Day 1.5 - Some comments from yesterday, linked to today

Sep 5, 2012 8:51 AM by Tony Pryor Comments (22)

Hi everyone!  Just wanted to follow up on one of the threads from yesterday, since it is pertinent for today.  The topic can be summarized: "learning takes time, I have no time, therefore..."  I think the only real way around this very true problem is to recognize learning as a valid core work objective, and therefore a valid real cost, and build that cost into projects, contracts, grants, and people's work day (through the personnel evaluation processs).  I can think of only a handful of activities within AID which had learning as a primary, or even partial, objective, and an even smaller number which then put real money against it.  

Sometimes we talk of learning as almost an altruistic goal; we should learn because it's a good thing; we shouldn't horde what we know, and as the internet teaches us, knowledge is a public good.  Well, I disagree.  I view knowledge in a programatic sense as simply another resource, a resources which needs to be tended, valued and worked.  And while knowledge might be a free good in one sense, the care and feeding of it is not.  As long as learning is seen as a "good thing" and not a core element of our day job, we are never going to get far in becoming learning driven.



What about incentives?

Thanks to Ruth, Tony et al for jumping in on this time/space/resource issue around learning. I think for too long - and not just in international development, I would add - learning has been sidelined as a 'nice to have' for organizations, institutions and complex work such as ours. It is, as had been said, a spare time activity. I think USAID's rapidly-growing commitment to learning, including funding it, tasking staff to ensure it happens, and investing in efforts such as the Program Cycle Learning Guide demonstrates that we know that learning is critical to our shared success in creating change in the development context. This is especially true, as Tony notes this morning, when it comes to prioritizing, designing and excuting our work at the Project level, bringing multiple resources to bear on a higher-level objective. I also believe that the increasing validation of Learning as an essential part of the USAID and partner technical skillset (and by extension, rebuilding and reinvestment in enhancing THAT technical capacity) within the Agency and within our implementing partners further shows that USAID is building a true learning organization.

But in addition to Tony's note about the 'stick' of the ADS, and Ruth and Stacey's dialogue about mandating learning from yesterday, I would be interested to hear more about concrete ways in which we can recognize and build upon incentives to create change, how to leverage the 'carrot' of individual and organizational behavior such that this vision can be fully realized. So many of us on this discussion are champions of learning, but as such, what is our shared experiene when it comes to implementing ideas such as those outlined in the Learning Guide, which provides such richness in terms of potential approaches?

As we shift into the implementation frame today, how have you, your teams, your organizations gone about identifying (or at least being explicit about), integrating and aligning incentives for participants, so many of whom are already stretched thin, such that they can and will pursue the learning activities we hope for? And what systemic incentives shifts are possible in our multi-activity project context, where we aim for USAID, its partners, teams, local institutions and various actors to collaborate, learn and adapt together, when there are notable counter-incentives to doing just that? And beyond creating the time/space/place, how do we build trust, reduce risk, and showcase failure, when industry structure, funding and competitiveness, as well as individual careers, are at stake? The Learning Guide provides some fantastic guidance and points to related resources on these topics, but what are other experiences out there in how to address the issues that enable or block success in implementing any learning activity?


posted 8 years ago

Disincentives to incentives.

Thanks Lane for your comment. I would like to expand upon the idea of showcasing failure as a major disincentive both inside and outside of USAID. How do we do this? How do we learn? Often by failing at the task we set out to do. If you succeed everytime, do you really learn anything? However, if you look at the Paris Declaration and see points 4. Results and 5. Accountability, your mind might run to the idea of success and accomplishing what you set out to do in development. I think at times that this can run counter to the concept of learning. If you set your sites on results, measuring and achieveing first and foremost then failure becomes an unwanted stepchild. How do overcome this? Do you make admitting failure part of the process? Or do you have to build trusted platforms where people can share these?

I think being able to admit where things did not work helps everyone. I recommend watching David Damberger's "What happens when an NGO admits failure?" as a compelling arguement for why this is important. I think Canada's Engineers Without Borders makes a great contribution to development by publishing their Failure Report. In their own words:

EWB believes that success in development is not possible without taking risks and innovating – which inevitably means failing sometimes. We also believe that it’s important to publicly celebrate these failures, which allows us to share the lessons more broadly and create a culture that encourages creativity and calculated risk taking. This is a culture we value within EWB, and also try to work with our partners in Africa to create in their organizations.

