause in Scotland developed an action learning programme for organisations in Scotland working with communities on environmental issues. The aim was to develop and pilot an approach to putting Common Cause into practice that can be replicated more widely.

The Scottish Government has a longstanding commitment to supporting research and action on climate change. As part of this commitment the Government supported the programme to test out innovative ideas for influencing behaviour.

The Scottish Government has also supported the development of the ISM (Individual, Social, Material) Tool which provides a framework of individual, social and material factors that should be considered when planning a transition to a low carbon society. Common Cause holds that altruistic values deserve particular attention in planning, as policies which rely on people’s self-interest are likely to backfire.

Common Cause complements the ISM Tool by providing insight into ways of taking action across individual, social and material factors in ways that engage altruistic values. The programme is designed to complement and expand the range of existing approaches to cultivating behaviour change which includes The Natural Change and Carbon Conversations.

Format of the action learning programme

The Scotland-based members of the Common Cause Core Team developed an action learning programme, Communities with a Common Cause, to support participants in developing practical approaches to applying Common Cause.

Sixteen participants were drawn from government agencies, NGOs and community groups engaging communities with the environment. Participants were recruited in pairs from each of the eight organisations and were selected for the influence they could bring to bear on their own organisation and their sector. The programme ran from September 2013 to February 2014 with one workshop per month introducing a range of concepts, tools and approaches that can be used to create a values-based approach.

Each of the workshops was facilitated by two members of the Programme. Participants undertook activities between each workshop to put learning into practice and prepare for the next workshop. Between each workshop participants had the support of the mentor as they actively implemented values approaches in their organisations. The mentors were a combination of the Programme Team members and others with an in-depth knowledge of Common Cause.

Evaluation of the action learning programme

The aim of the evaluation was to: understand the participants’ experience; understand success or otherwise in terms of achieving the programmes aims; learn about the programme design and delivery to inform future programmes; and improve our own individual and team practices as facilitators and mentors.

Outputs from each workshop, an online feedback survey and input from mentors informed the development of each subsequent workshop and the final evaluation of the programme. In depth semi-structured interviews with participants were also carried out and all facilitators and mentors submitted their individual reflections on the programme.

Were the participants’ expectations met?

All participants made a personal decision to join the programme. The programme was aligned with their personal interests and many saw it as an opportunity to put theoretical knowledge about Common Cause into practice. Some were explicitly attracted by the opportunity to work on organisational values, culture and strategy, and to redesign projects and activities.

“We saw it as a way to help the organisation move forward. We were developing a project to understand and articulate what our organisation is, and to clarify our purpose and values. We felt the programme could help us with this process.”

Most participants have actively applied their learning within their organisations to work on values, culture and strategy and to redesign projects and activities. They also developed greater understanding, skills and confidence. Participants found that applying Common Cause in their work encouraged and supported greater participation and engagement amongst their colleagues. The programme developed their ability to see connections and relationships more clearly.

“I’m coming at everything with a much stronger understanding that the people that we work with are people, they’re not jobs, they’re not their role, they are people and that they come with their own emotions and beliefs and perspectives and that in order to work with people you’ve got to be open to understanding what those are.”

While the programme took time from their busy schedules they felt that having the time and space to think deeply was very important. They found the opportunity to reflect on the connections between personal and organisational values. The programme has helped them recognise potential conflicts that may arise when implementing change and to better understand people’s resistance to change.

“Essential for anyone who wants to make any sort of positive, cultural change (in the world at large), because values are at the base of that. How can you create a shift in something you don’t understand?”

All said they would recommend the programme to others, and felt it was important that this approach was spread widely.

“Yes, without a doubt [I would recommend it]. It's one of the best things I've done in personal and professional development.”

Participants will be continuing to take action as a result of the programme. Most will be taking part in a two day, follow-up residential to reflect on how they have continued to put the Common Cause approach and related tools into practice and explore future potential.

Were the programme aims met?

The aims of the programme were to: strengthen altruistic values among participants; build commitment and action that contribute to sustainability; change what participants do on a very immediate and practical level; and support participants to bring about wider organisational and sectoral change.

The interview data makes clear that participation reaffirmed and/or strengthened their commitment to altruistic values and also increased their capacity for values-based action. There is strong evidence from the interviews that participants have developed new perspectives, new skills and techniques and that they have applied these within their work.

Work on organisational change has been the main focus of programme participants, both in terms of the role of values in organisational culture and strategy, and with respect to project activities. Interest in values and values-based approaches has increased in the sector and there is potential for change beyond participants’ immediate organisations.

Was the programme design, facilitation and mentoring successful?

The five members of the Programme Team and the additional mentors that made up the wider team all participated in post-programme reflection, both in groups and one-to-one.

The programme brought together people from diverse organisations within the ‘environment’ sector. This diversity enabled participants to understand other organisation better and to develop useful connections. Some participants felt a greater diversity, beyond the environment sector would have had benefits. The Programme Team recognise these tensions and believe they are to some extent inevitable.

Most participants had some prior knowledge of Common Cause and all were sympathetic to the approach. Some felt that the involvement of people likely to challenge the approach would have been beneficial. The Programme Team agree participants with diverse backgrounds and perspectives would add to the richness of the programme.
However, we believe it is important that people join the programme willingly; it is therefore unlikely those pre-disposed to challenge Common Cause would apply.

The decision to have two people from each organisation, one having a significant level of agency and influence, is endorsed by the success of the programme.

Participants typically had initial anxieties around the lack of instant action from the start of the programme, despite explanations from the beginning that the approach takes time to implement and understand. We will continue to address these concerns in any future programme. Testimony from previous participants will be helpful.

The length of the programme, the pace of the workshops and the time between each workshop was about right. While it could be seen as challenging, the integration of personal and professional issues worked well and was welcomed by participants.

The programme wove an understanding of Common Cause with a range of tools and techniques to put theory into practice. While this was successful in achieving the programme’s aims we recognise this could be more seamless in future.

Activities to put learning in to practice were highly valued even though some participants struggled to find the time. We will consider tailoring such activities for each individual, so that they are integrated into their work, rather than being an additional task.

The Programme Team brought a breadth of expertise, skills and perspectives that was valued by participants. We recognise that the size of the team and our varying roles was sometimes confusing; we will address this in future programmes.

Mentoring helped participants clarify their understanding of Common Cause and the practicalities of the programme and helped them apply their learning and to reflect deeply about values. The sessions also help keep up the momentum of the programme between workshops. Mentoring provided important insight for the programme team, enabling them to adjust the design of subsequent workshops. Finding the time for mentoring was sometimes challenging for participants. The purpose and nature of the mentoring was not always clear, and will be addressed in future programmes.


This successful programme has the potential to be an important element of the repertoire of tools and approaches needed to support wide ranging pro-environment and pro-social change. Used strategically with groups of organisations with common interests, and internally within large organisations, the programme can change social and material contexts across specific sectors and more widely in society.

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