Opinion: 3 Ways You Can Get the Candidates You Really Need

Jan 5, 2020 by Monalisa Salib Comments (1)

This opinion piece was originally published on Devex.com on January 2, 2020. It was cross-posted with permission. 

With a greater focus on interdisciplinary programming and constantly shifting contexts in international development, we need to hire staff who can make the most of complex situations to achieve meaningful results. Put another way, we need to prioritize hiring employees with an adaptive skill set, regardless of technical sector or geographic expertise. When we don’t, our implementation suffers and our ability to achieve meaningful results is compromised.

To put it simply, adaptive employees are “individuals, regardless of title, that in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, systematically acquire and use knowledge to make decisions and adjustments in their work in order to achieve greater impact.” Perhaps the most important piece of this definition is the focus on impact: adaptive employees stay focused on achieving meaningful results and this “North Star” guides their decisions. A program manager in this situation won’t just “check the box” on a quarterly review of a program — they will stay focused on achieving programmatic outcomes and use the review to figure out what is working, what isn’t, and how to improve results.

Driven by a sense of curiosity and commitment, these individuals aren’t satisfied with the status quo. Lastly, they don’t assume they have all the answers or that their experience is all that matters. As they navigate inevitable changes, they remain humble, aware of all that they don’t yet know, and value relationships that are critical to achieving success.

You can read the rest of this piece on Devex.com


Help! I’m hiring new staff and I want them to work adaptively!

May 16, 2019 by Monalisa Salib Comments (0)

You’re in luck! We just released a new guide for hiring adaptive employees. This visual and user-friendly tool will help increase your chances of selecting staff skilled in adaptive management.

Here are the details:

What do you mean by “work adaptively” or an “adaptive employee”? An adaptive employee is an individual who, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, systematically acquires and uses knowledge to make decisions and adjustments in their work in order to achieve greater impact.

Why focus on adaptive employees? Why does it matter? With industries, technologies, and organizations in a near constant state of flux, leaders are recognizing the importance of adaptability as a critical capacity. Because of this, it’s not surprising that a recent LinkedIn report found that adaptability was the most important soft skill hiring managers were screening for.

In addition, evidence shows that teams that apply more data-driven and adaptive leadership practices perform better than those that focus less on these practices. It makes sense, then, that managers want to recruit more team members who are skilled in adaptive management - it helps achieve results.

Who should use this tool? Anyone involved in hiring, responsible for developing or approving position descriptions, participating in interviews, and/or approving new hires.

When should I use this tool? Use it as soon as you decide to hire a new staff person or when you’re adjusting existing position descriptions.

What does the tool help me do? It will help you think through:

  • Which competencies should I recruit for in order to hire more adaptive employees?
  • Which desired qualifications should I incorporate into position descriptions to attract adaptive employees? (You can even copy and paste qualification language from the tool into scopes of work!)
  • Which interview questions should I ask to screen for adaptive employee competencies? (You can copy and paste interview questions into your screening, interview, and reference check protocols!)

Has the tool been tested? Yes, staff within USAID’s Global Development Lab and on the USAID LEARN contract tested the tool, providing feedback on the minimum viable product and subsequent versions. Testers confirmed finding the tool useful, and gave it a 9/10 score when asked if they would recommend it to colleagues. Some specific feedback from testers included: "The tool prompts deeper thought on what you might need and want in a job candidate" and "All [of the interview questions I used from the tool] worked well."

What about the existing staff? How can they gain greater skills in adaptive management? Existing USAID staff and implementing partners can access online training in collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) and find resources in the CLA Toolkit. USAID staff also have access to an internal CLA community of practice and five-day, in-person CLA training. For more information, see page 13 in the tool.

I have feedback or ideas for this tool or future tools. Where should I send them? Reach out to [email protected].

Let’s Talk About Another ROI - the Risk of Ignoring Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting

Oct 25, 2018 by Monalisa Salib Comments (5)

This blog post was written by Monalisa Salib, Deputy Chief of Party of the USAID LEARN contract.

Lake Turkana

Image credit

As collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) champions, you may have colleagues asking you, “well, what’s the return on investment - or ROI - of CLA?” In other words, “why should I invest in CLA?” It’s a fair question; anyone considering a new behavior or approach should consider the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.

But like many other things in life, it’s really hard to figure out the ROI on intangible things like collaborating, learning, and adapting1. While we’ve articulated what CLA practice looks like in the CLA maturity tool, it’s very difficult to go from that to measuring quantitatively the effect or contribution of improvements in CLA practice to organizational performance or development outcomes. This is not surprising or uncommon; work in peacebuilding, women’s empowerment, and resilience face similar measurement challenges. Qualitative data is much easier to come by (see the CLA case competition submissions and the CLA case competition analysis) but do not translate nicely into a definitive ROI message.

So when I first heard2 the idea of flipping ROI on its head, I was intrigued. Instead of trying to come up with quantitative data about the Return on Investment for CLA, what about sharing stories about the Risk of Ignoring CLA?