Do others have examples of how they have taken the disincentive of failure and turned it into a positive tool for learning?

posted 8 years ago

Along the lines of learning from failures, we are trying something in a few weeks at our Worldwide Conference attended by our senior program managers/country directors and our HQ staff. The title the session is Best Screw-ups: Management Insights and How I applied them to my program. The session is going to be a happy hour at the end of one of the days and we will have a structured mingling for sharing out management challenges and what people learned from those challenges.

The point is to get at application of what a manager and/or the program team learned and how they actually modified how they operate now. Application is key. This is the first time we are trying this so in three weeks at a minimum I can share what I have learned from trying to celebrate failure.  

Scott Yetter
DirectorOffice of Knowledge Management and Evaluation [email protected]
(+1) 301.587.4700 extension 1916
 CHF International
8601 Georgia Avenue, Suite 800
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3440  USA
(+1) 301.587.4700 (phone)
(+1) 301.587.7315 (fax)
Building a Better World since 1952

posted 8 years ago
Scott - that's a great idea. I would like to hear how it goes and what you would do differently the next time, assuming you determine it's worthwhile.

It reminds me of something Ruth Campbell said in July at STRIVE's learning workshop: "learn quickly, fail quickly, and adapt." I'm sure Ruth would add - and document along the way. It's that tacit knowledge we hope to capture on a regular basis, e.g., every time someone returns from the field; meaningful conversations between home office and field office staff; capture those moments when someone thinks "ah ha" or even thinks this "might" be something to pay attention to. It's messy, but we are hoping it will mitigate the problem of staff turnover, time erasing memory, etc.

In terms of learning between key activities like surveys, workplans and annual reports - STRIVE has learning workshops - at first between the prime and the research team, but more recently included the donor, IPs and technical advisory committee. The emphasis is on "work" wherein all participants engage in discussions about key issue areas of interest, as well as the most recent challenges and findings from individual country projects.

Diana Rutherford
FHI 360

On Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 5:59 PM, USAID's Program Cycle Learning Guide Feedback and Discussi
posted 8 years ago

We suggested something similar at our last corporate meeting--a prize for the best lesson learned from a project screw up. But we thought that this might create some perverse incentives among our more competitive staff! ;-)

posted 8 years ago
Admitting failure is so important -- and so rare. Thanks, Zachary, for raising this (and for the shout out to EWB/Canada, who are unparalleled in their progressive attitude to this). I want to mention that USAID recently held a conference in Washington for Mission staff who work in Democracy, Rights and Governance, and I had the honor of speaking on a panel about "Learning from Lemons." The participants were obviously self-selected (there were other concurrent sessions so people had other options), but I was extremely encouraged both by the number of DRG officers who attended that session and especially by the degree to which failure was a given for them, as was using it to learn and subsequently to _adapt_, quickly and intelligently, to maximize their effectiveness.

One of the other presenters in that session was from the Collaborative Learning Projects, talking about their Listening Project with the intended beneficiaries of development assistance. The Project documented a lot of what can only be characterized as failed efforts, from the perspective of these "beneficiaries" -- in an attempt to help all of us in international development learn and adapt our interventions. The Learning Guide contains an excerpt from a report from the Listening Project and a link to CLP's site where you can learn more. Check it out!

On Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 5:29 PM, USAID's Program Cycle Learning Guide Feedback and Discussi
posted 8 years ago

Speaking of failure.

Monthly Development Magazine, put out by InterAction, requested articles submissions on failure for its November issue.

Failure -- The Real F Word: Does admitting failure put the "human" in humanitarian? Does it actually ingratiate NGOs with donors more than positive success stories, smiling beneficiaries and impressive statistics? Confessing that we don't always get things right and that helping others isn't an exact science can be an organization's most liberating experience.


Zachary Baquet, PhD

Knowledge Management Specialist

USAID Bureau for Foor Security

[email protected]

posted 8 years ago

Hi Zachary,

Thank you for raising this idea. Sharing expereince about your failurity to show others and let them learn from what went wrong and what could have been done better is a real oportunity and as you said it will be a most liberating expereince. From my expereince working on KM projects with multilateral organizations and community of practices this idea of sharing failures comes always to the front. The question most of us still trying to find a solution for is how to go about it. Are there the incentives to do that? And if it is in public sector/civil service (as our partners do come from this sector too), do practitioners have the courage and the backing from top managment or peers to share what went wrong? These questions seems sometimes hard to answer, but as we said interaction even more interaction among practitioners may break the eyes and who knows we may get champions who got the courage to do so.



posted 8 years ago
USAID's Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF) funded the STRIVE program (
under FIELD LWA, which included a period during which IPs presented
program ideas to a technical advisory committee (TAC) consisting of
donor and other international development representatives. As ideas were
approved to move forward to be further developed, STRIVE funded the
field work to ground truth designs allowing them to fleshed out for the
next round of TAC review. The review process took considerable time for
some of the ideas to turn into full-fledged proposals and not all ideas
were funded.

