How we Leverage Learning to Refine our Approach: Walking the CLA Talk Blog Part 5 of 6

May 30, 2017 by Piers Bocock Comments (0)

As regular readers of this blog series know, in January I started a monthly process of reflecting on the application of the six components of USAID’s Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) Framework in the USAID LEARN Team’s day-to-day work. In the first three months of 2017, we looked at our experience with the enabling conditions necessary for sustainable CLA: Culture, Processes, and Resources. (In the CLA Framework, this is the right-hand side of the graphic.) Last month, I started on left side of the CLA Framework, focusing on Collaboration. This month I turn to the heart of it all: Learning.

Why does learning matter?

Some people say that everything they needed for life they learned in kindergarten.  My corollary is that even after an MBA and a fairly fast early career professional progression, everything I need to know about effective (and ineffective) management and leadership has been, and continues to be, acquired through trial and error as a parent of four boys.  If you think managing a large work team can be challenging, try coaching 3, 4 and 5-year-olds at soccer!

Learning matters because it’s the only way we grow. Those that don’t learn remain trapped in their current state. This fundamental truth applies across the board from nature (think evolution); to human beings (we aren’t taught how to walk, for example; we learn through trial and error); to global organizations (those that don’t adapt to what customers need or want lose out to those who do). From an organizational perspective, learning is what drives transformation; the inverse is also true: a lack of learning leads to stagnation and atrophy.

I was talking to a new dad recently, marveling at the wonder of this tiny little being who seemed to be changing by the day.  Outside on our trampoline, three of my sons were jumping and laughing with some other kids.  He turned to me and said, “What’s your secret?  How do you two do it?”   I shook my head and shrugged.  “I dunno,” I replied in all seriousness.  “Just know that it’s going to keep changing, and I need to be ready to change with them.  What worked one day won’t the next.  I guess it’s all part of the process.”

A healthy amount of Organizational Development literature focuses on how to help organizations and companies become “learning organizations.” But if you are only skimming the headlines, you might miss that a key precondition is the culture, conditions, and incentives that give space for individuals to learn and grow, and by association, the teams in which they work and with which they collaborate. There is no organizational change without individual and team change. The same applies for my kids. If I don’t give them the space to make mistakes and learn from them, they’re unlikely to grow up as independent beings capable of making good decisions. When one of my sons makes a mistake, I try not to get upset (not always easy, I have to admit). Instead, I try to ask if they learned from it. (And I will never forget one of my most shameful parenting moments when I found myself asking with obvious exasperation, “why don’t you ever learn?” as my eldest clutched his broken wrist.)

What does learning look like at USAID?

“Learning” is one of the six components the USAID CLA Framework, a tool we use when working with USAID missions and Operating Units to help self-assess areas where they can strengthen their CLA Capacity. Within the Learning component, we facilitate discussions that look at one or more subcomponents, and the degree to which:

  • There is a shared and articulated theory of change that is being actively tested and reviewed
  • There is an existing evidence base that is being tracked, leveraged, and expanded
  • Scenario planning is integrated into ongoing strategic planning and implementation
  • Monitoring and evaluation data is used for learning, decision-making, and adaptation

For more information and examples of how USAID is learning, listen to episode three of the USAID Learning Lab podcast and/or browse case studies from the 2015 and 2016 CLA Case Competition.

How do we apply this to the USAID LEARN Team?

On the LEARN team, as the title of this blog series suggests, we are committed to “walking the talk” of what we help others do. So, on the technical side of our work, we are very intentional about ensuring that we are actively implementing all of these practices. But for us, incorporating learning into our work isn’t all about project outcomes; it’s also about building and maintaining an engaged team. Here’s how LEARN incorporates intentional, systematic and resourced learning as a way to maintain and foster the continued strength of our team.

Theory of Change: As I wrote in my blog on culture, the LEARN contract’s leadership team set out to intentionally create a different type of development team, based on what we had learned from good (and bad) practices we had seen in the past. Working in risk-averse environments (such as government contracts), it is often easier to play it safe, do what you’re told, and stick to the proposal/plan, than take a risk on a new idea and fail. But in that model, talented people grow bored and move on to positions of greater responsibility elsewhere, leaving behind those who are content with status quo in the comfort of what they know. Our leadership team’s internal theory of change posits that if we create a collaborative, supportive and safe environment that gives people the space to be challenged, innovate, experiment and grow, then we can attract and retain the best and the brightest, thereby leading to high-quality service to USAID. This, in turn, will lead to customer delight, awareness of our approach, more requests for our support, and therefore opportunities to grow and expand this dynamic team.

Technical Evidence Base: There is already significant academic evidence that happy employees—those who feel appreciated, are challenged, and see opportunities to collaborate, learn and grow—stick around. There is also plenty of documentation that the highest cost to budgets and productivity is staff turnover. On LEARN, we are working both internally and externally to build and share the evidence we are collecting about this approach. Externally, we share about our team approach through this blog, our podcast, and other venues. Internally, we collect evidence through regular check-ins against our team values, our Walking the Talk group, and even the one word check-ins that are a part of our all-team Monday morning stand-up meeting. And, given what we know about the negative impacts of turnover—to the budget, to morale, and to productivity—I do keep track of how we’re doing on that front. And I consider it pretty good that we have retained 36 of the 38 full-time staff hired for the LEARN contract over the past two and a half years.

Scenario Planning: The LEARN Leadership team regularly conducts scenario planning related to staffing, strategy, partners, and our own futures. And this discipline is only going to grow in importance in the coming year as we prepare for anticipated budget cuts and potential consolidation between USAID and the Department of State. I consider the members of my team family, and our Leadership Team is already thinking about different scenarios that help ensure everyone who wants to remain on the LEARN team until the end of the contract (September 28, 2019) can do so. We are confident in our ability to do this because we are continually refining our approach, our service offerings, and adapting to the needs of the Agency as it evolves. We are also starting to consider scenarios for our LEARN family that extend beyond the life of this contract.

Monitoring and Evaluation for Learning: Internally, we use our Walking the Talk group to take the temperature of the team and the degree to which we are (or are not) aligning with our LEARN Team Values. Weekly team and individual check-ins with supervisors provide an additional set of data points for monitoring the satisfaction level of our team, and we are even now collecting the one word check-ins that we do as part of our Monday morning all-team stand-up meeting.  These check-ins— which can range from “tired” or “meh” to “grateful” or “excited”—enable us to use our own ongoing team monitoring and evaluation for learning about the health, satisfaction, and energy of the team. When there’s a problem, we are able to identify it early and address it. Sometimes it means experimenting with new structures or processes; at other times it’s about communication or internal knowledge sharing; and sometimes it’s just about making sure we’re building in time for fun and mutual appreciation.

It’s heartening to know that the approaches to organizational learning that we advocate to USAID missions and the bureaus and operating units that support them are just as practical when applied to our own work. And for what it’s worth, I can honestly say it’s helping us create a more effective, efficient, motivated and mutually supportive team—which is why I still love coming to work every day.

Here are some other blogs related to learning that you may be interested in reading:

Tune in next month for the final installment in this series: Adapting. Until then, we welcome your comments, questions, and experience. Let us know what you think, or share your own learning story, by writing a comment below.

Filed Under: Working Smarter