Skip to main content
Community Contribution

Choose Your Own Adventure: Options for Adapting the Collaborating, Learning & Adapting (CLA) Maturity Self-assessment Process

Nov 28, 2023
Amy Leo, Rebecca Askin

When it’s time to decide what to give my (Amy’s) kids for dinner, there are two ways to go about it. One approach is to ask them what they want to eat. Their response to this question will likely be something they enjoyed eating in recent memory. (As toddlers, they are not yet familiar with MyPlate.) Another approach is to scrutinize my weekly meal plan and identify nutritional gaps. Have they had enough protein today? Any green veggies this week? As my kids get older and gain an understanding of their bodies and dietary needs, I will invite them to help me decide. I’ll ask what they’re craving, and what would supplement the other kinds of food they’ve had recently.

Similarly, when we are responsible for helping teams and organizations assess and grow their collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) approaches, we can:

  • ask them what they need directly, (What do you want to eat right now?)
  • assess their current practices and identify gaps through analysis (What have you eaten this week?), or 
  • facilitate a process to help them discover where they are, what growth looks like, and how to get there. (What have you eaten this week, and how do you want to fill in the gaps to meet your nutritional needs?)

With the third option, teams benefit from building their understanding of CLA and learning more about their colleagues’ perspectives. The other two options can lead to helpful information but don’t provide a complete sense of learning needs or lead to participants’ ownership of the learning process. The assessment blends discussion (qualitative data) with a maturity level scale (quantitative data) to make clear to a team or organization their current CLA practices in order to make a plan to increase their CLA maturity and track progress over time.

The CLA Maturity Self-assessment Process is, by design, a learning opportunity. As Monalisa Salib said in a USAID Learning Lab blog post about behavior change: “It is the individuals who make up our institutions that either maintain the status quo or create change. The people. They either decide to work in certain ways or don’t. There is no whimsical, mystical force at play. It comes down to the decisions they make and behaviors they exhibit day in, day out.” However you choose to adapt the CLA Maturity Self-assessment Process, remember to keep people at the center.

The CLA Maturity Self-assessment Process was designed to put teams in the driver’s seat to identify where they are and where they want to go. It’s a unique method of self-assessment because the most important goal is not to judge teams; rather, it sparks a process of discussion and discovery that names what’s currently happening. Teams can miss a lot when judgment is in the air because it can bring up emotions like fear, shame, defensiveness, or self-deprecation. Instead, a discussion about CLA grounded in discovery can bring up curiosity, appreciation, aspirations, and self-reflection, and can open teams up to how they can move the needle on CLA institutionalization.

Headlight staff have lots of experience guiding teams through the CLA Maturity Self-assessment process and offer options for adaptations considering the advantages and disadvantages of each option. 

Among the endless possibilities for adaptation, here are a few we’ve tried and liked:

Option 0: The CLA Maturity Self-assessment process as designed. 

Option 0 is conducting the CLA self-assessment process as designed. You’ll facilitate teams to select and self-assess their CLA maturity for two to three subcomponents of the Framework. As the team discusses the maturity levels, be sure to ask them about and note the examples they use to justify their rating. Ask them to identify bright spots they can build on. Ask what obstacles stand between where they are and where they want to be.

This is how the CLA Maturity Self-assessment was designed to be conducted, so you’ll get all of the benefits of meaningful team discussion and engagement around CLA concepts. But keep in mind that with this approach, you’ll only come away with a maturity assessment of a few subcomponents, not the full picture of CLA in action. And, if you are using this process with multiple teams within one organization, you’ll have an uneven picture of CLA practice at the organization because each team may choose different subcomponents. If you want to capture the same CLA maturity information across an organization, you’ll need to pre-select subcomponents for all teams to discuss.

Keep in mind that discussion-based assessments often don’t tell the full story. If teams don’t have enough psychological safety to be fully transparent, they may not share all of the challenges they are facing or may frame challenges in a way that is more amenable to their peers than true to root issues. A skilled facilitator can help, but deep-seated dynamics don’t disappear in a single session. Keep this caveat in mind when analyzing your data.

(Note: We address the action planning piece of the process in a separate section below.)

Option 1: Assess all 16 Subcomponents

We only know of one team (ahem, USAID’s CLA team!) who has embarked on the journey of self-assessing all 16 CLA subcomponents, and while they lived to tell the story, they wouldn’t recommend it. The CLA team did this over several days in a workshop format. While comprehensive, discussing and action planning for 16 subcomponents is tiresome. And, because all of the CLA subcomponents reinforce each other, discussing multiple related subcomponents can get confusing and duplicative. Ultimately, self-assessing across all sub-components at once can leave participants feeling unsatisfied. It’s an example of the classic tension between breadth and depth: the team could say that they’d self-assessed across the entire CLA framework, but the richness of the conversation diminished with each additional sub-component. Has anyone else tried this? Please share your experience in the comments!

Option 2: Discuss Subcomponents in Focus Group Discussions

In another iteration of the CLA Maturity Self-assessment process, Headlight worked with a Mission that discussed all 16 CLA subcomponents across three opt-in focus groups with representatives from all program and technical offices. (Note that they did this 100% virtually during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.) Rather than using the descriptions of CLA maturity levels as a reference point as is done in the standard CLA maturity self-assessment process, Mission staff talked through custom-designed questions on the details of each subcomponent. For example, for continuous learning a facilitator asked: “How often do Mission staff take time for learning and reflection? In what ways do Mission staff participate in learning?”