In addition, STRIVE had a learning partner, which was meant to be a
third-party external (e.g., objective) impact evaluator. This proved to
be rather challenging for a number of reasons including a lack of clear
responsibility between prime, sub and IPs. Since then, the prime has
taken on that role, which has brought the prime's valuable knowledge management
team, the research team and the IPs together more with arguably greater
effect (e.g., increasing production of learning products through
increased communication - breaking down of silos).

As some of the STRIVE IPs have wrapped up implementation, they have
expressed a desire for additional time for learning, e.g., deeper/more
extensive research. While this model may not be a panacea, it definitely
provided incentives by having both time and raconteurs to provide
feedback in the early stage on ideas and proposals for program design,
and later on research design(s) and findings. Great trust-building efforts, as others have noted, are also key. I participated in the poverty and conflict learning network two years ago and the group agreed that they wished everyone could have participated in the initial two-day workshop, as we appeared to really come together only at the final (third) workshop.

Diana Rutherford

On Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 10:44 AM, USAID's Program Cycle Learning Guide Feedback and Discussi
posted 8 years ago

Personal vs Group Incentives. Reflecting on the discussions so far, I'm struck by the recognition that personal recognition and incentives generally appear to trump collective incentives for learning. And I'm wondering how we replicate and reinforce this at project learning level? 

I'm thinking of examples of effective learning situations within out context. I think of people being invited to speak at a conference or event: suddenly the focus becomes all about reflecting on the learning and how to succinctly present this to others as the individual is being showcased - they are on the line and in the spotlight. I think of discussion forums such as this speakers' corner and Linked In groups like the Market Facilitation Initiative (MAFI) that most of us are part of: where people participate as individuals, with a name attached to a contribution, not an org label or anonymous contribution, and individuals are automatically recognized as major contributors over a particular period. I think of the GROOVE which is often cited as a success example and which many of us who put forward unsuccessfrul proposals look at from the outside wishing we could have the resources and exposure to contribute to industry learning in the same way: my perception is that part of GROOVE's success both within their individual orgs and to the industry as a large has been the face of the few people involved as point people in their orgs for the initiative. These GROOVE participants are continualy presenting at forums and conferences, sharing as individuals on listserves and being recognized in their orgs as the people playing this particuilar role. I wonder what success would have looked like if the representative group from each org had been larger or the contributions anonymous.

I'm not trying to say that learning is only for self-promotion, self-recognition, and self-good. But I am highly aware that the succes of social networking platforms, etc, and many of the examples in our own sector, are founded on the recognition of the individual. I believe that this becomes a fundamental component for us to intentionally replicate at project learning level.

Margie Brand


posted 8 years ago

Incentives are everything! From a practitioner's perspective, the inter-related incentives for learning that I see in the projects I manage include the following:

- staff sees learning as essential to project success. They come to the job with this mindframe, or are encouraged to view learning as essential by managers/colleagues.

- the donor tells them they have to learn (the project calls for a learning plan, or annual revisions to the causal model, or regular updates on learning in reports, or specific learning products) so staff know it is an intrinsic part of their job description. They have project resources to use for learning and they know they will be called to account.

- they discover during implementation that although the proposal says we have it all figured out, we don't--and most of what we do is informed trial-and-error. And/or repeating what they did in their last project is not working. Learning suddenly becomes important as targets are not achieved.

- they think it is important to their career (it will be in their performance evaluation, learning is valued and rewarded within the organization, etc.)

Knowing what motivates staff to learn is important. Some people love to learn. Some want quick ideas to try out in their projects to improve performance. Some want to know that managers will recognize them for the extra effort and not penalize them if it doesn't work out.

Sadly, occasionally I hear "the donor is not interested in learning, they just want us to hit the targets as per the contract." The Program Cycle Learning Guide gives me hope that that is changing!

There are various incentives we all have for learning, but at the end of the day we have to show that it leads to better results. The example you give on page 18 of a mission that wanted extensification but the implementers found intensification led to higher incomes is a great one. We need more examples like this that make a compelling case that learning is essential and not a "nice thing to have" if you have some spare time.