What do we risk by not systematically and intentionally collaborating, learning, and adapting? What do we stand to lose if we don’t resource and integrate CLA? Based on this (almost comical) development #fail story, the answer is: A LOT.

Activity: Lake Turkana fish processing plant, Kenya. Funded by the Norwegian government for $22 million (1971)3

Risk of Ignoring CLA (or where it went wrong): The activity was supposed to increase job opportunities for the Turkana people through fishing and fish processing for export. However, the Turkana are nomadic with no history of involvement in the fishing industry. The plant quickly shut down after only a matter of days.

How CLA integration could have helped avoid this: It’s fairly obvious that even just a little CLA in this case could have perhaps avoided this fail; implementers would have known more about the Turkana people and avoided setting up a static opportunity for a nomadic people. The risk of ignoring (ROI) here was at the very least $22 million and likely included the reputation and credibility of the implementing agency and trust between them and the Turkana people and Kenyan government.

While this story could be classified as extreme, it represents common errors we have all seen in development programming: not collaborating sufficiently with local stakeholders, not understanding the local context well enough to design relevant interventions, and not using a “fail fast” approach that avoids sinking millions into approaches unlikely to succeed.

This got me thinking about a thought experiment: what if our CLA Case Competition winners never intentionally integrated CLA? What could have happened? What would have been the ROI - Risk of Ignoring - CLA on development outcomes?

One of my favorite cases from 2018 was MSI and USAID/Senegal’s submission about evaluation use on a Government-to-Government (G2G) activity. Here’s the context: last year, USAID/Senegal undertook an evaluation for a G2G activity that was piloting an innovative national-to-regional funding scheme for health service delivery. This evaluation was well timed to inform the design of a follow-on activity. Instead of a traditional evaluation in which the evaluation team provides recommendations, the mission “CLAed” its evaluation by facilitating recommendations workshops among the primary stakeholders, including both the Mission and the government of Senegal. This resulted in an agreed upon list of recommendations owned by those responsible for designing and managing the follow-on.

The risk of ignoring CLA integration in this case would have likely been:

  • Wasted financial and staffing resources on an evaluation that wouldn’t have gotten used
  • A newly designed activity that wouldn’t have taken into account learning from the current activity
  • Potential tension with the government over how the activity should be adapted to improve development outcomes

However, because CLA was so intentionally integrated into the evaluation process, quite the opposite happened:

  • Recommendations were co-created with host government and USAID stakeholders and directly informed the design of the new activity
  • The relationships between the government of Senegal and USAID were strengthened - the government of Senegal called the approach used to develop recommendations in a collaborative way “revolutionary.”

There are countless examples like this of what could have happened had CLA not been integrated. The Risk of Ignoring needs to play into our calculus more when championing CLA approaches; it can often be a powerful caution sign to colleagues. So if your colleagues ask you about the return on investment of CLA, perhaps ask them about the risk of ignoring it.

Check out this resource for more information about Utilizing and Learning from Evaluations.

1As a side note, we investigated whether a cost-benefit analysis type of study would be feasible under our Evidence Base for CLA work and found that any conclusions would be heavily caveated, making this line of inquiry not worth the investment.

2Credit goes to Robert Otrembiak during a recent Organization Development Network webinar.


How to Collaborate with People You Don’t Like

Oct 24, 2018 by Monalisa Salib Comments (0)

This blog post was written by Monalisa Salib, Deputy Chief of Party of the USAID LEARN contract.

Real talk: Collaboration can be hard. Sometimes it’s hard because you don’t like the people you have to work with, and more often than not, you don’t have the power to choose who you work with. But I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to “like” the people you work with in order to work with them effectively. Yes, it can make it less fun, for sure, but “liking” your colleagues is really an added bonus. So if you find yourself annoyed that you have to work with someone (let’s just call him James) on your next project, what can you do to collaborate with James more effectively?

Spoiler alert: it’s more about changing your own mindset and behavior, not theirs.

Identify what you appreciate about James: Researchers consistently find that gratitude is strongly associated with happiness and positive relationships. Extrapolating that to how we collaborate with each other, identify one thing you like about James. And yes, you can come up with something. If it’s not immediately coming to mind, try harder. Perhaps you appreciate his taste in colorful socks or that he served in the Peace Corps.

Once you figure out what that something is - it could be as simple as “he always comes to meetings on time” - tell James what you appreciate about him and why. You may find this difficult if you’ve had recent tension, but this simple gesture will go a long way. You will feel better about James by acknowledging his positive traits or behaviors, and he will also feel appreciated. Always be specific about what you appreciate - saying “good job” about something is generally not helpful because it doesn’t describe what was “good.”

Put effort into becoming more self-aware: Sometimes we don’t like our colleagues because our styles are quite different and this plays out in how we work together. For example, you may be quick to decide and James may need more time to process options. Or perhaps James tends to be a big picture thinker and you’re more in the details. These are preferences - neither is good or bad; they’re just different. Becoming aware of your preferences may help you realize why there is friction.

