“Walking the Talk” of Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting: a Reflection in Six Parts
This blog post is part of a USAID Learning Lab series called Working Smarter: Everyday CLA techniques to help you be more productive. The goal of the series is to share practical ways to integrate collaborating, learning, and adapting into your work.
Piers Bocock is Chief of Party of the USAID LEARN contract.
In October 2014, when I had my first conference call with LEARN’s Deputy Chief of Party, Sarah Schmidt, and our Senior Knowledge Management and Organizational Development Advisor, Angelina McIntire, I told them I wanted to run things differently than a traditional USAID contract. I noted that I had already managed a number of international development projects and teams, for a number of different organizations, and that I had a really good idea of what I didn’t want to do, and what I didn’t want it to be. I admitted that I didn’t know all the specifics about how we’d do it, but I presented a vision for building a culture that would support and motivate a dynamic team that would want to stay together and grow together. I suggested that this meant creating an environment that focused on quality and innovation, one that emphasized the value of walking the talk of the approach we were going to be charged with helping to institutionalize across the agency (collaborating, learning and adapting). I asked these two talented co-leaders to join me in figuring out how to do this in a fun, mutually supportive, and effective way that would help build a team designed to last and excel. It was one of the best phone calls I’ve ever had; they agreed wholeheartedly.
Two years into the LEARN contract, there are few things I enjoy more than hearing people talk about how much they like working with my team, or praise the tools, resources, or processes that we help bring to life. And when I claim to be part of the best international development team in Washington, I mean it. The USAID LEARN team is an extremely collaborative, energetic, dedicated, innovative, creative and client-focused team that has continued to evolve and grow and deliver since its creation two years ago. But these things rarely happen by accident, nor do they ever unfold as planned on paper. I also find myself noting frequently that leading the LEARN team is the best job I have ever had. Seeing my fulfillment combined with external validation of our approach and growing demand for our support, a number of friends and colleagues have suggested that I take some time to reflect on—and then share—the “secret sauce” behind its success now that we’ve got two years under our belt.*
I prefer to lead by example, rather than seeking the spotlight. I don’t write academic papers about the work I have done through the years (though innovations to which I’ve contributed in international development work in health, economic growth, agriculture, knowledge management and technology have been written about by others); I don’t seek out speaking opportunities at conferences (though I don’t always say no when asked); and I tend to be more comfortable showcasing the leadership of those I support than trying to make any specific claims of my own. But this grand experiment—which I’ll get to in a moment—is not just my doing, and so I would be doing a disservice to my team and those who help lead them if I were to dismiss the request to share some of the lessons we’ve learned and the approaches that have helped.
So my New Year’s resolution is to contribute a new blog post per month that reflects on the LEARN team’s formation, growth, challenges and opportunities, and the mistakes, successes, and ongoing efforts of the team through the lens of the six components of the USAID Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Framework, a tool we co-created with the agency to help them reflect on how they can be more intentional and systematic about CLA. Though it could change as things unfold over the next six months, I imagine the topics could unfold like this:
- Part 1, January: The intentional effort to create and maintain the LEARN culture
- Part 2, February: The systematic processes LEARN uses for continuous learning
- Part 3, March: Must-have and nice-to-have resources to support learning-based teams
- Part 4, April: Being open to—and strategic about—collaborating with partners
- Part 5, May: How we leverage learning to continue to refine our approach
- Part 6, June: How and why LEARN has adapted (or not) to changing contexts
I hope these blogs will generate curiosity as well as conversation, and I look forward to hearing back from readers about their reactions, ideas, and stories of their own.
* The USAID LEARN Contract is a 5-year effort that began September 29, 2014 and is scheduled to run through September 28, 2019.