Ruth Campbell (ACDI/VOCA)

posted 8 years ago
Zan Larsen wrote:

Thank you Ruth! 

I agree incentives are key! And the need to identify incentives for learning, collaborating and adapting go beyond the need to make time for it, etc....

 Information is often  viewed as a resource that organizations can use to explain their role and impact in a field. Therefore, some organizations perceive sharing this valuable resource as diminishing their unique contribution within a sector. This fear leads to a resistance by organizations to consistently share their experiences, and data. 

The challenge of creating buy-in among various development actors behind a shared vision of KM and increased information-sharing requires  demonstrating the benefits to each stakeholder and sector-wide...I think the learning guide gets at those benefits at least for USAID context and audience. I would love to hear what benefits you feel there would be for USAID partners, so that we can begin to highlight those as well to encourage/incentivize collaborative learning.

cheers, Zan Larsen USAID/PPL 

posted 8 years ago

The benefits of fuller sharing and collaboration could be immense for implementing partners: potentially less investment in gathering baseline and contextual information
because we build on what’s already been done; stronger program design from the start drawing from lessons learned; perhaps more focused interventions because we’re building a project to fit within the context of other ongoing projects in the area, etc.

We’ve been talking about the time and money needed to enable learning space and reflection. By increasing information sharing and collaboration, we should see efficiencies in program design and management that over time free up some of that time and money.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a country-specific real-time repository of information that IPs, missions, country governments and civil society could tap to shape projects, policy and other interventions?
A bit far-fetched perhaps, but could we ever get to a point where we could crowdsource a proposal/program design? The proposal phase of a project is a space within organizations
where learning and innovation naturally occur. Wouldn’t it be great if we could tap that energy better and benefit across the community from the discussions, reflections, data exchanges and new thinking that occur when we begin program design thinking. Perhaps
not practical at this point for USAID and others, but it may look different a few years from now. Maybe a crowd “brainstorming” around how to shape an RFP before it’s officially released could be a step in that direction… or in-country consultation with partners
(all in-country partners) and mission when a new project starts up to tweak program design based on what the group collectively knows … if something like that happened on a regular basis, it could make in-roads to building trust as well.
Sandra Bunch (ACDI/VOCA)
posted 8 years ago
Even just knowing in a given moment what's going on in a country, where, by whom (contact info), project timelines, etc. would be a huge step forward. As a start, USAID's mobile solutions is promoting mobile data. One potential benefit from this effort, should it get to the point, as Sandra describes below, where everyone buys-in,is the possibility to know the "field" in a given geographical space so that we could in some cases privilege research, e.g., agreement for a limited time to leave some clearly defined spaces alone while research is ongoing.

Crowd-sourcing program design idea is a bit like the technical advisory committee STRIVE used to vet project designs, only Sandra's idea encompasses a larger community of practice. Sounds great.

Diana Rutherford (FHI 360)

On Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 5:59 PM, USAID's Program Cycle Learning Guide Feedback and Discussi
posted 8 years ago

One of the "crowd-sourcing" suggestions in the learning guide (page 36) comes from the Uganda mission -- the Democracy, Rights and Governance team has engaged some local thought leaders in Uganda to act as advisors over the course of the 5 years of implementing the country strategy, and also on project design at a high/conceptual level, prior to the stage where things get into procurement-sensitive territory. What do people think of this approach?

posted 8 years ago

Learning at pre-award design phase. I agree fully with Sandra that the current process promotes so much lrearning learning at design (often pre-award) phase. Apparently many of the development organizations spend between $100,000 - $200,000 per project proposal. Even though learning could take place after this with improvements and adaptations, it's before the projects are even funded that so much learning needs to take place (unfortunately often within a 30 day turnaround amidst operational and budget preparations). One proposal wins and the learning from 5 - 15 others is often lost.  I wonder how to both collectively learn and capture learning at the pre-award design phase, and then how to capture the learning from those not awarded. I recognize the disincentive to share strategies after investing $150,000 and then losing an award ... but there must be a way out there to draw the richness from these processes. From a Mission perspective, I imagine that recognizes how the current system works pre-award becomes realy important in understanding motivations around uptake of learning and sharing learning.

Margie Brand


posted 8 years ago

Hello all: It is a pleasure to be part of this important, timely and stimulating discussion. Additional to my work in inclusive market development at Practical Action, I also have the privilege of being the facilitator of the Market Facilitation Initiative (MaFI), an initiative of the SEEP Network. 

