How do I integrate CLA into my activity? Approaches from start to finish
I’ve had the privilege to lead the USAID LEARN contract from start to finish. I was employee number one as Deputy and I’ll be the last one to leave as Chief of Party (COP).
As you might know, LEARN was designed to support USAID in becoming a better learning organization with the intent of creating a more effective development organization. No small task with an organization as large as USAID. But, in trying to achieve this hefty goal, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and experiences I have enjoyed the most, during this journey is the importance of modeling change that you seek. On LEARN we took this to heart and it became one of our core values as a team - Walking the Talk. There is a whole section of our End of Contract Report devoted to it. But, what does that mean as a program manager, how do you operationalize it in your contract?
Here’s a little of what I’ve learned along the way on how you integrate CLA from start to finish.
The beginning is the most fun for me. It is often chaotic and a lot of hurry up and wait. But it is also when you get to be the most creative and curious, and most importantly establish a team's culture and norms. [Check out a whole blog series from LEARN’s first Chief of Party, Piers Bocock, Working Smarter, to learn more.] More specifically it is a critical time for resourcing CLA and creating the networks and relationships to sustain it throughout the life of the contract.
Resourcing. We learned pretty early on that we weren’t hiring for specific experience or qualifications, but for mindsets and competencies. Chief among them, adaptability and a growth mindset. But how do you hire for that? We didn’t always get it right, but we did learn from each experience and got better over time. Here’s a guide that we created with USAID-based evidence 1 and our experience. Additionally, we learned that process facilitation was a skill needed across the entire team - from operations to technical specialist. With USAID approval, the contract invested in training staff who had no or limited previous facilitation capacity. In the end, no matter what your technical sector we should all be development facilitators, not development practitioners.
Relationships and Networks. Being good development facilitators, we worked hard to create strong partnerships with our USAID counterparts. This meant weekly meetings with our Contracting Officer's Representative (COR), COR weekly office hours with the team, and establishing diffused authorities with LEARN staff and other USAID activity managers outside of the COP/COR traditional communication and work channels. This was a different way of working for staff and USAID alike. To support teams in relationship management we created processes and simple tools like detailed scoping documents focused on behavior change and established clear roles and responsibilities through RACI charts.
The middle of the contract is usually when you are in your stride with all cylinders engaged. This is also the time when monitoring and adapting is key to know that your stride is in the right direction towards the goals you set out during start-up. It is also a time to take stock, be reflective, and recognize your successes, learnings, and all of the individual contributions that got you to this point.
Monitoring and adapting. Obviously monitoring and adapting should happen throughout the life of a contract. But midway is a good time to pause, review data, and ask critical questions like, were our assumptions correct? Are we seeing the results we expected? Do we have the right data to make the decisions we need? Modeling this, USAID requires missions to conduct Strategy Mid-Course Stocktakings.
Appreciation. Again, appreciation should be a continual practice, but the middle is a good place to intentionally reflect on the bigger picture and recognize collective and individual successes and learning. On LEARN, we held an annual Big Picture Reflections that included clients. This type of joint reflection and appreciation reinforced our norms and values of collaboration, co-creation, and co-accountability.
This is where my five and half year journey finds me now. Like many contracts, LEARN had extensions, rebids, and followed the full USAID procurement cycle. Managing a team through that bumpy process was not easy. It was stressful and emotional, but also unifying and rewarding. We were very intentional about integrating CLA into our closeout process by focusing on the enabling conditions we felt most critical to successfully sustaining our work and the team.
Staff retention. This is not to say only focus on staff retention at the end of the contract, but this is when retention gets really tricky to manage. In earlier stages of the contract we focused on trust, appreciation, autonomy, work-life balance, etc. to retain staff. But, as you get to the end the uncertainty of employment starts to outweigh the other benefits you have created for a team. So how do you keep the equibruim and keep staff? First, you need to address the stress. Call it out, talk about it, let the team be open and honest about the stress and the emotions that go along with it. Second, use the tools at your disposal to help decrease the stress. We offered staff retention bonuses (approved and billable to the contract) and corporate “soft landings” to provide a longer runway. We also held team clinics on CV writing, interviewing, networking, and future planning.
Institutional memory and knowledge management. This is much easier if you have been diligent about managing your knowledge along the way. Meaning, you have captured, shared, and stored your learning and data in a usable and accessible format. But even then, there is always a scramble or a fear that you have missed something at the end. To help alleviate this start early, at least a year. Have conversations with your clients about what they need and how they are going to use it. There is a tendency to want everything, just in case, but the key is to help them think through how and what they are going to use it for. Too much information ends up being overwhelming and ultimately not useful. Beyond files, make sure to have conversations around tacit knowledge. Who needs to better understand the context of your work so they can carry it forward or iterate upon it.
Celebration. Lastly, don’t forget to take time and celebrate as a team. Close-out gives a unique perspective and appreciation for what was achieved and learned. And while we celebrated what we achieved - our reach to almost all USAID missions, almost 400 CLA champions, 344 CLA cases collected, etc. - we found we were most proud of how we achieved it - the relationships we made, the culture we built, and the fun we had along the way!
1. Individuals who are curious, have “growth mindsets,” and are able to empathize with their colleagues are generally better able to adapt to changing circumstances. Bain, Booth, & Wild, 2016; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014; “Adapting Aid,” 2016; Derbyshire & Donovan, 2016; Honig & Gulrajani, 2017.