Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting: When does it become too much?

Oct 9, 2018 by Monalisa Salib Comments (0)
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squirrel with nuts in mouthNow that collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) practices are taking hold more and more across USAID and its implementing partners, we are finding ourselves in conversations about what it looks like to be integrating CLA too much. For example, questions like: how do we know when the costs of adapting outweigh the benefits? Or how can we stop spending all of our time in meetings “collaborating”?

These are valid questions. Our focus has always been on “right-sizing” your CLA approach and practice to your context, needs, and objectives. We are not collaborating, learning, and adapting for the sake of it, but to be more effective. And if that’s the case, we don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we are actually overdoing it, to our detriment.

Let’s look at collaborating, learning, and adapting in turn - we’ll provide some description of what overdoing each can look like and ideas for how to correct (i.e., adapt!) your CLA practice so you can be as effective as possible.

Too Much Collaboration

We know from our literature review that collaboration is not a panacea - too much of it without a clear strategy can be counterproductive, leading to wasted time, high interaction costs, and slow decision-making. We’ve all been there: stuck in too many meetings, not clear on our role, more people involved than are needed to do the work, etc.

Because of these all too common challenges, when we talk about collaborating within the CLA framework, we focus on being strategic about who we need to collaborate with. It’s not a competition to see how many people we can involve, but rather an intentional choice about who the relevant people are given our objectives. So if you find yourself in a situation where you think you may be collaborating too often or with too many people, it may be helpful to revisit some of these questions:

  • Are these really the right key players? Using stakeholder analysis tools can help you figure this out.
  • What form of collaboration (i.e., consultation, coordination, joint ownership, etc.) should we be using given our objective? We may be collaborating too much if we’re using a joint ownership model when all that is really needed is coordination.
  • Are there shared expectations among key players? Are roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities clear? We often spend too much time to make decisions if there is a lack of clarity here.
  • Is the collaboration resourced appropriately, including facilitation support that may be required? Without strong (and efficient) facilitation, collaboration can start to become draining, particularly if those collaborating don’t have healthy relationships.
  • Is there sufficient trust among key players to make this an effective collaboration? Without underlying trust, the collaboration may feel and actually be more taxing than it needs to be.

For more on working through some of these considerations, see the CLA Toolkit page on Engaging Stakeholders.

Learning Too Much (Often about the Wrong Things)

As a die-hard, lifelong learner, it breaks my heart to even suggest that there is such a thing as too much learning. But when you move beyond individual learning into organizational learning, it is possible to spend too much time learning, particularly about the wrong things.

For a real-world example of this, I’ll use our contract - USAID LEARN. When we began in 2015, we created both an M&E plan and, separately, a learning agenda. The M&E plan was generally tracking indicators that teams didn’t find useful, and the learning agenda was asking questions that we didn’t need answers to, but were more nice to know (as you can imagine, the USAID LEARN team is made up of a lot of curious people and we wanted answers!). As a result, we found ourselves spending time collecting M&E information we weren’t using very much and answering learning questions that were quite interesting, but, again, not useful for informing our management decisions.

How we corrected that situation is a story for another day; the bottom line is we were actually learning too much about the wrong things. We weren’t learning with purpose. If you find yourself in that situation, it’s important to take a step back and consider:

  • How will our learning be used? How will it inform our decision-making? Support our ability to manage adaptively and increase our effectiveness? If you can’t determine a use for what you’re learning, you need to seriously (and I mean really seriously) consider whether it’s worth your organization’s effort.
  • After determining that you have a clear use, consider whether that learning is worth the time and effort required to get it. If the costs outweigh the benefits, reconsider whether this learning is really a priority or if there is a lower cost way to get it.

Too Much Adapting

If the point of collaborating, learning, and adapting is to continuously improve, is there really such a thing as too much adapting? Yes, yes, there is.

As an example, let’s say you are implementing an activity with local partners. Your organization takes adaptive management seriously and completes an after action review following the implementation of each small grant (and there are a lot of small grants on a rolling basis). As a result, you are continuously updating your grants manual, which continuously changes your grants procedures, which means you are continuously informing your staff and partners of changes, creating and introducing new documents and processes, etc.

On one hand, this is probably wonderful and improving your grants management and hopefully as a result helping you and your partners achieve whatever is intended with those grants. On the other hand, there are significant costs here (beyond financial ones) to constant adaptation - people can start to feel fatigued by constant change.

This is not to advocate that we shouldn’t adapt - we should. But perhaps in this situation it is worth considering whether changes should be made depending on the nature of the change required.

  • Is the suggested change too important to wait? If not, can it wait? Could, for example, changes be bundled together on a more regular schedule so staff know to expect updates and when?
  • And at what point is whatever you are doing “good enough”? For example, if all your grantee feedback is extremely positive, and you’re still intent on improving, what is the opportunity cost of this constant adaptation? Could you spend staff time increasing impact in another way?

When it comes to determining if you are collaborating, learning, and adapting too much, it often comes down to a judgment call. But considering relative costs and benefits when faced with these decisions may be a helpful starting point.

We hope our openness to discuss this “too much of a good thing” challenge inspires you to right-size your CLA approach in service of your objectives and not in a way that makes CLA a separate, inefficient, or ineffective strain on resources. And as always, if you find yourself experiencing the latter, you can always use CLA approaches to course correct.

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