Some of the 250+ members of MaFI have been discussing for about two+ years about how to improve the rules, values and incentives of the international development cooperation system to make it facilitation-friendly. Many of these conversations have been captured in the MaFI-festo (

The above is to say that my participation in this consultation will try to convey my experiences in two fronts: (i) my work at Practical Action as an inclusive market systems specialist (ehem... apprentice) and one of the people in the organisation who have been promoting more effective organisational learning systems in the last 7 years (by the way, with lots of support from USAID via two initiatives: AMAP-BELO and New Partners for VCD Learning), and (ii) my work as the facilitator of MaFI.

Finally, please forgive me for giving inputs in total disorder and with very little preparation (though I promise to read the programme cycle learning guide soon), consequently, also for mentioning things that may have already been mentioned or clarified in other parts of this conversation.  But hey! Good learning does not come from perfectly finished and glossy ideas; it comes from the iteration, clash and friction of ideas that have the potential to change how we view the world and interact with it... no?  ;-)

I’ll post something meaningful soon.

Lucho Osorio


posted 8 years ago

I would like to point out that organisational learning is different to personal learning. The latter happens all the time (at both conscious and subconscious levels). However, the former does not, unless we create the right structures, values, routines and capacities.


  • Structures: spaces, technologies, relationships, teams, etc.
  • Values: includes incentives, rewards, the pat in the back from the boss, the recognition in a quarterly newsletter, the invitation to a conference, etc.
  •  Routines: the stuff that happens regularly even if we feel it is a “drag” or we don’t have time for that… they happen!
  •  Capacities: the personal skills, attitudes, awareness and resources to promote reflection, knowledge capture, processing and sharing; and to sustain the learning system that makes all of these things happen.


A very good model to make sense of all these issues is the one proposed by Peter Senge ( , PAGE 18)

The model can be improved or simplified but the core message for is that an effective learning system requires more than good incentives (if anyone knows what they are… The way to hell is paved with “good” incentives!). I have seen this in my organisation. When I arrived, approx.. 7 years ago, the title of the 5-year strategy was something like “becoming an effective learning organisation”. In my opinion, the strategy document had lots of necessary, positive narratives to move us in that direction but the structures, routines, capacities, etc. were not in place or were dysfunctional.  It is only in the last 3-4 years that we have been trying to really do it and getting our hands dirty that we have been getting to grips with the complexities and the politics of organisational learning.

In the same way, I totally support a move from donors to introduce more and better incentives, co-fund and promote the inclusion/awareness of learning as “core work” of any development programme. However, this will not solve the problem and will create lots of disappointment amongst policy-makers, stakeholders and practitioners.  An underperforming system, when pushed to its limits, will break to pieces or, even worse, produce lots of  useless "knowledge" products. (No wonder that Twitter has become so successful! Better to deal with 140 characters of rubbish than with 140 million of them).

These incentives can, of course, unlock the processes towards more effective org learning systems but more will be required. Donors have to be aware that once this Pandora’s box is opened with the key of incentives, many more demons will come out to haunt us…  The good thing is that we can be prepared to face them.



posted 8 years ago
Tony Pryor wrote:

Organizational Learning (Posted on behalf of Tony Pryor)

Yes, that's what I was getting at, re organizational learning.  Thanks very much for the link to Senge. 

From a corporate sense there are a couple of things "learning" needs to address, I think: learning for what purpose, and as a part of what decison or action process central to the entity.  If learning is not central to some decision or action, of if learning isn't part of a redesigned decision or action, it won't take.  Being a learning organization is only helpful in our work if it clearly leads to better programs,  defined not just in terms of developmental impact but in terms of the workload and management agility of Mission staff. 

The jury is still out as to how much of the overall approach to learning in the Guide will take, although it has been interesting that one part of learning that has captured the attention of USIAD Directors is the idea of it fixing a major weakness of the existing business model of USAID -  addressing an ever-changing world through very structured, and increasingly broken, procurement processes.  Those AID senior staff in the field who have embraced Stacey's learning agenda so far seem to be supportive precisely because they think they might help to make an inflexible and not vey analytic model better.    I am not sure the concepts mean as much to them as they do to us, nor are they in a practical sense all that interested in becoming a learning org., or being more evidence-based (unless policies from above mandate some actions, as they did via the Evaluation Policy), they'd just like to be able to respond and adapt to changing circumstances (which after all is what their work on the line mostly consists of).

