Behind the Wizard’s Curtain: True Stories from a USAID Program Office

Feb 6, 2018 by David Ratliff Comments (0)

Formerly a member of the CLA Team in USAID/PPL/LER, David Ratliff is now Program Officer in the USAID/Azerbaijan mission. He submitted this blog to share the mission's CLA Challenge Week experience with the USAID Learning Lab community.

This blog is intended to be an honest, sometimes ugly, reflection of my experience as a Program Officer leading a Program Office. I’m hoping there may be a few lessons for others to learn, and maybe more than a few examples of things to avoid doing!

CLA Challenge Week: A Roller Coaster of …(Fun?)

Recently, USAID/Azerbaijan participated in Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Challenge Week. This Challenge, the brainchild of USAID’s CLA and Learning Lab teams, threw down a gauntlet to individuals, teams, and organizations to conduct a one week CLA sprint. The idea was to visualize a goal, think of a CLA practice, implement it, and document what you are doing along the way. You can read more about it here. Sounds easy, right?

I was fortunate enough to get some advance warning about the Challenge a few weeks before it actually began - thanks USAID LEARN team. My initial idea was to get the entire Mission involved as a chance to promote CLA in action through a combination of individual, team, and Mission experiments and events that would catalyze Mission staff around CLA for them to understand it and experience in an entirely new way. I created a matrix for staff to list their ideas and sat back to see what they would come up with. Although we looked great on paper with 88 percent participation and 24 different CLA experiments, and in the end came out with some new and exciting practices, the process leading to the CLA Challenge Week, and the week itself, were not entirely smooth.

Challenge Week Challenges

  1. Overestimating CLA Understanding and Creativity. When I created our Mission CLA Challenge matrix, I expected that it would generate immediate enthusiasm with the staff to generate creative ideas that they could try. Instead, I generated confusion, anxiety, and eye-rolling. It took nearly two weeks to get a single person to list an idea, and that was after multiple rounds of reminders and cajoling. I had way overestimated the staff’s understanding of CLA and their ability to be creative in the absence of instruction. I let my own enthusiasm blind me, and I actually forgot to speak to the entire staff about the idea and explain it in a way that everyone would understand, and why it was important. Yes, I could make excuses about the holiday period and lack of staff meetings, but I take the blame for not providing clear leadership and direction for the task. In the end, I was able to course correct by having one-on-one discussions with each staff member to help them develop a goal and CLA practice that would be applicable for their work. Definitely a lesson learned for next time - Active leadership is far better than passive leadership.

  2. Time Suck. The pace at Missions moves quickly, and you can never predict what tasker will come from Washington or whether the Ambassador will decide that he needs something immediately. Twenty-four different CLA experiments require a lot of individual, office, and Mission time. Combine that with our normal work and all the fires that regularly pop up, and it can make for a recipe where staff feel overwhelmed and torn between wanting to participate in the Challenge, and needing to do their normal work. We had this feeling in abundance in the week leading up to the Challenge, and then during the Challenge week itself. I don’t have many easy solutions to this problem, except that leadership support and having a clear goal may help somewhat mitigate the time suck issue. In our case we have a very supportive Mission Director, and we saw the CLA Challenge Week as part of our strategy to become a Mission of Excellence - something you’ll be reading about in future blogs.

  3. Accepting Failure. It’s hard to explain to someone that their experiment might not be successful, but that failure can lead to learning. Everyone wants to be successful, and failure is not a word spoken very often in the development world. Lack of success can make people feel like they have wasted their time, and when there is already a sentiment around the time suck factor, the result can be disillusionment with the entire CLA concept. Case in point, my individual experiment was not a clear success. My goal was to track how I was spending my time throughout the week and compare that to the goals and priorities that I had set for myself at the beginning of the week. (I used an app called Toggl.) What I found was that it was hard to actually track everything I was doing—from actually categorizing what I was doing into areas, to literally hitting the start and stop button on the timer when I was running to meetings and jumping between tasks. There was minor success in the fact that I felt like I was slightly more productive than usual since I was literally “on the clock” for most of the week, and I realized I was spending way too much time on administrative tasks that might be better delegated or ignored. At the end of the week, I made my failure public and talked about what I learned from it. I think it helped start the discussion that failure is okay, but we still have a long way to go.

Challenge Week Highlights

  1. Innovations and Problem Solving Team. Perhaps our greatest success of the week was our creation of the Innovations and Problem Solving Team, led by our Mission’s Budget Specialist who had attended a creativity and innovation course in the summer of 2017. The purpose of this team is to brainstorm new ideas that the Mission can use to experiment with, and bring issues and problems that the group can discuss and develop solutions for. During our first meeting, we were surprised to see such a high turnout of Mission staff with nearly 75 percent of the staff attending, as well as an incredibly high level of enthusiasm to be creative. Interactive and collaborative sessions helped guide the group to develop 15 new innovative ideas for experimentation, and suggest 12 different challenges that the group can try to solve in future meetings. One of the innovative ideas was to experiment with the group’s location and format during subsequent meetings to see if we are more productive and creative in other settings. Participants agreed that the group should meet on a monthly basis, but experiment between those meetings so that in future meetings, the group could reflect and learn from what worked and what didn’t.

  2. Big Picture Reflection. USAID Missions are constantly responding to urgent taskers, emergencies, VIP visits, annual reporting, etc. There is usually little to no time for Mission staff to reflect on what has been accomplished, learning from successes and failures, discussing whether we are achieving strategic results, and looking ahead to plan and make course corrections. USAID/Azerbaijan used its first Big Picture Reflection to conduct an appreciation exercise. Each staff member was given a sheet of paper and that sheet was taped onto their back. They then had to walk around the room and write down an accomplishment for each colleague that happened during the previous year, while their colleagues did the same for them. At the end of the exercise staff were able to see how their colleagues viewed their accomplishments. Following that exercise, staff were given two pieces of paper and crayons to visualize the state of the Mission in January 2017, and then visualize what they would like to see in January 2019. Change happens in small increments, and this exercise gave staff the opportunity to see how much things had changed in a year, and give a sense of optimism for what the Mission could accomplish in the coming year. Not only were the exercises fun, but they also served as an opportunity for team building and motivation.

  3. Confidence and Understanding. Perhaps the greatest lessons during the week were those that built staff confidence in their ability to integrate CLA into their own daily habits, develop their understanding of what CLA can accomplish, as well as the opportunity for some to be CLA leaders within the Mission. At the end of the week I hosted a lunch where staff could come and talk about what experiment they did, what they learned from the experience, and whether it was something that they would recommend for other staff. It was a very informal opportunity to learn from one another, have fun, and continue integrating CLA into our Mission operations.

When all is said and done, perhaps the most important question is: Would we do it again? I think I can say an emphatic yes to that question. Although we had our struggles leading up to the Challenge, and during the Challenge itself, we had a few sustainable ideas and innovative practices that came about as a direct result of the week. For some staff it was a roller coaster of anxiety, and for others a chance to have fun. The numbers also speak for themselves and I consider 88 percent participation and 24 different experiments to be a resounding success. I hope to do the Challenge next year at this time and use our Big Picture Reflection to try and describe the change that we’ve seen during one year, both in terms of integration of CLA, but also how that has actually led to improved results. But, rest assured that we will continue to push the CLA envelope between now and then!