There are tools - such as Insights ®, DISC ®, Myers-Briggs ®, Kolb learning style inventory, etc. - that can help you determine these differences, and many organizations, including USAID, use them with the help of experts and trained facilitators to help teams gain greater self- and group- awareness. The bottom line with all of these tools is that teams composed of members with the same tendencies may be at a disadvantage. For example, if everyone on a team tends to make quick decisions, then the team may not end up making the best decisions because they fail to consider all the implications. Diversity is key, which is why becoming aware of differences may actually help you appreciate your colleagues more. Instead of “James is always slowing us down,” consider: “if James doesn’t ask these important questions, we may make the wrong call.”

Don’t assume James has bad intentions. One trap we tend to fall into is assuming bad intentions: “James keeps interrupting me because he doesn’t care about what I have to say.” James could honestly be a really terrible listener and not be very aware of it. Or he could have really bad hearing. You really never know. When we assume the worst of intentions, we tend to reinforce our disdain for James and we also get too tied to the story in our head about what could be motivating his behavior. So if you are going to assume intentions, try to assume - or at least consider - positive ones. In addition to making you feel better, it will keep you open to the possibility that it’s not personal, that there are solutions to improve the relationship, and it will also make it easier for you to give feedback (see below) without sounding accusatory.

Give and be open to receiving feedback. With greater self-awareness, you can figure out what is really bothering you about your colleague and why, and put effort into addressing that issue. This is where giving really specific feedback can help. One such model that could be helpful is the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) approach. Essentially, you clearly state the day, time, and specific situation you were in, the behavior James exhibited (again, always be specific), and what impact that behavior had on you. An example would be: “Yesterday when we were talking about our work plan, I was saying that I thought we should focus on a new activity, but when I was speaking, you were looking at your phone. I felt like I wasn’t being heard.”

Remember that the feedback you give is as much about you (and your preferences, feelings, and perceptions) as it is about James. Also, it’s important to note that research has found an ideal praise-to-criticism ratio of 5:1, meaning that James will be more likely to respond constructively to your critical feedback if he has heard five instances of praise or appreciation.

But in giving feedback you also have to be open to receiving feedback. It’s a two-way street.

Don’t talk about James with colleagues who reinforce your opinions. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do. Why? Because we want to know that we’re “not the problem.” So essentially we end up finding people who agree with us and then gossiping about James all day. And we all want to feel like we belong - sometimes a juicy tidbit is the quickest way to get a circle of people to listen to you. Suffice it to say, that’s really counter-productive.

Instead, go out of your way to find someone you trust who works well with James. Ask them how they made that happen and perhaps what they have noticed about your interactions with James (this is an opportunity for you to receive feedback). This will help you come up with more effective strategies to collaborate with James. Another approach is to find an objective colleague who has the ability to “see the other side of the story.” They can help you see the situation from a fresh perspective instead of reinforcing your narrative about James.

Ask yourself the tough questions. When I find myself in a difficult relationship, I often ask myself two questions:

  • How would I treat the person if they had power over me (i.e., were my supervisor or a client)? Chances are you’re treating people who have power over you a little bit better than others; that’s really sad but not too surprising. So how would your treatment of James be different if he wielded some kind of power that could negatively affect you?
  • How do I need to treat this person so I don’t end up with a guilty conscience? Everyone has their lines; go past them and you can’t sleep at night because you feel bad about something you said or did. Let’s not let it get there.

Always stay focused on the overall goal. What are you trying to achieve in working with James? Sometimes refocusing on our overarching goal can help us work through challenging relationships. Ultimately, we are all working in service of others in international development - whether that’s getting more girls in school or supporting anti-corruption efforts. Refocusing our attention at the goal level can help us realize how relatively minor this frustrating relationship is by putting it in perspective. It can also serve as a starting point for a difficult conversation with James: “I know we both want this activity to succeed, so how can we make our working relationship more effective?”

It’s worth noting that this post is written assuming a relatively equal power balance with your colleague. If that’s not the case, much of what is written here is still helpful, though you may just need a bit more courage to apply some of these suggestions.

How have you dealt with challenging relationships in the workplace? What other approaches have you used to collaborate more effectively with colleagues? What habits could you change in order to handle these situations in a more constructive way?

Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting: When does it become too much?

Oct 9, 2018 by Monalisa Salib Comments (0)

squirrel with nuts in mouthNow that collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) practices are taking hold more and more across USAID and its implementing partners, we are finding ourselves in conversations about what it looks like to be integrating CLA too much. For example, questions like: how do we know when the costs of adapting outweigh the benefits? Or how can we stop spending all of our time in meetings “collaborating”?

These are valid questions. Our focus has always been on “right-sizing” your CLA approach and practice to your context, needs, and objectives. We are not collaborating, learning, and adapting for the sake of it, but to be more effective. And if that’s the case, we don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we are actually overdoing it, to our detriment.

Let’s look at collaborating, learning, and adapting in turn - we’ll provide some description of what overdoing each can look like and ideas for how to correct (i.e., adapt!) your CLA practice so you can be as effective as possible.