I personally think USAID stands a chance to make this transition precisely because of a "perfect storm" of two events: doubling its staff overseas with staff the majority of whom grew up in an internet/social media-centric world, and the massive undertaking now in train to totally revamp its business processes. 

 * Few (if any) organizations double their main field long term staff in 2-3 years.  I know this leads to frustrations to those who now deal with people in almost all positions trying to learn as they go, and without mentors who are familiar with the new/old approach to projects.  But WITHOUT so many new staff, trying to change the business model even modestly would be daunting if not impossible.

 * And very rarely does an organization totally rethink how it is doing its business and retool it.  I was active in the mid 1990s in the changes which led to the demise of projects and logframes and the ascendency of strategic objectives and results frameworks; the changes encompassed in the Program Cycle are in fact WAY more far-reaching and (without the new staff) probably too much for any organization to try to accomplish. 

It's those two perturbations - rethinking and redesigning the business model, and doubling the staff, which offers the POTENTIAL for learning to be integrated.  Whether it is indeed integrated is another question, but discussions like these, especially when they discuss how other organizations have tried to integrate learning, give me hope.

posted 8 years ago

The power of narratives:

One of the most powerful narratives in Practical Action in the last years has been that because we are a very small organisation (compared to the challenge of global poverty), the only way we can "punch above our weight" is through the quality of our knowledge.  This seemed to be an idea that many of my colleagues accepted but the problem for me and colleagues working in the Markets and Livelihoods Programme, was that the organisation was producing knowledge that was useful to show the donors that we implementing what we had been contracted to do and to give "human stories" to our marketing team who then used them to show our supporters in the UK how we had benefited "the poor" directly. 

  • Lesson: narratives are/create incentives; and narratives that reinforce the importance of knowledge and learning can indeed get the organisation to produce more knowledge and promote learning.

However, this was for us -the markets team, a big problem and a source of frustration. Why? Because we were working to promote a paradigm change built on the principles of facilitation and complex systems (also participation, but we have been traditionally pretty strong on this front as an organisation). The knowledge we were producing (and still produce to some extent) reinforced a narrative that rewarded the direct provision of inputs and services to the people we (and the donors) consider "poor".

  • Lesson: the organisational system and its institutional environment defines the direction of the knowledge produced.


Results strengthen the narrative and strategies of effective org learning:

The work we did from the Markets and Livelihoods Programme (with the leadership of Alison Griffith, who was one of the champions of the narrative I mentioned above) showed very positive results, relative to other programmes, in terms of scale of impacts and cost-efficiency. We positioned ourselves little by little as the team who could use market systems to reduce poverty at scale (don't tell anyone but we are still trying to learn how to do this!) and who was serious and systematic about effective organisational learning. These two images reinforced one another: our relative successes on the ground were perceived as the result of a systematic work to improve the learning systems of the whole international markets team and our ability to learn and share K faster was helping us to work better on the ground.

This is what was going on:

  • We built a comprehensive approach called PMSD (Participatory Market Systems Development) that gave all the Markets’ teams in eight different countries a common set of principles, values, concepts, narratives and "grammar" (i.e. the way in which we articulated our ideas) that made us faster learners and sharers than the other teams in the organisation.  PMSD was built about 10 years ago and it has evolved quite a lot since (still is).
  • We had annual team meetings that would bring the team leaders from all of our countries together for approx 10 days. (We also had a set of periodic reviews at the national and international levels, but this is common in all organisations).
  • We learned that the project design phase (to apply for a grant or call) was a great moment for the UK team to promote new PMSD-related ideas amongst the project managers in the field. They wanted our technical advice; they were keen to listen. The negative side of this was that in some cases, proposals that had been designed using PMSD principles were rejected!  This raised questions about the fundraising potential of our ideas… We (the UK team) made some compromises and became a bit more pragmatic and flexible with the project managers. This worked out well. Incremental learning works better here. Perfect design was giving us little success. As donors learn we can also fine-tune our designs so that they get closer to the ideals of PMSD.
  • We were explicit about our vision, strategies and activities to become a more effective learning team. This was not left to divine intervention (though it has always been messy and we may have had some divine favours along the way).  The important thing is that the team became proud of this; it made them feel special... it has become a part of our identity: we are “the learning team”.
  • The two grants we got from USAID (AMAP-BELO and New Partners for VCD Learning) played a massive role to boost our efforts. This is how:
  1. they gave us relatively small but highly strategic resources to put strategies and action plans together and justify our dedication to them (it became a contractual issue).
  2. These projects were seen by some senior staff as a vote of confidence from USAID. It was a seal of approval from a reputable donor with whom we want to build good relationships. We were not crazy after all!  (I mean, we are, but so is USAID!; so, no problem there... it is all relative).  :-)   For example, after a New Partners workshop in D.C., I would report back to the whole organisation and, once I had their attention (because I mentioned the name of USAID) I would slip in one or two messages about the importance of becoming more effective at learning and sharing.
  3. They gave us routines (annual meetings face to face, monthly calls, quarterly reports, etc) to move our plans forward. 
  • The New Partners project in particular has been an incredible opportunity for us to continue structuring our learning systems with a focus on inclusive market systems development. However, many lessons are being transferred to the rest of the organisation.  (I will share more about this later).

