CLA: Not Just Another HQ Initiative or Requirement

Nov 14, 2016 by Brit Steiner Comments (0)

Last month, I participated in the first Agency-wide training on Collaboration, Learning and Adapting (CLA). Organized by PPL and executed by Dexis Consulting, the 3.5-day training really opened my eyes to why it’s so exciting that USAID is approaching its CLA efforts in a more intentional and systematic way than ever before.  And how important CLA is to the future of the Agency.

To the reader in the back thinking “This is just another headquarters requirement!” - I hear you. I’ve already written a blog post lamenting the creation of yet another acronym and clarifying the overlap between CLA and Science, Technology, Innovation and Partnership (STIP). I am well aware there are those wondering why we need a CLA section of the ADS, learning fellows and advisors in our operating units, or a CLA training for Agency staff. But CLA is not yet another Washington initiative. Implemented correctly and holistically, I believe it will fundamentally change how we operate at the organizational, programmatic and individual levels to get to better development outcomes. It will make us more flexible and effective. And it will make our busy lives easier (!). What’s not to love?! Here are some post-training reflections from someone presently responsible for Learning, but with about a decade of different experience in other parts of the Agency. Enjoy.

Why is CLA is important imperative at USAID?

  • The most effective organizations are learning organizations. Don’t take my word for it. Management experts have written piles of articles and books confirming this to be true, perhaps the most well-known by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline.” There are many definitions for what it means to be a learning organization. Simply put, it is about staff sharing experiences and lessons learned openly, and documenting those lessons and sharing them broadly to serve the wider industry. As the oldest and largest development Agency in the world, USAID has led game-changing development advances for decades. As the development industry continues to grow and more players become involved, USAID has an extraordinary opportunity to share more than half a century of development lessons, as well as a chance to learn with and from new players who have novel ideas and models to share.
  • Leadership plays a critical role in creating learning organizations. The learning enabling environment, and more specifically the organizational culture, is a deal maker or breaker. Leadership at USAID needs to embrace CLA as central to our work by creating an open atmosphere where people can be honest and walk the talk. With the new ADS, as well as additional resources available to support their endeavors, this is easier than ever before. In addition, USAID program managers need to ensure supporting language is in their awards and then work with implementing partners to do all of the above.
  • Learning is the meat (or tofu, if you like) in the CLA sandwich, but it’s nothing without the collaboration and adaptation bread. Unlike some, this construct holds together tightly. While you can and should dig more specifically into collaborating, learning OR adapting, you should think of them as interdependent as well as reinforcing. For example, Adaptive Management is becoming quite popular, and for good reason. But I personally think it’s strengthened when considered as part of this construct - instead of on it’s own. Adaptation is what you do after you’ve spoken to others and learned something. You don’t do it for change’s sake. Rather than creating new concepts, how about we build on the ones already out there for once?!
  • It will likely lead to better development outcomes. This is the theory of change that PPL and others across the Agency are working to prove. Although we can’t make that assertion yet, PPL conducted an Evidence Contest that yielded some really compelling case studies. Also, if done intentionally and systematically, what is the harm? (Seriously, I’d like to hear if someone has examples of CLA-risks or harm.)

So what are a few ways to put CLA into practice that are simple and even kind of fun? Here’s what I plan to take with me:

  • Pause and Reflect - The concept of pause and reflect made a few staff in the training visibly uncomfortable. Some people are naturally more reflective than others and sometimes reflection - particularly in a group - leads to unwelcome adventures down rabbit holes or even awkwardness. Exciting right?! But seriously, when done systematically the power of taking even a few moments to check in and ask “Is this working?” is powerful stuff. I plan to use the concept in two ways: 1) Encourage my organization to schedule regular After Action Reviews and 2) Spend the last 5 minutes of every day reflecting on what I’m spending my time on as a means on how best to decide what to STOP doing. Personally, I think it’s much easier and more natural to decide what to do and the process by which I usually decide what doesn’t get done is much more passive. The idea here reminds me what Stephen Covey describes as “urgent vs. important.” This is a way to do something about it that is both systematic and intentional.
  • Learning Events - I used to work in communications. I’ve organized a lot of events of all different types, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as “Learning Events.” Most of them were highlighting a specific milestone, which is important but I have to wonder if I didn’t miss opportunities to share knowledge across the Agency by not making “learning” an intentional objective. While I’m still not sure how to feel about that, it is something I look forward to doing in the future. There are already some internal opportunities that are built into USAID processes, such as Portfolio Reviews. State of the Art (aka SOTA) conferences hosted by technical bureaus are a great, albeit infrequent, opportunity for both internal and external audiences. What existing events/gatherings can you leverage for learning and adaptation purposes? What are some new opportunities you can create to make sure lessons don’t stop with you? The Annual STIP Summit is an opportunity I personally look forward to shaping with a CLA lens.
  • Internal Collaboration and Knowledge Management (KM) - KM is a term that confuses most people and excites almost no one. It is also happens to be a CLA foundation. Recognizing KM is critical to USAID’s effectiveness, we can’t just throw up our arms and wait for the Development Innovation Solution (DIS). Individually, there are things each of us can do to contribute to the collaboration and knowledge management necessary for CLA. My own team recently assessed KM for STIP integration efforts that has unearthed lots of low-hanging KM/comms efforts that we can implement to meet our objectives.

I went into the CLA training with some familiarity of the concepts and tools. I figured I would hone that understanding and maybe be exposed to some new approaches. I was a little surprised to leave inspired. I believe USAID’s emphasis on CLA could be game-changing for our organization and more importantly, our mission to end extreme poverty. This is in no small part because of the ease and simplicity by which it could be implemented at USAID. Here is to hoping USAID will continue to invest in these efforts and that others can also be inspired. I hear there is another training in February. But don’t just take my word for it. Go and learn for yourself.