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)
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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.

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Adaptive Management: If Not Now, When?

Aug 15, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (4)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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

Announcing RFA for New USAID-Funded Learning Network!

Mar 22, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (2)

UPDATE: Amendment 1 to the RFA was released on April 15, 2016. You can find Amendment 1 in this blog post.

USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL) seeks partners to participate in a Learning Network and engage in a co-creation process to collaboratively advance its understanding of measuring and demonstrating the effects and potential impact of material investments in strategic collaboration, program and organizational learning, and adaptive management.

Partners selected will help PPL transform the way USAID and others in the knowledge management/organizational learning and international development sectors understand the principles, approaches, and value of collaborating, learning, and adapting.

Specifically, this activity aims to understand, measure, and assess the impact of collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) in international development. Partners selected will jointly advance approaches to answering the following questions:

  • Does an intentional, systematic and resourced approach to collaborating, learning and adapting contribute to development outcomes?

  • If so, how? And under what conditions?

More information can be found in the Request for Applications.

 

Please note, questions are due by March 30, 2016. There will also be a webinar on Tuesday, April 5, 2016, for prospective applicants interested in applying for the CLA Learning Network. Register here for the webinar. The closing date for application submission is April 30, 2016.

 

This Request for Applications, issued by The QED Group, LLC, (QED) through its subcontract with Insight Systems Corporation (Insight) under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded contract Feed the Future Knowledge-Driven Agricultural Development Project, is seeking applications from organizations from the United States and developing countries (Geographic Code 937). However waivers are possible for applicants from all non-restricted countries subject to USAID Contracting Officer approval. We encourage applications from a wide spectrum of offerors. These applications are for a Grants Under Contract mechanism to provide assistance for the program entitled “Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA)”. The authority for the RFA is found in USAID Prime Contract Provision H. 23 GRANTS UNDER CONTRACTS. The sum of the proposed activity is not to exceed the amount of $100,000 beyond an 18 month period based on a Standard Cost Reimbursement Grant.

 

Learning: Four Reasons Why It Should Matter to You and Organizational Leaders

Mar 21, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (1)
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As our name implies, we here at LEARN love learning. But why does it really matter? We ask ourselves that question continuously and have found, in asking others as well, there are four key arguments worth sharing:

IMPROVEMENT

In a nutshell, “Learning matters because it empowers us all to make better decisions and achieve greater impact.” If we gain relevant knowledge about our programs, sectors, and operating contexts, we can use that knowledge to make wiser decisions. Others working on similar interventions or in similar contexts can as well. This ultimately enables us to continuously improve and leads to better development.

Shelia Jackson from FSN/TOPS

Shelia Jackson, TOPS/FSN
“Learning matters because it empowers us all to make better development decisions and achieve greater impact.”

EFFICIENCY

This argument is a bit more nuanced. Learning can actually slow things down. We need to carry out assessments, evaluations, collect monitoring data, reflect with stakeholders and local communities, and synthesize all that we learn into something usable for decision-making. So no one is debating that it takes time and resources.

But on the flipside, if we are spending years implementing the wrong intervention or using the wrong approaches, how much of our time and resources are we wasting? And if we come to realize, only years later, that we reinvented a wheel that already existed and failed to function, how much time, energy, and money could we have been saving and putting towards something with greater promise?

Courtney Calvin USAID LEARN        Maciej Chmielewski, USAID LEARN  

Left: Courtney Calvin, USAID LEARN, "Learning matters because the wheel has already been invented."
Right: Maciej Chmielewski, USAID LEARN, "Learning matters because stupid is more expensive."

ENGAGEMENT

What made you excited about coming to work today? I’m guessing it wasn’t the four page memo you had to write explaining your lost receipt. It is the discipline of development that pulled us in and keeps us around. So wouldn’t we be a happier and more engaged workforce if we spent more time grappling with the tough questions and strengthening our discipline?

women holding a sign
(l-r): Karishma Patel & Kat Cooley, DAI and Monalisa Salib, USAID LEARN
"Learning matters because...if I stop learning, am I really living?"

HUMILITY

This last one is related to how we see ourselves and the world in which we live. If we recognize that there is so much we have yet to understand about the contexts in which we work, how change happens, and how best to go about achieving results, we see a clear need for institutionalizing curiosity in our organizations. There is always another question, but how can we go about answering those questions without systematic, intentional, and resourced approaches to learning?