The Markets and Livelihoods Programme disappeared from the new organisational structure that started operating in April this year. The new thematic areas are: ag, DRR, energy and techno justice. This may be seen as a bad thing but it isn't. The successes of the M&L Prog in the understanding of markets systems as a means for poverty reduction at scale and our leadership in org learning and K sharing meant that the organisation took the decision of making our DNA an integral part of the whole organisation! The Inclusive Markets Team is being created in Practical Action's consulting branch and will work closely with the program support and the policy&practice units of the NGO side.   

Note: the successes of the M&L programme and our leadership in learning is relative to the rest of the organisation. My comments are not intended to be self-congratulatory or indulgent. We are still making mistakes in our thinking and practice (many of which we are still unaware of) and a significant portion of our learning systems need to be fine-tuned, field-tested or built. We know this is just the beginning; but we also recognise that becoming a more effective learning and K sharing org is the best (only?) forward.


posted 8 years ago

Hi All, 


First off, apologies for my delayed engagement on a topic that those of you that know me realize is close to my heart. 

I want to pick up on a few threads here - things about which I am constantly learning myself. 

On incenctives - don't drink the cool aid: Ruth, I appreciate your point on the need to focus on what drives people and agree you've hit on a number of the key factors including renumeration. I also truly appreciate the honesty in acknowledging that the majority of projects - particularly anything even remotely complicated - do not know exactly where they will end up or if what they are doing will work as they anticipate. They are indeed operating on informed assumptions - the best informed assumptions they can find but assumptions none-the-less. 

One of the biggest frustrations I've seen in my own work is how many people - but particularly those that make the decisions (donor reps, program managers, business development folks) choose to either ignore this or truly do not know that this is what is going on. We write proposals based on our best thinking or understanding of what will work. Otherwise, ending poverty would be simple. From there, it is up to us to continually learn if we're actually making any progress. The biggest disincentive we create within our own organizations or our own teams is to act like that's not our reality. 

To take a cynic's view, far too often a senior program team sits in a meeting in the capital city, agrees on the targets (a discussion often driven more by who is getting how much of the budget or already has 'coverage' in a particular area than anything else) and then says, "now go do it, we will review your progress in 3 months." When that meeting happens, the discussion centers around whether you've achieved your outputs, not whether they're actually accomplishing anything. In the mean time, the field staff are left with little reference of anything other that the fact that they are to do x or y activities. This is precisely the challenge we had to overcome in the early days of CARE's (along with multiple partners) USAID Productive Safety Nets Program in Ethiopia and I'm certain you all have similar stories.  Front line staff live those decisions every day. If they do not see the leaders actively trying to learn how to improve, they will toe the company line even if they know from their own experience that it won't work - or they will simply go get another job. When we underestimate the value of front line staff experience as a strategic asset or we telegraph that we're going to execute the activity plan regardless of resulte, we shoot ourselves in the foot and it happens all the time. 

Milk Can's of Excellence - So, what's an alternative? I by no means have the answer but my experience just this week is a piece of it in my mind. 

