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Community Contribution

Walking the Talk: LEARN’s Pause & Reflect Practices

Aug 29, 2016
Amy Leo

Amy Leo is a Communications Associate on the USAID LEARN contract. She manages the content on Learning Lab and produces the Learning Matters newsletter. Click here to subscribe!

Image of the LEARN Retreat

As Communications Associate for the USAID LEARN contract, one of my responsibilities is to manage the CLA Case Competition. The 2016 competition launched exactly two months after my start date, which meant I had a lot to catch up on and prepare in a relatively short amount of time. Due to our team’s fantastic knowledge management practices, I was able to easily look back through our files to wrap my head around how the competition was organized last year. Even more helpful, though, was reviewing the 2015 Case Competition After Action Review, documentation of discussions that happened shortly after last year’s competition capturing what went well, what was learned, and what should be different next year.

After Action Reviews are just one example of the Pause & Reflect exercises that the LEARN team does regularly. Because our mission is to support improved effectiveness of USAID programs by building capacity within the Agency to integrate the principles of CLA throughout USAID’s Program Cycle, we make a point to “Walk the Talk" by doing CLA in our own work. Of all of ways that LEARN does CLA, Pause & Reflect activities were the most intriguing to me during my orientation period. I wondered, “How could we justify spending so much time looking back at the past? How honest would my new coworkers really be?”

Why Pause & Reflect?

We often hear that lack of time is the greatest obstacle organizations face when it comes to CLA. Is reflecting worth it? In a recent blog post, Monalisa Salib explains that “Building in systematic opportunities to Pause & 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.” Reflection is the bridge between learning and decision-making. It’s the process of digesting what’s happened and determining how it could relate to future actions.

Learn, Reflect, Decide, Act

The video embedded below references a study conducted on employees in a 30-day training program. The study found that employees who took 15 minutes each day to think and journal about what they had learned during that day’s training session performed 23% better on an evaluation than the control group, which did not spend time reflecting. (Watch the video to learn why!)

Because reflection translates learning into better decision-making, it can help organizations operate more effectively, leading to better development results and, often, time saved (not to mention happier staff, most likely).

What Can Pause & Reflect Look Like?

Here are some examples of LEARN’s Pause & Reflect practices:

  • Regular Times of Reflection:
    • Annual Retreat: Every year, ahead of a new work planning period, we have a big picture reflection and work-planning retreat that includes all LEARN staff and USAID’s CLA team (pictured above). To ensure active participation by all, we hire an external facilitator and reflect on the year to date, decide what needs to change moving forward, and update our vision for the contract. 
    • Monthly Reflection Fridays: We reserve the last Friday of each month for reflection on our key learning, monitoring, and evaluation data (connected back to our monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning plan) for that month or quarter. Staff have shared that this is often the best time for strategic conversations that inform our overall direction. Honest reflection can’t happen without an open, cohesive team so we often use the mornings of reflection Friday to hold team building activities, such as appreciation exercises.
    • Monthly Team Meetings with the CLA Team: We have a standing agenda item for our monthly team meeting with USAID focused on one of our key learning questions (again, from our learning agenda). From these discussions, team members take individual learning they can apply in their work and we also raise issues that get taken into consideration in each workstream.
    • Monthly “Walking the Talk” Group: Our internal “Walking the Talk” group meets monthly to discuss the extent to which LEARN is adhering to its values and integrating CLA.
  • Doing the CLA Maturity Matrix on Ourselves: The CLA Maturity Matrix is a tool we use to help USAID missions and implementing partners assess where they are and where they want to be in the process of integrating CLA. In line with our value to “Walk the Talk,” (and because it’s such a helpful tool!) we use the CLA Maturity Matrix to check in on our integration of CLA.
  • After Action Review (AAR) for Major Activities: AARs seek to answer five key questions: what was supposed to happen, what was the reality, what went well, what did not go well, and what should be changed for next time. Click here to access an AAR Guidance Document.
  • Six-Month Work Plans: These shorter-term work plans enable changes more frequently than the traditional annual work plan.
  • Our Contract Mechanism: Because our contract is objective-based and our only set deliverables are trip reports, work plans, and semi-annual reports, we are able to be flexible in how we implement.
  • Intrinsic Motivation to Learn: LEARN Team members are expected to take time to learn, read, document, and share as part of their work. It’s a quality we look for when hiring and a consideration in our bi-annual performance evaluations. Our internal Wiki includes a space “Knowledge Drops” for team members to document and share learning
  • Knowledge Drop: Our internal team wiki includes a blog, Knowledge Drop, which we use to store real-time learning and reflections for later review. This blog helps us answer two main questions: What have we learned that will affect how we implement LEARN moving forward? What have we achieved (or not achieved)?
  • External Collaboration: We use peer assists, communities of practice, learning networks, and simply effective meetings to Pause & Reflect with the larger community of individuals and organizations working on adaptive management.

Adapting slice of CLA frameworkIn the CLA framework, the other subcomponent of Adapting is Application. Reflection is a waste of time if it’s not operationalized. However, this is often the greatest challenge of adaptive management. Change is hard!

Here are some tips for orienting Pause & Reflect practices toward Application:

  • Choose the Right Time: As referenced above, we schedule regular time for reflection in three increments: monthly, annually, and after the close of major activities. Because it would be too much to reflect on an entire year of work, our monthly reflections feed into our annual retreat and major activity reflections are timed to capture ideas while they are fresh.
  • Ask the Right Questions: If reflection is the bridge between learning and decision-making, what learning needs to be digested in order to make better decisions later? Link Pause & Reflect questions to evidence and strategy.
  • Document and Share with the Right People: Imagine how useless the LEARN team’s CLA Case Competition After Action Review would have been if the discussion had not been recorded and saved in a place where I could find it nearly a year later.

How does your organization Pause & Reflect? Share your experiences (successes and failures alike!) in the comments below.