Melissa Patsalides, USAID/PPL

Melissa Patsalides, USAID/PPL, "Learning matters because we don't know everything."

woman holding sign

Suzanne Polak, USAID/RDMA
“Learning matters because there is always another question.”

woman holding sign 
Lauren Leigh Hinthorne, USAID/PPL
“Learning matters because there is so much that we do not understand (yet).”

Is My Organization’s Culture Conducive to Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting?

Feb 19, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (2)
COMMUNITY CONTRIBUTION

This blog is part of ongoing series exploring USAID's CLA Framework.

An organization's culture is made up of all the norms—often unwritten and unspoken—that influence how we work and what we expect of ourselves and our colleagues. Organizational culture affects how we behave, interact, prioritize, and carry out our work. One way to think about organizational culture is to ask yourself:

  • What am I encouraged to do within my organization (either explicitly or implicitly)?
  • What am I discouraged from doing within my organization (again, either explicitly or implicitly)?

In asking these questions of organizations I have worked with or people I have trained in organization development, I’ve received wide range of responses. Here are two (overly simplified) hypothetical organizations as examples:

 Staff are ENCOURAGED TO:Staff are DISCOURAGED from:
Org A
  • Seek help and input from colleagues in other offices and organizations
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Talk with leadership when concerns arise
  • Proceeding without considering previous learning or good practices
  • Keeping working documents and personal reflections private
Org B
  • Avoid raising sensitive issues in group settings
  • Get in early, stay late, or work on the weekend
  • Stay the course
  • Straying from your lane
  • Trying new ways of working or taking risks
  • Giving equal weight to staff member inputs (depending on seniority)

When comparing Organizations A and B, which do you think is more conducive to integrating collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) into their work? 

To help you think this through, imagine a situation in which both organizations have planned for an upcoming portfolio review. Even if both organizations follow the same facilitated process, Organization B’s review is more likely to induce anxiety and frustration among staff—some may feel uncomfortable sharing challenges or what they have learned. They may feel unheard in the process or that ‘it’s not their place’ to speak up. Organization A will likely benefit more from the exercise because staff feel more comfortable challenging the status quo, seeking input from others, and, as a result, Organization A is more likely to surface useful learning that informs future activities.

While the above example is overly simplified, it illustrates why organizational culture is so important. It affects all organizational processes, even when we’re not fully aware of it, and influences the extent to which our processes contribute to organizational success or waste time and resources as box-checking exercises. 

How can we create and sustain an organizational culture that supports CLA integration? 

To answer this question, we first have to look at our organizational values—the core principles that dictate our organizational norms and culture. Many organizations may not have explicit organizational values. Or perhaps their values are explicitly documented somewhere but not put into practice. Whatever the case may be, it is important to look at our organizational values and determine if they enable CLA to thrive. 

LEARN, the USAID contract working with the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning to integrate CLA throughout the Program Cycle, used an appreciative inquiry approach to identify our core values1. In a 2-hour group session, each team member shared a story of an experience on LEARN when s/he felt most valued, proud, and engaged in our work. We then identified the values represented in each of these stories, clustered those that were similar, and agreed on the seven values that we felt best represented our collection of stories. By creating visual reminders of our values and talking about them regularly, we work hard to keep them front and center. 

LEARN-Values-for-Web.jpg

Download poster here.

After establishing these values, we also worked to operationalize them. Because we felt ‘walking the talk’ was our core, overarching value, we created a voluntary ‘Walk the Talk’ working group open to all team members to make sure we operate according to our values and implement the types of CLA practices that we ourselves promote. We also consider our values during the hiring process, asking interview questions that help us  make sure we are bringing people on that share our values and collaborative ways of working. Lastly, we create processes, like quarterly reflections, and implement initiatives, such as working to improve how we give and receive feedback, that reinforce our values. These approaches would not have been possible without supportive leadership. Senior leaders in any organization need to model and reinforce core values among staff.  

As you can see, LEARN’s values fit nicely with CLA. But I hypothesize that any organization that goes through this process and comes up with values specific to their organizational members will likely uncover positive values aligned with CLA integration. Why? Because the values that make collaborating, learning, and adapting possible in an organization are the same values that make us happy to be at work, motivated, and excited to contribute. 


1. For more on the approach, see:
Thatchenkery, T., & Metzker, C. (2006). Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
 
Thatchenkery, T. (2005). Appreciative sharing of knowledge: Leveraging knowledge management for strategic change. Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Taos Institute Publishing.
Filed Under: CLA in Action
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