I've just spent 5 days with 45 staff from over 15 CARE countries. We were in Bangladesh on our first ever global learning journey for market engagement programming (a term that gives you a sense of CARE's narrative around value chain programming). The project is honestly inspiring - and I say that not because I work at CARE but because I deeply believe in facilitation and the team is brilliant at doing it. Before the event, we asked as little as possible of the team so they could focus on their work. During the event we relied heavily and deliberately on the team to share with us what they had learned, coaching them so that they would be the face and voice of the lessons as they rightly deserve. Ensuring we had willing volunteer translators around for when people struggled - even when we were translating Bangladeshi English into Ugandan English. On the last evening we wanted to celebrate the team's achievements over the past 5 years as their current funding phase comes to a close and they head into the next round. So, building on an internal 'drumbeat of excellence,' that CARE employees can award to each other (a simple certificate), we simply invented a 'milk can of excellence,' award. We literally bought a milk can for ever staff member (dairy value chain project remember), had "CARE SDVC Project, Milk Can of Excellence, 2012" printed on it and then had a ceremony at the final dinner where we gave these out to every single staff member - drivers, field facilitators, finance, admin - absolutely everyone. It couldn't have cost us $200 but they were so unbelievably proud of what they had achieved and will undoubtedly remember that for the rest of their careers - and all of them attribute that success to their strength as a team. The only person who was not fully motivated was the team leader - because none of his superiors attended the workshop or the ceremony. Had they done so, it would have changed his experience and his motivation to continue working and learning as hard as he has (luckily he's got a tough skin and we're sure we'll be just fine). 

The link to learning discussion we are having here is that the team's success was largely driven by their openness to the fact that no one had all the answers, their acknowledgement that everyone had something to bring to the table - and they expectation that anything less than their best simply was not going to be enough. And, that this needs to be pervasive at all levels if everyone is to stay energized and motivated to excel. 

A quick note on admitting failure: I was discussing this with some of our self-identified learning champions from our Market Engagement Community of Practice the other day and frankly felt that big push for admitting failure right now might be a bit too far to an extreme for me. Admitting failure is an incredibly personal experience for individuals and an incredibly risky one for institutions. In some organizational - and nationaly - cultures it will fly, in many others it will not. So, what we're toying with now is hosting a 'my lesson' contest. This simple tweak we're thinking could be less intimidating - and also maybe get us better learning in any case. From a failure we can learn what not to do. From a best practice we can learn what to do. But, from a lesson, we can learn why to do one thing and not another. At least that's my thinking since this first came up somewhere along the road yesterday. Curious if others have considered it. 

posted 8 years ago

[sorry for my late refelection. I believe that such interesting discusions should continue even for the future---that gave me the courage to say something lately? As long as there is an idea/experience to share it should roll on, i guess]..back to the discusion...


Hi Christian,Many thanks for your nice post. It was a joy to read your contribution. I specailly like the "Milk Can of Excellence" which really shows hwo people can easily be motivated and get the recognition whcih would be the impetus for their future work. It also thought us that if you want to encourage staff it doesn't take so much money or effort--just about $200 to do so. As Dale Carnegie many times said we all have feeling of importance and we need that to be recognized and we need the attention we you said the proud seen on the staff is even, i believe, a joy to see.


My personal expereince working with the African Community of Practice on Managing for Development Results (MfDR), which i was a co-founder and served as M&E Core Managment Team leader for several years thought me very similar thing. As many of the members are from diffrent African countries we were trying to enocurage the knowledge exchange and learning through diffrent appraoches. We have online e-discusions and we always invited to Annual f2f meeting those who contributed more and are champions. The other recognition appraoch we used was to publish cases stories as a source book for MfDR in Africa [The MfDR community uses the idea of "Source Book" to share emerging good practices in aid and developemnt work. So far the MfDR community published Three Global source books, which i am proude of to be one of the peer-reviewrs for teh Third Global source book where cases were selected from more than a dozen of countries. The AfCoP-MfDR published its first edition recently] . Champions in diffrent countries who are active members of the AfCoP-MfDR contacted and supported by the secretariat to publish their cases. This also helped many of the champions who contributed the cases to set up their national chapters and their recognition by the community helped their peers working with them to come together and launch the chapters with the support from the Secretariat and our partners.


About to learn from failures as you said---admitting failure is an incredibly personal experience for individuals and an incredibly risky one for institutions. But we do lose some important informations from it. Many at times i also see pople and institutions having the fear to fail. And that develops and make them not to try something diffrently. It is a challenge and is avicious circle where it should be broken at some point. It may need the intervention of a transparent managment who truly enocurage practitioners to share and make others to learn and avoiding the naming and shaming adverse effect. And through time if others learn and get the lesson that sharing about your failurity doesn't harm then the crowd will join you and that will be a culture. And if the practitioner gets the backing from the top managment and his peers that it is really worth sharing and they keep their words and I believe one champion will make a lot of diffrences. When you start some thing which needs a big courage it is tough, no doubt about that. One last thing it is a movment by itself and when you start a movment it a challenge. May be if this helps, and is really an inspiring one if you haven't seen it before, watch this movie from TED (How to start a movment) and enjoy it.

Many thanks,


posted 8 years ago