Too Much Collaboration

We know from our literature review that collaboration is not a panacea - too much of it without a clear strategy can be counterproductive, leading to wasted time, high interaction costs, and slow decision-making. We’ve all been there: stuck in too many meetings, not clear on our role, more people involved than are needed to do the work, etc.

Because of these all too common challenges, when we talk about collaborating within the CLA framework, we focus on being strategic about who we need to collaborate with. It’s not a competition to see how many people we can involve, but rather an intentional choice about who the relevant people are given our objectives. So if you find yourself in a situation where you think you may be collaborating too often or with too many people, it may be helpful to revisit some of these questions:

  • Are these really the right key players? Using stakeholder analysis tools can help you figure this out.
  • What form of collaboration (i.e., consultation, coordination, joint ownership, etc.) should we be using given our objective? We may be collaborating too much if we’re using a joint ownership model when all that is really needed is coordination.
  • Are there shared expectations among key players? Are roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities clear? We often spend too much time to make decisions if there is a lack of clarity here.
  • Is the collaboration resourced appropriately, including facilitation support that may be required? Without strong (and efficient) facilitation, collaboration can start to become draining, particularly if those collaborating don’t have healthy relationships.
  • Is there sufficient trust among key players to make this an effective collaboration? Without underlying trust, the collaboration may feel and actually be more taxing than it needs to be.

For more on working through some of these considerations, see the CLA Toolkit page on Engaging Stakeholders.

Learning Too Much (Often about the Wrong Things)

As a die-hard, lifelong learner, it breaks my heart to even suggest that there is such a thing as too much learning. But when you move beyond individual learning into organizational learning, it is possible to spend too much time learning, particularly about the wrong things.

For a real-world example of this, I’ll use our contract - USAID LEARN. When we began in 2015, we created both an M&E plan and, separately, a learning agenda. The M&E plan was generally tracking indicators that teams didn’t find useful, and the learning agenda was asking questions that we didn’t need answers to, but were more nice to know (as you can imagine, the USAID LEARN team is made up of a lot of curious people and we wanted answers!). As a result, we found ourselves spending time collecting M&E information we weren’t using very much and answering learning questions that were quite interesting, but, again, not useful for informing our management decisions.

How we corrected that situation is a story for another day; the bottom line is we were actually learning too much about the wrong things. We weren’t learning with purpose. If you find yourself in that situation, it’s important to take a step back and consider:

  • How will our learning be used? How will it inform our decision-making? Support our ability to manage adaptively and increase our effectiveness? If you can’t determine a use for what you’re learning, you need to seriously (and I mean really seriously) consider whether it’s worth your organization’s effort.
  • After determining that you have a clear use, consider whether that learning is worth the time and effort required to get it. If the costs outweigh the benefits, reconsider whether this learning is really a priority or if there is a lower cost way to get it.

Too Much Adapting

If the point of collaborating, learning, and adapting is to continuously improve, is there really such a thing as too much adapting? Yes, yes, there is.

As an example, let’s say you are implementing an activity with local partners. Your organization takes adaptive management seriously and completes an after action review following the implementation of each small grant (and there are a lot of small grants on a rolling basis). As a result, you are continuously updating your grants manual, which continuously changes your grants procedures, which means you are continuously informing your staff and partners of changes, creating and introducing new documents and processes, etc.

On one hand, this is probably wonderful and improving your grants management and hopefully as a result helping you and your partners achieve whatever is intended with those grants. On the other hand, there are significant costs here (beyond financial ones) to constant adaptation - people can start to feel fatigued by constant change.

This is not to advocate that we shouldn’t adapt - we should. But perhaps in this situation it is worth considering whether changes should be made depending on the nature of the change required.

  • Is the suggested change too important to wait? If not, can it wait? Could, for example, changes be bundled together on a more regular schedule so staff know to expect updates and when?
  • And at what point is whatever you are doing “good enough”? For example, if all your grantee feedback is extremely positive, and you’re still intent on improving, what is the opportunity cost of this constant adaptation? Could you spend staff time increasing impact in another way?

When it comes to determining if you are collaborating, learning, and adapting too much, it often comes down to a judgment call. But considering relative costs and benefits when faced with these decisions may be a helpful starting point.

We hope our openness to discuss this “too much of a good thing” challenge inspires you to right-size your CLA approach in service of your objectives and not in a way that makes CLA a separate, inefficient, or ineffective strain on resources. And as always, if you find yourself experiencing the latter, you can always use CLA approaches to course correct.

Three (Evidence-Based) Reasons You Should Invest in Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting

Jun 6, 2018 by Monalisa Salib, Katherine Haugh, Amy Leo, Kristin Lindell, Ilana Shapiro Comments (0)

This blog post was written by Monalisa Salib with contributions from Katherine Haugh, Amy Leo, Kristin Lindell, and Ilana Shapiro, PhD.

