Skip to main content
Community Contribution

What should we focus on when we pause and reflect at different stages of activity implementation?

May 22, 2024
Hong Ha Nguyen, Linh Doan - USAID Learns

While supporting USAID implementing partners (IPs) in conducting pause & reflect sessions, we often hear sentiments like, “our activity just started, so there is not much to reflect about” or “we do not have monitoring data yet, so we cannot organize a pause and reflect session.” We often respond by clarifying that pause and reflect goes beyond using monitoring data for performance review. While this is critically important, not all activities, especially in the first year, will be in a place to reflect on monitoring data. In addition, because many activities task their MEL managers with organizing pause and reflect sessions, it is easy to unintentionally create the impression that pause and reflect sessions solely focus on that.

These common responses urged us to develop a list of topics for pause and reflect sessions that are relevant depending on where the IP is in the implementation process. This will help IP staff and stakeholders fully utilize reflection opportunities for adaptive management. The topics suggested throughout the life of an activity are illustrative; some topics suggested for one stage can be considered for other stages as long as it is useful for the activity to have collective reflection for adaptive management. Each pause and reflect session should conclude with a clear set of adjustments and associated actions to improve implementation. 

Illustrative pause & reflect topicsIllustrative questions and additional resources to explore

Topic: Local context, theory of change, and MEL considerations 


Why this is important: The theory of change (TOC) is developed based on certain knowledge of the context, and the assumptions of how results can be achieved. There is usually a time gap between the TOC development and activity implementation and the knowledge about context, and assumptions need to be updated/verified by stakeholders prior to implementation. In addition, having a shared understanding of how partners will achieve and measure results is the foundation for reviewing progress throughout the life of the activity.

  • How has the local context shifted since we wrote the proposal?
    • Are objectives still relevant and achievable in the current context?
    • Are there any external factors that could significantly impact the activity's vision or direction?
      • What adjustments should we make to the TOC and technical approach?
      • Are there any adjustments needed to our monitoring, evaluation, and learning plan to better capture the activity's results and impact?
      • What are key terms that need to be clarified to ensure shared understanding among stakeholders?


Resources: Theory of change workbook

Topic: Stakeholder engagement 


Why this is important: Collaboration with the right actors can help avoid duplication, leverage resources, and have wider impacts. Intentional stakeholder engagement plan provides clarity on who, why, and how the activity will engage key stakeholders. 

  • Are we engaging with the right actors/stakeholders? Are there any other actors that we should consider engaging with to more effectively achieve activity results?
  • How can we approach collaboration with stakeholders to ensure efficient achievement of results?
  • What is our stakeholder engagement plan? How will we operationalize it?
  • How will we gather feedback from stakeholders, and how will we use that feedback for adaptive management?

Topic: Foundations for an effective partnership 


Why this is important: Partnership does not happen automatically when stakeholders work together. Partnership is built on shared values, vision, and practical and effective processes such as communication, learning, and decision-making. These elements need shared agreement and buy-in from all partners.

  • What are the shared values of the partners (USAID, all IPs, Government of Vietnam [GVN] counterparts, etc.)?
  • What are our norms and channels for communication?
  • What is our joint-management model?
  • Do we have a shared understanding of the decision making processes? 

Topic: Clarity and efficiency of implementation processes


Why this is important: Each institution usually has different accountability requirements, steps, and timelines for processes. Sharing more about each other’s expectations on processes and aligning those where possible early in implementation will increase efficiency and reduce burdens on staff involved in meeting these requirements. 

  • Are the processes and procedures for implementation clear and understood by everyone involved?
  • How can we align our processes (processes of USAID, the IP, and GVN partner) to streamline efficiency (e.g. reporting, finance management, decision-making)?

Topic: Progress review 


Why this is important: Evidence-based and participatory reviews of activity progress help inform timely decisions and actions for adaptive management. 

