Three [More] Myths about Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting Debunked

Mar 13, 2017 by Monalisa Salib Comments (2)
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Extra Work

This blog post is a second in a series of about debunking common CLA myths. See the first blog here.

In working with USAID missions and implementing partners, we hear a pretty consistent chorus of misconceptions about collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA). Unfortunately, these misconceptions often stop staff from integrating CLA approaches—such as testing theories of change, fostering open relationships with local stakeholders and partners, or designing flexible mechanisms—that could ultimately increase their impact as development professionals.

I truly believe—and evidence bears this out—that if we all find ourselves collaborating a little bit more with the right people, learning something new during implementation, and adapting our work as a result, we may also find ourselves more excited to be at work (I know, I know, try not to roll your eyes) AND more effective overall. So consider this my humble attempt to debunk some of the most common misconceptions we have heard in hopes that it could help you integrate CLA into your work.

In my first blog in this series, I looked at three common myths:

  • Myth #1: It’s too difficult to figure out what our approach to CLA should be.
  • Myth #2: Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting takes too much time.
  • Myth #3: Monitoring and evaluation is separate from CLA.

Now, let’s check out three more:

Myth #4: CLA is separate from or on top of my other work.

As my colleague Ian Lathrop articulated, “CLA is the mortar between the bricks, not an extra brick.” What does that mean? It’s about how we carry out our existing work. Instead of writing a new proposal in a vacuum, how can we collaborate with the right people to make sure we propose a realistic approach? Instead of spending five years implementing an activity with a final performance evaluation documenting no significant change in outcomes, how can we make sure we learn and adapt along the way to achieve results? We have to do this work—write project appraisal documents or proposals and implement programs—but how we manage those processes can truly impact people’s lives.

Put another way, as a colleague from USAID/West Africa said, “CLA is what we would call best practice in project management.” And if that’s the case, it can’t be seen as additional or separate from our existing work; it must be seen as absolutely essential to our success.

Myth #5: USAID’s funding mechanisms don’t allow for adapting.

This is one of the myths that most frustrates USAID staff and implementing partners. The idea being—what is the point of collaborating and learning if we can’t ultimately change anything? Add to that the frustration of feeling like you can’t make changes that you know would make your programming more effective.

But the reality is that there are multiple ways in which contracts and cooperative agreements can support adaptive, more flexible management, although USAID staff members often do not know the options available to them.

For example, USAID can (1) select mechanism types that enable adaptive management. For an explanation of these options—including Single Award IDIQs and others—USAID staff can see this Procurement Executive Bulletin.

USAID staff can also (2) write mechanism scopes in ways that enable adaptive management. One example of this is an agreement scope known as a “scope of objectives” rather than a “scope of work.” This allows USAID to determine the anticipated results while allowing for flexibility in how those results are achieved, reducing the likelihood of needing agreement modifications when implementation needs to be adjusted. Another option is to design a solicitation and subsequent agreement in which learning itself is a phase/deliverable, based on which implementation decisions are made. The Community Connector mechanism created by USAID/Uganda is an example of this.

Lastly, USAID staff can (3) manage mechanisms in ways that enable greater CLA integration. USAID/Malawi’s collaboration requirements, such as joint work planning for partners working in the same geographic target areas, is one such example. Our own LEARN contract is also managed to enable flexibility; it is written as a scope of objectives and establishes six month work plans that allow for more regular adaptation.

Myth #6: CLA is focused on USAID missions, not implementing partners.

CLA is simply a shorthand way of expressing concepts, such as strategic collaboration, organizational learning, and adaptive management, common in the private sector and across a variety of industries. These concepts and approaches have also always been part of how implementing partners operate and many have dedicated teams focused on program quality, organizational learning, knowledge management, monitoring, evaluation, and learning, etc. In addition, there is overwhelming recognition among partners for the need to collaborate with local stakeholders, learn from implementation, and adapt to achieve results, and these principles inform their program management. So nothing about CLA is necessarily new to implementing partners; our focus is simply on making these approaches more systematic and intentional so they simply become “the way we do business” in international development.

And that, without a doubt, must include implementing partners. The USAID Program Cycle now explicitly calls out activity design and implementation; implementing partners, by and large, are responsible for activity implementation. More and more, solicitations will likely incorporate explicit mention of CLA and partners will be expected to collaborate, learn, and adapt to support USAID in achieving results.

Lastly, CLA can help foster more productive relationships between USAID and implementing partners. The CLA framework includes explicit mention of enabling conditions, which are relevant within USAID missions, but also in considering the relationship between USAID and its implementing partners. For example, is there a sense of openness between USAID and partners that enables effective collaboration and candid exchange? If not, implementers may not share critical information with USAID counterparts that could improve programming or be of value to other technical offices within a mission. USAID and implementing partner staff that work together can start this dialogue by reviewing the CLA framework and possibly the CLA maturity matrix to inform how their relationship can be strengthened to enable more effective programming.

Fellow CLA champions, what are other myths you have come across? How have you helped debunk them? To our CLA skeptics, we welcome your input as well. If you have experienced other barriers to CLA integration in your work, please share with us here or via Ask & Answer so we can continue this dialogue.

COMMENTS (2)

Hi, I think another myth is that "CLA is a new concept." The likelihood is high that you're already doing CLA, you just haven't identified it as such! What are some of the most common CLA practices that most missions are doing already? This is a good place to start.

posted 4 months ago

Hi Monalisa, it's good to see strong reinforcement of key messages, as change like this takes time.

Your Myth #4 reminds me of activities being "in the flow" or "above (or outside) the flow" of a user's everyday work.  The former are adopted quicker and used by a majority, while the latter tend to be used only by those who are most committed to the concept.

CLA started, like most new things, being percieved as "above the flow" with some elements being easier than others  to fit into the flow.  A key driver for what any worker considers "in the flow" is how their job is defined and most importantly how they are measured in terms of performance and reward.  Senior managers and HR colleagues are essential allies in the mainstreaming of this and other performance-enhancing changes.

If we accept that adaptive management generates demand for collaboration and learning, then working to mainstream adaptive mangement practices into the flow of our work is a necessary  precursor to widespread adoption.

This is a difficult, but really worthwhile, journey.  Indeed, CLA should be in the forefront of any push to get "better value for money" from development funds that is coming down the pipeline.  Keep going!

posted 4 months ago