We are constantly making tough choices about how to allocate our staff and financial resources, and for many implementing partners, this summer will be crunch time when it comes to budgeting for fiscal year 2019. Whether you find yourself flush or strapped for cash and staff, it’s an important time to consider: what do I hope to achieve this upcoming year? How can investments in internal and external collaboration, organizational learning, and adaptive management help me get there?

If you find yourself needing some evidence to support that investment in collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA), we hope these three evidence-based reasons convince you to invest or arm you with the evidence you need to advocate with decision-makers in your organization. (And for ideas on what those investments could be - they don’t always require money - see this blog for inspiration.)

1. Teams that consistently collaborate, learn, and adapt are more likely to have staff that feel empowered, engaged, and satisfied, all of which are associated with better performance.

A growing body of evidence from both private and public sector organizations recognizes that having a strong organizational learning culture increases empowerment and a sense of autonomy, which drive high levels of commitment and employee retention. Specific to the USAID context, a 2017 analysis of more than 3,000 USAID employee responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) across 62 missions found strong, positive relationships between CLA and indicators of organizational effectiveness including employee engagement, empowerment, satisfaction, and perceived organizational effectiveness. These findings fit within a growing body of empirical research that recognizes employee engagement and empowerment as critical to successful organizational performance (GAO, 2015; OPM, 2016; Fernandez & Moldogaziev, 2013; Dizgah, et.al, 2011; Ugboro & Obeng, 2002).

Intuitively understanding this link, USAID/Senegal used collaborating, learning, and adapting approaches to reflect on their FEVS scores and determine actions that would improve staff morale and the mission’s organizational culture. CLA approaches included conducting an analysis of FEVS results, holding mini retreats to discuss and analyze organizational challenges, and collaboratively determining areas for organizational improvement.

2. Teams that collaborate proactively with local stakeholders foster local ownership and achieve better development results.

A recent study analyzing about 10,000 development projects found that aid agencies achieve better results when using bottom-up approaches that empower frontline workers and organizations to make decisions using their local knowledge and relationships. The study finds that we are more likely to miss the mark on our development goals when we lead with a headquarters-driven, top-down management approach. While some may perceive that bottom-up approaches incur more risk due to a loss of centralized control, the study demonstrates the opposite: in most scenarios, top-down fails more often. Why? Because overly prescriptive rules and controls meant to curtail bad behavior can also curtail good behavior, making it difficult for staff to apply locally relevant knowledge and adapt programs (i.e., “navigate by judgment”).

CLA approaches, as demonstrated by our 2015 CLA Case Competition analysis, support the need for bottom-up management, creating local engagement that leads to local ownership, and ultimately, improved development outcomes.

One such example comes from a recent study (soon to be released) by Mercy Corps under the CLA Initiative for Measurement (or CLAIM) Learning Network. They found that teams in Nepal and Timor Leste that intentionally collaborated with key stakeholders and learned from implementation were able to intentionally adapt their programs, resulting in improved “adaptive margins” (i.e., benefits that would likely not have occurred had the team not integrated CLA into their work).

One example from Nepal stands out, demonstrating how adaptive management supports local  local ownership and greater self-reliance. The story (soon to be published on Learning Lab) begins with Mercy Corps staff investing in developing strong relationships with government and NGO partners. Because of these relationships, the team became aware of local government funding and planning cycles, creating an opportunity to link Community Disaster Management Committees (CDMCs) they supported to more consistent and sustainable government funding. The team coached the CDMCs on how to engage with government counterparts and submit proposals for funding, resulting in CDMCs now getting the majority of their funding from local government sources (as opposed to Mercy Corps). Had this collaboration not been built in, staff believed that funding for CDMCs would likely disappear once implementation ends. Now communities have access to more sustainable funding and local government is supportive of the mission and role of CDMCs.

CDMC Chart

Our literature review supports this kind of approach that is embedded in local contexts and negotiated and delivered by local stakeholders. However, this type of external collaboration is not without its challenges, and requires investments in relationship building, managing staff turnover and transitions to avoid disrupting relationships, and flexible contract arrangements that are easier for local entities to manage. These factors can make locally-led development difficult to carry out in practice.

3. Teams that collaborate with other donors, implementers, and stakeholders leverage resources beyond what they would have been able to provide on their own.

We know from our literature review that collaboration is not a panacea - too much of it without a clear strategy can be counterproductive, leading to wasted time, high interaction costs, and slow decision-making. But when done well, with the right purpose, appropriate stakeholders, and efficient coordination, our analysis of the 2015 CLA case competition entries indicates that it leverages resources from various actors beyond what would have been possible for any one actor.

One example comes from an activity in the Horn of Africa to combat the spread of polio that began in 2013. To address the complex crisis, the implementer, CORE Group, employed a Secretariat Model for collaboration, which convened civil society, in-country and international actors like UNICEF and the World Health Organization, to coordinate efforts to stop the spread of poliovirus in cross-border areas. The diagram below describes how this collaboration, based on the respective value-add of each stakeholder, produced positive outcomes, including expanding vaccination activities to other remote areas in the Horn of Africa.