  • Are we making progress towards the intended results? 
    • If not, what is in the way, and what adjustments are needed (or recommended)?
  • Are we contributing to the activity’s higher-level outcomes? Why or why not? How should we adjust to ensure we are on track with higher-level outcomes?
  • What are the key takeaways and required actions based on the mid-term evaluation (if completed by USAID)?
  • What adjustments should we make in response to program participant feedback?


Resource: Three Solutions for Getting Teams to Actually Use their Data | USAID Learning Lab

Topic: Internal collaboration


Why this is important: Teams need to intentionally design and nurture effective internal collaboration to ensure efficiency of implementation and results achievement. 

  • Do we internally collaborate effectively?
  • Are team and team member roles and responsibilities clear? Are decision-making processes clear?
  • In what ways can we make our internal processes more efficient?


Resource: Team Connect & ReflectCLA Maturity Tool_Internal Collaboration component

Topic: External collaboration/partnership review


Why this is important: Effective partnerships help advance results. Partnership and stakeholder engagement reviews can help activities identify where they can improve their work together to ensure efficiency and results achievement. 

  • How has the partnership contributed to or hindered the achievement of results? 
  • Are we on-track with the stakeholder engagement plan? 


Resource: CLA Maturity Tool_External Collaboration component

Topic: Theory of Change review 


Why this is important:

  • Activity TOC may not hold when there are: 
    • Major context shifts since the design of the activity that present new threats or opportunities
    • Significant budget change
    • Significant slow progress toward results
    • The results of the activities are not reflected in its monitoring data


Critically reviewing and adjusting the TOC helps the activity invest in the right things that lead to intended results.

Depending on what triggers TOCe review, the following questions can be explored: 

  • Are we on track to achieve the activity’s outcomes?
  • Are there any significant changes in the context that impact the assumptions, entry points?
  • Why do our interventions not lead to results?


Resource: TOC Review Tool offers a systematic way to review the key elements of TOC. 


Topic: Sharing key learning 


Why this is important: This contributes to theory building beyond the life of the activity and helps others pick up what still needs to be done after the activity closes. It mimics the end of academic papers in which researchers explain whether their hypothesis holds, why or why not, and what additional research is needed.

  • What are the key achievements, learning, and best practices from this activity? How can we share these learnings widely? Noting that learning and best practices can be related to technical approaches or process management. 
  • What case studies or models can we share from this activity for wider uptake (or examples of what not to do)?
  • As part of this, activities can complete a final TOC review:
    • What parts of our hypothesis on how change would occur were accurate? Which were not?
    • What was the final TOC the activity team was operating from? Assuming it was somewhat different from the original, what were the reasons for changes?
    • And now that the program is over, what entry points exist for change moving forward that others should focus on? Was anything s left unfinished? What does the program recommend to carry it forward?

Topic: Sustainability planning or review (could be relevant at any stage but critical if it hasn’t happened earlier in the activity)


Why this is important:

Sustainability should be considered at the outset and throughout implementation. 

  • Can our approaches be sustained by local stakeholders? 
    • By whom? How? Why or why not? 
  • How can we adjust to ensure sustainability of results?

How and with whom can we communicate results/approaches so they can be sustained by other stakeholders? 

List of links in the table:


About the authors
Hong Ha's profile picture
Hong Ha Nguyen

Ha is the Senior Director of Organizational Learning at USAID Learns in Vietnam. With 18 years of experience in the development sector, she specializes in multi-stakeholder process management, organizational development, and project management. Ha holds a master's degree in development studies in University of East Anglia, with a focus on gender and development. A feminist and facilitator, in short. 

Linh Doan profile picture
Linh Doan

Linh is a facilitator and knowledge management specialist at Learns. Linh has 8 years of working experience with multiple stakeholders in various sectors. She holds a master's degree in Natural Resources Management at Cologne University of Applied Sciences. Linh has strong visualization skills that help her communicate complex data and information in a clear and engaging way.