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Community Contribution

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

Feb 19, 2016
Monalisa Salib

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 from 2014-2020, 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 Poster

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.