FIGURE 1: Collaboration leverages resources for collective benefit in the CORE Group Polio Activity

Figure 1

From this evidence, we see that investing in CLA yields results. But let’s ask ourselves as we make upcoming resource allocation choices, are we willing to invest? And, if we know that these CLA approaches make us more effective, how can we build them into our requests, solicitations, proposals, and throughout planning and implementation? For tools and resources that can help you do that, see the CLA Toolkit.

We’d love to hear more from you on whether this type of evidence is useful in helping you think through your resource allocation choices, or any other evidence you have that points to a need (or lack thereof) for further investments in CLA.

Adaptive Management: If Not Now, When?

Aug 15, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (4)

This blog is the sixth and final in an ongoing series exploring the components of USAID's Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting Framework. Here is the first blog on organizational culture, the second on effective learning, the third on the resources necessary for CLA integration, the fourth on effective collaboration, and the fifth on processes that support CLA.

We’ve saved the best for last.

Adapting—or adaptive management—refers to intentionally and systematically using relevant knowledge to inform decision-making and ultimately take action. Within the development context, that action could be adjusting interventions or whole strategies, experimenting with new ways of working, scrapping programming that simply isn’t working, or scaling approaches that have demonstrated value.

CLA framework

Adapting is arguably the most important element of collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA). If we collaborate and learn effectively, but don’t do anything differently as a result, then what was the point? Yes, effective collaboration and learning can often make your job more enjoyable. BUT, ultimately we all want to achieve results, and adapting is essential for doing so more efficiently and effectively.

Adapting is also, though, the most difficult aspect of CLA. When we conducted a CLA stocktaking exercise with 14 USAID missions in early 2015, we found that adaptive management was a common challenge. A similar theme is emerging from our analysis of the 2015 CLA case competition submissions—we “get” the collaborating and learning pieces of CLA, but adaptive management can remain elusive.

Essentially, going from having knowledge ---> making informed decisions ---> action is not the straightforward trajectory you would expect. This happens for a variety of reasons, which I won’t go into here, but most are captured in the other components—particularly culture and resources—of the CLA framework.

Bottom line: rather than the exception to the rule, we should consider adapting—however minor—the expectation. If we don’t start thinking this way, how will we ensure we’re constantly improving and achieving better outcomes with and for target communities? If we don’t take the leap now and put the systems and people in place to start managing adaptively, will we ever?

What Does Effective Adaptive Management Throughout the Program Cycle Look Like?

Effective adaptive management requires we:

Graphic: Learn, Reflect, Decide, Act

  • Learn. Adapting without learning is dangerous territory. It begs the question - on what basis are we making this change? Without first learning, adapting can easily become politically motivated or based on skewed perceptions and inaccurate information rather than an intentional and systematic approach to more effective management.

  • Reflect. It is essential that we analyze and process what we have learned with colleagues and stakeholders to reach the right conclusions and make good decisions. We know from existing literature that reflecting on our experiences is critical for learning (see Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance). Building in systematic opportunities to pause and reflect, preferably using participatory approaches based in adult learning techniques, creates an environment where candid conversations become the norm and surfaces learning that is most crucial for making informed design and implementation decisions.

  • Decide. As development professionals, learning and reflecting must have an end game. No disrespect to academia intended, but we are not academics; we don’t have the time to ponder existential matters without it leading to changes in how we design or implement programs. We are typically overworked and understaffed. So if you want to commission an assessment or evaluation, make it count. Go ahead, host a stakeholder reflection, but conclude it by outlining key decision points and action steps moving forward to improve health, biodiversity or education outcomes. Schedule that portfolio review, but make it worth everyone’s time by having it end with identifying ways we can make our programs better. Just decide: are we continuing with this? Is there evidence it works? Should we scale up? Adjust? Or should we stop altogether because we’re not seeing intended results or may even be causing unintended harm?

  • Act. Deciding and acting are two different things. All too often we actually get to the list of things we need to do differently after a reflection, evaluation, or site visit, but then no one follows through or, if they try to, they run into too many barriers along the way. Adaptive management only happens if we make those changes. Otherwise, again, what was the point?

How Can We Manage More Adaptively Throughout the USAID Program Cycle?

  • Develop or Access the Skills Needed to Facilitate Effective Pausing, Reflecting, and Adapting: Having skilled facilitators on staff or as consultants to design decision-making processes and manage group dynamics can greatly improve the quality of activities meant to help staff members pause, reflect, and adapt.

  • Enable Flexibility: Adapting is much easier when the expectation is clear from the outset that it is not only expected, but likely inevitable. It then becomes essential to build flexibility into strategy, project, and activity design and implementation. Using adaptable mechanisms can help us do this more easily; for more on this topic, see the blog on the Resources component of the CLA framework.

For examples of adaptive management in action, see:

  • CLA and Community Connector: Proving the Concept (Video) - USAID/Uganda and its implementing partner highlight their approach to CLA through the Community Connector project. The activity was designed by USAID to include a modular approach that enables systematic learning and adaptive management.

