Using the Performance Management Plan to Help Staff Think Outside the Box and Inside the Venn Diagram
Many of us strive to learn from challenges, successes, and failures in our development programming, and use these learnings as opportunities to adapt programs for better development outcomes. USAID recognizes the importance of incorporating learning into program design and management, which is formally outlined in the recently revised operational policy guidance.
One new approach that elevates the role of learning within the revised policy is to identify progress towards learning priorities when it comes to strategy-level monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). Learning priorities are a USAID Mission’s “list of key themes or topics critical to programmatic and operational decisions and implementation for the Agency.” These are often over-arching areas of interest for the Mission to dedicate their learning efforts throughout project and activity implementation.
The revised guidance goes one step further than the previous guidance suggesting (and in some cases requiring) use of learning questions in MEL planning. Learning priorities focus on broad thematic areas while learning questions dig into the nitty-gritty. Learning questions are “specific, answerable, need-to-know questions that can be answered through monitoring, evaluation, research, or other analysis to address learning priorities incrementally,” and one or more learning questions are often related to a learning priority. (See How-To Note: Prepare & Maintain a Performance Management Plan.)
The new guidance was a huge step for learning advisors everywhere but it was unclear how Missions could identify and reduce the knowledge gap in learning priority areas. In light of this, we teamed up with representatives from USAID's Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, Office of Learning, Evaluation Research (PPL/LER) to design a methodology that could help our Mexico colleagues figure this out. We came up with a Learning Activities Grid in 2019 as part of our Performance Management Plan (PMP) workshops to provide staff with a tool that outlines 1) learning priorities and 2) a menu of learning activity approaches - which help address learning questions - and select a best-fit approach. This was recently updated and shared as the Different Ways to Address Learning Questions resource. We see it as being particularly useful for USAID staff and implementing partners, as well as others who might be able to gain insight into learning approaches for their local and international development programming.
The tool is centered around a venn diagram, which displays how the intersecting circles of “Evaluations,” “Monitoring Activities,” “Learning Activities,” and “Pause & Reflect” provide options for implementing partners and AORs/CORs in answering learning questions and minimizing knowledge gaps. Laying out the full range of options helped us develop activity-MEL plans that feed into a strong PMP. The venn diagram shape was important because many MEL approaches are dual-purposed and can help us achieve multiple objectives.
By helping staff think outside the box of needing to answer learning questions with only evaluations, many staff were able to realize that some approaches their activities were already undertaking were reaping data that could inform more than just their own activity milestones. They could incorporate more than one element from the venn diagram and shape more effective learning events. Their data could address broader knowledge gaps for the Mission and help in implementation of the new Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS).
With USAID/Mexico, we’ve already begun using this tool to help us craft activity-MEL plans. Our MEL contractor is using the tool to help build MEL capacity among our implementing partners. Focusing on learning priorities over learning questions allowed the Mission to take an elevated view of reviewing theories of change, assumptions, and risks in order to assess knowledge gaps. In the PMP workshops, the diagram helped us to see weaknesses in our original learning questions, submitted at the time of drafting our CDCS a year prior. By taking a pause and focusing on the shifting context and the ways in which we could address those learning questions, Mission staff were able to identify broader learning priorities and as we begin activity design, hopefully revise existing questions and develop new ones that not only help create a strong activity-MEL plan but also align with the Mission strategy.
Lastly, immediately following the submission of the PMP, Mexico's Program Office crafted an agenda for the strategy-level portfolio review and framed the discussions around the newly established learning priorities. We further institutionalized the use of learning priorities by reviewing the past five years implementation of projects through the lens of our newly crafted learning priorities. This helped make the learning priorities relevant from a retrospective perception, into the future. This hopefully provides the Mission with a framework to talk about strategy-level MEL for the next five years.