An advantage of this approach is that it required less time for participants, and not everyone from the Mission had to participate. The focus group format helped participants feel comfortable sharing their perspectives, and there was active discussion and input from all participating staff. However, the opt-in nature of the focus groups meant that not all Mission staff experiences were represented in the data. And, it’s not a true team-building opportunity when it’s a mixed group. Focus group discussions can easily drift into a complaining session, so if you use this approach, select a skilled facilitator who can steer the conversation toward collective action.

Option 3: Facilitate Component-level Discussions with Adapted Maturity Scale

A Mission wanted to identify learning needs across teams and capture comprehensive data about CLA in action, but didn’t want to allocate time to discuss all 16 CLA subcomponents. To meet their needs, Headlight organized half-day workshops with each technical office and adapted the CLA maturity scale to the component level instead of the subcomponent level. We asked participants to review and reflect on their teams’ level of maturity for each CLA component, circle it on a worksheet (see images on the right), and write down examples of CLA practices for each subcomponent. Next, participants discussed their current-state maturity ratings and aspirations as a team.

An advantage of conducting the CLA Maturity Self-assessment process this way is that it captured maturity levels for the CLA components and anonymous examples at the subcomponent level, while also creating space for team-wide discussion and exchange. This process also allowed facilitators to ask follow-up questions to understand the root causes of challenges. Meanwhile, participants benefited from hearing their colleagues’ perspectives on their self-assessed CLA maturity levels.

A disadvantage of this process was that it was time-consuming for facilitators and participants to prepare and participate in, and analyzing and synthesizing the worksheets and workshop transcripts was a lengthy process. By covering so much terrain, there wasn’t much time to discuss the challenges on any one CLA component. However, the objective of capturing comprehensive CLA maturity data across all technical offices was met.

Option 4: Asynchronous Survey Assessment

If your goal is to capture data on CLA maturity levels anonymously and quickly, a survey is the way to go. While they may take less time than the average in-person or virtual CLA self-assessment discussion and make it easy to analyze and average scores, using a survey format for the CLA Maturity Self-assessment Process is discouraged because it defeats the point of a participatory process. No survey can get at the nuance of individual experience and capture the same level of detail and discussion of root causes, even when there are open-ended questions. Furthermore, getting approval from organizations to conduct surveys can be time-consuming (for example, USAID has an approval process for surveys), and low survey completion rates mean you won’t get the full story. Lastly, with surveys, participants don’t benefit from building their understanding of CLA or hearing others’ perspectives.

Closing the Loop: What to consider for the Action Planning Process

Once a team has completed their CLA maturity self-assessment, the next step is action planning to make sure the effort adds value for the team and closes the feedback loop with team leaders and stakeholders. Action planning should be done in tandem with the team’s self-assessment process, either in another session or at a later date, but soon after the assessment is complete.

As learning partners and facilitators, we are often asked to analyze information from CLA maturity discussions and present recommended actions. From our experience, we advise against the “analyzing for” practice because teams often feel less ownership of actions they have not come up with and have less motivation to improve their CLA practice. Calling back to the meal planning analogy, participants in the assessment may not see, agree with, or feel motivated to do something about the connection between their previous diet and a facilitator’s nutritional recommendations unless they are part of the gap analysis process and come up with ideas for their future meal plan.

Though a team-wide action planning process requires more time of participants, it leads to context- and system-specific plans and more nuance in how team members need to move actions forward. Facilitators can add the most value by supporting the CLA self-assessment and action planning process and using behavior change approaches to help teams stay motivated to grow their CLA approaches. They can also use analysis of longitudinal CLA maturity levels data to uncover themes and trends over time that may help teams better focus their CLA maturity efforts.

Ultimately, the whole point of self-assessment is taking action– answering the question: “what small adjustments can we commit to that will take our collective work to the next level?” To measure CLA maturity over time, the follow-up question isn’t, “Now where are we at on the maturity spectrum?”, but rather “Did we do what we said we would, did it have the effect we thought it would have, where should we focus our energy next?”

Choose Your Own Adventure!

Teams have many options for adapting the CLA Maturity Self-assessment and Action Planning Process to their specific needs. This downloadable tool lists design choices to think through when customizing each CLA Maturity Self-assessment and Action Planning approach.

About the authors
Headshot of Amy Leo
Amy Leo

Amy Leo is a Senior CLAME Specialist with Headlight Consulting Services. She has over 14 years of experience developing and implementing adaptive management, change management, and communications strategies that result in individual and organizational behavior change. Previously, she managed the CLA Case Competition and hosted the USAID Learning Lab podcast.

Headshot of Rebecca Askin
Rebecca Askin

Rebecca Askin is a Senior CLAME Specialist with Headlight Consulting Services. She has over 15 years of experience as a learning specialist for innovation, co-creation, and private sector engagement programming. She has coached teams to strengthen their CLAME capacities and practices, designed MEL systems, and currently implements a Developmental Evaluation. She is a skilled facilitator with a love of metaphors and participatory approaches for ideation, agenda-setting, and evidence-based decision-making.