What are your examples of adaptive management? What enables you to manage adaptively? What’s stopping you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

We’re always collaborating. But how can we make it more effective?

Jun 9, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (8)

This blog is the fourth in an ongoing series exploring the components of USAID's CLA FrameworkHere is the first blog on organizational culture, the second on effective learning, and the third on the resources necessary for CLA to take hold.

I know – your eyes have already glazed over. It’s the component that people tend to skip over and the one that doesn’t make an official appearance in USAID’s Program Cycle, though it underlies how we all carry out our work. And when talking to others about collaboration, I get the sense that everyone is thinking, “well, yeah, duh.”

But despite what may seem common sense, we still find ourselves (and can hear our colleagues and partners telling us about) working in silos, not co-creating enough with those most affected by our development assistance, and avoiding those who may be critical to our efforts but difficult to work with.

What Does Effective Collaboration Throughout the Program Cycle Look Like?

I think one of the reasons we have this “well, duh” reaction to collaboration is that we collaborate all the time. We’re constantly in meetings, talking to colleagues, out in the field, or meeting with other organizations, so it doesn’t seem like something we need to necessarily do more of or improve upon. If anything, we may need to collaborate less to get some actual work done.

For this exact reason, within the CLA framework, our aim is not to get USAID missions to collaborate more often with more organizations or stakeholders. Rather, we encourage thinking more strategically about collaboration – who should we be collaborating with, why, and what form should collaboration take? Practically speaking, with limited time and resources, we cannot collaborate with all internal and external stakeholders. We must make choices about who is most essential and what form collaboration should take with each stakeholder. Therefore, effective collaboration happens when we systematically and intentionally:

  • Identify internal and external stakeholders who could have the greatest impact on our planning and implementation
  • Make decisions about what form collaboration should take with these stakeholders
  • Collaborate effectively with identified stakeholders based on decisions reached and in an ongoing fashion.

How Can We Improve Collaboration Throughout the Program Cycle?

Be Strategic: Yes, I may be guilty of repeating myself, but the first step is to identify key stakeholders through some type of stakeholder analysis process, such as collaboration mapping or net mapping. All forms of collaboration can be valid—basic information exchange, consultation, coordination, partnership, and co-creation—depending on what we are trying to accomplish, who our stakeholders are, and their expectations and needs. These tools can help teams determine who is most critical to achieving objectives (or perhaps even determining what those objectives should be) and how to engage them along that collaboration spectrum.

Remember that internal collaboration also requires strategic thinking, even if we don't use a stakeholder analysis tool to the same level of formality we would for external stakeholders.

Reset Relationships between Donors and Implementing Partners: The nature of collaboration between donors and implementing partners is a crucial success factor for any activity or project. Intervention outcomes can improve greatly if that collaboration is founded on mutual respect—viewing one another as knowledge peers—and a willingness to jointly problem-solve. Evaluating the relationship between the donor and implementing partner and resetting that relationship, if necessary, are essential steps for improving how we collaborate and ultimately deliver assistance.

Facilitate, Rather than Create, Development: Equally important is the nature of collaboration with the communities, local governments, local organizations, and individuals we support through our interventions. This means taking a facilitative approach—one that focuses on indirect interventions at strategic points within a system—to collaborate with these key stakeholders. Such an approach is common to market systems/value chain activities; in others, using community-driven, participatory approaches throughout the Program Cycle will increase local ownership and sustainability of results.

Examples of Effective Collaboration in Action

There are no doubt countless examples of effective collaboration in action. Some of my personal favorites that emphasize a strategic approach that values quality over quantity include:

We encourage you to share your tips for more effective collaboration with USAID and other partners, and examples of effective collaboration in action here in the comment section. What are some examples of successful (or unsuccessful) collaboration in your work?

Filed Under: CLA in Action

“There’s no money for that.” Three Ways to Resource Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting

Apr 25, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (0)

This blog is the third in an ongoing series exploring the components of USAID's CLA Framework. Here is the first blog on organizational culture and the second on effective learning.

CLA Maturity Matrix Image

Collaborating, learning, and adapting happens all the time throughout all industries and organizations. We want to bring these approaches to scale at USAID and with implementing partners—making it more systematic and intentional—because we believe that how we manage programming is just as critical as what we program.

But as was pointed out to me via Twitter and in the comments on the last blog, this cannot be done without the right resources. We couldn’t agree more; this is why resources is one of the six core components in the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) framework (see the grey portion in the framework above).

How can you tell if you’re not resourcing CLA adequately? You’ll probably hear things like this (all of which I have unfortunately heard firsthand):

  • “We have to get this proposal in under $15 million. Let’s drop the learning specialist and assessment and evaluation work.”
  • “I’ve had this workshop synthesis report for a year and never got around to reading it.”
  • “It will take too long to modify the agreement; let’s just continue as is or cut the activity altogether.”

As I’ve mentioned before, CLA takes time and resources. But without a baseline assessment or team focused on supporting CLA throughout implementation, how do you really know if what you are doing is working? How much more expensive would it be to change course years later when a CLA approach could have set you on the right track from the beginning?

So how can we avoid this trap altogether and effectively resource CLA from the outset? When thinking about USAID mission and implementing partner resources in the framework, we focus on three main ways to resource CLA:

Mechanisms. The biggest obstacle to CLA that comes up time and time again is the lack of flexibility in funding mechanisms. That is why USAID needs to:

  • Select mechanism types that enable adaptive management. One of the latest mechanism types is the Broad Agency Announcement, which enables a mission or bureau to co-create, co-design, co-invest, and collaborate with awardees in the development, testing, and scaling of practical and cost-effective innovations that can help USAID reach a development goal. For additional mechanism type options—including Single Award IDIQs and others—USAID staff can see the Procurement Executive Bulletin on ProgramNet.
  • Write mechanism scopes in ways that enable adaptive management. One example of this is an agreement scope known as a ‘statement of objectives’ rather than a ‘scope of work.’ This allows USAID to determine the anticipated results while allowing for flexibility in how those results are achieved.  Another option is to design a solicitation and subsequent agreement in which learning itself is a phase/deliverable, based on which implementation decisions are made. The Community Connector mechanism created by USAID/Uganda is an example of this.
  • Lastly, USAID staff can manage mechanisms in ways that enable greater CLA integration. USAID/Malawi’s collaboration requirements, such as joint work planning for partners working in the same geographic target areas, is one such example.

Staffing. Our staff members are our greatest asset. We need to:

  • Hire staff with the skills necessary to incorporate CLA into their work and support CLA integration within a USAID mission or implementing partner office. This may mean we go with someone with less technical experience but with solid soft skills and proven ability to manage adaptively. It’s on USAID and other donors to request collaborative, learning-oriented, and highly adaptable staff as key personnel and on implementing partners to propose them in their proposals.
  • Assign clear roles and responsibilities for CLA. Who will manage and facilitate partner meetings? Who on the leadership team will reinforce and model CLA? Who will write adaptable mechanism scopes and agreements? Who will onboard staff so they are familiar with theories of change and key strategic priorities? All of this takes time, and needs to be clearly assigned and built into position descriptions. We have also found it helpful to have a dedicated CLA team made up of learning advisors and champions to facilitate learning and adaptive management capacity throughout the organization. They are your cat herders and ensure you don’t forget to apply what you’ve learned or connect with another team to share relevant knowledge.
  • Train current staff in CLA-related knowledge and skills. Not all staff will come with the skills necessary to effectively collaborate, learn, and adapt. Provide leadership and organization development training to improve soft skills and facilitation, knowledge management, monitoring, evaluation, and learning training to improve hard skills.
  • Include CLA-related objectives in staff performance evaluations. Collaborating, learning, and adapting is not one person or team’s responsibility. It’s on all of us. Incentivize staff to collaborate, learn, and adapt, not just to have high burn rates or achieve outputs; we need results.
  • Proactively make time for staff to pursue learning and reflection opportunities. This goes back to culture—is leadership modeling how important CLA is and giving staff the resources and breathing space necessary to do it effectively?

Budgeting. In addition to our staff, we need to allocate funds for CLA-related activities or processes highlighted throughout the CLA framework, including:

  • Facilitators, venues, and other costs associated with collaboration, learning, and pause-and-reflect events and activities with partners and stakeholders
  • Institutional memory systems, such as filing systems and intranets
  • Communications support to adequately document, distil, and disseminate key learning  for decision-makers and other stakeholders
  • Support for leadership development and team-building activities that can foster a learning culture, improve relationships among staff, and clarify decision-making processes.

USAID missions can build this work into implementing mechanisms and hire CLA support contracts to manage this work on their behalf. For implementing partners, once activities are awarded, it can sometimes be difficult to allocate the budget resources needed for effective CLA. That means incorporating sufficient and appropriate resources for CLA up front in proposals before it’s too late.

Resourcing CLA is possible, but we have to make it a priority. And if it leads to having better information and making more informed decisions to improve people’s lives, don’t we have to?

Filed Under: CLA in Action

What does Effective Learning Look Like?

Apr 4, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (9)

This blog is the second in an ongoing series exploring the components of USAID's CLA Framework. Here is the first blog on organizational culture.

Now that we’ve gotten why learning matters out of the way, I wanted to share briefly how we have articulated learning within the USAID Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) framework and the CLA Maturity Matrix.USAID CLA Framework GraphicStrategic learning (the yellow portion of the CLA framework) focuses on:

  1. Tracking, using, and contributing to the technical evidence base
  2. Testing and exploring our theories of change
  3. Identifying game changers and planning scenarios
  4. Ensuring our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are designed to help us learn from implementation, in addition to meeting established reporting requirements

CLA Maturity Matrix Key Concepts Card  CLA Framework Key Concepts Card

CLA Framework Key Concepts Card CLA Framework Key Concepts Card 

This two-pager offers a deeper dive into the key concepts under learning and examples of CLA in action.

What are some examples of effective learning in your organization? Submit your response in the comments below.

Filed Under: CLA in Action


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