Your Top 10 Lessons Learned about CLA

Aug 29, 2017 by Amy Leo Comments (1)

Brit Steiner Quote

We received exactly 100 Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Case Competition submissions this year, and I read all of them from start to finish. While I learned a lot about how USAID staff and partners are integrating CLA in their work, I also learned a lot about what they are learning. The final question of the case submission form asked: Based on your experience and lessons learned, what advice would you share with colleagues about using a collaborating, learning and adapting approach? The answers to this question were consistently my favorite part of each case study, and so I picked my top ten favorite themes to share with the USAID Learning Lab community. (If you're interested in learning more about what we've learned from CLA Case Competition submissions, check out our analysis of 2015 cases.)

Be deliberate. Good CLA is intentional, systematic, and resourced:

  • “Even with high capacity teams, collaboration will not always happen organically. Invest time in ensuring channels for collaboration are used consistently, and prioritize productive collaboration.” - Alexis Teyie, Mercy Corps
  • “Reserve ample time and resources during the first year of programming to invest in staff development of CLA-related skills as well as regular (at least quarterly) CLA reflection periods in the form of staff retreats. A structured format for documenting opportunities for learning, prioritizing the opportunities that will be pursued, and following through on results and outcomes is essential for tying staff reflection to adaptation.” - Joanna Springer & Patrick O’Mahoney, Global Communities

Leadership buy-in helps:

  • “A CLA approach works best when leadership is open to it, and encourages team members to continuously analyze USAID projects, procedures, and impact through a culture of openness, sharing, and collaboration.” - Alice Helbing, USAID/Bangladesh
  • “Having leadership support and people that are skilled at and responsible for helping the CLA is imperative, not only for ensuring that organizations know how and when to collaborate, learn, or adapt, but also to ensure that they actually do it.” - Rebecca Herrington, Social Impact
  • “It is very important for the mission leadership to set the tone on CLA efforts, and endorse collaborating, learning and adapting within its own staff. Once the Agency’s technical and support staff understand and apply CLA, they will champion and promote its usage throughout all implementing mechanisms.” - Jerry Marcus, USAID/Paraguay

To get buy-in for CLA, show, don’t tell:

  • “The demand for CLA activities and a true awareness of the benefits of CLA often comes after CLA successes.  While trainings and awareness raising on CLA are helpful, most helpful is demonstrating to Mission teams and outside stakeholders the benefits of CLA and providing those benefits to them in their everyday work.” - Tanya Garnett & Monica Gadkari, Social Impact & USAID/Liberia

Suspend “the rush” to an easy answer:

  • “CLA is about figuring out the ‘why’ and suspending the rush to an easy conclusion, to create space for examining and debating the data and other sources of evidence.” - Erin Baldridge & Guy Sharrock, Catholic Relief Services
  • “Be aware of these two common responses: Searching for additional details/data, OR moving too swiftly into action. In other words, avoid falling into the “analysis paralysis” trap or “band-aid solutions” that fail to address underlying issues.” - Elizabeth Callendar, USAID/Senegal

Include relevant stakeholders, and use decision-making to empower staff:

  • “In some cultures like Cambodia, people take offense when project activities are shut down quickly, or parts of a project are deemed to have failed. [Our team] advises project leadership to hold open pause and reflect sessions, and empower staff and partners to choose what is delivering results and make recommendations for optimization. If the team members understand how this will help them deliver better results, most people will embrace these mechanisms.” - Kate Heuisler, DAI Global, LLC

Walk the talk of CLA:

  • “Empower your team to model CLA in how they interact with all team members, not only program beneficiaries.” - Kurt Richter, Global Center for Food Systems Innovation

Learn to act, and plan to share:

  • “Plan for communication and dissemination. Learning needs to be actionable and digestible for decision making and adaptive management.” - Claire Daley and Komal Bazaz Smith, DAI

CLA is worth the investment of time and resources:

  • “While these approaches take time and resources, the results are immeasurable in terms of the resulting quality and effectiveness of implementation and programming.” - Dareen Tadros, Raya Abu Ziad, Jill Jarvi, Rachel Surkin, and Fadi Khoury, IREX
  • “Colleagues should not fear that building CLA into their work will be a resource burden, requiring learning a complicated new methodology and tremendous staff time. Many of the projects and initiatives that USAID already undertakes, programmatic or operational, incorporate components of C, L, or A, as demonstrated in this case study.” - Abra Pollack, Social Impact
  • “A CLA approach does not require an excessive amount of time or resources. If guided with strong conviction, more often than not it requires that we, as professionals, just ask the right questions at the right time and that we communicate the answers to all the relevant stakeholders.” - Laura Agosta, IREX

Know and use your resources, as they are plentiful:

  • “Use your resources! USAID/PPL has incredible resources to get you started on your CLA journey. Have you taken the CLA training? Have you looked at Program Net? Leverage your M&E requirements! Everyone is required to do M&E for reporting requirements. But you can leverage these processes to generate information that is available to you on the day to day.” - Suzannah Dunbar, The Global Development Lab
    • Editor’s note: Check out the CLA Tooklit on USAID Learning Lab!
  • “The principles in the CLA framework are helpful for identifying opportunities to strengthen how data is used throughout the program lifecycle and to reflect on how we could support the culture shift within the project team.” - Amanda Makulec, John Snow, Inc.
  • “So often, we look outside of the Agency for best practices in organizational learning and development, when the lessons that come from looking inside are perhaps even more relevant and helpful.” - Brit Steiner, The Global Development Lab

You are probably already doing CLA:

  • “Many organizations are using CLA without knowing it. When it is applied knowingly, it becomes more fun and easier to embrace.” - Governance, Accountability, Participation and Performance (GAPP) Program, USAID/Uganda
  • “Although CLA could seem like the new buzzword everybody is talking about, without clear understanding of how it should be implemented, the truth is that most projects already include CLA components as part of their regular management. A CLA plan is nothing more than the conscientious planning and funding of regular collaborating, learning and adapting efforts, to maximize their impact.” - Jerry Marcus, USAID/Paraguay
  • “Think about what you are doing that already fits into this framework. We found that we were using CLA before learning about the [CLA] framework and concepts.” - Lindsay Elliott-Foose, Office of Afghanistan & Pakistan Affairs

The 2017 CLA Case Competition winners and finalists will be announced and posted on USAID Learning Lab on Tuesday, September 12. Click here to participate!


A good list. These are things many of us 'converts' are intuitively doing/believing but it is nice to see it made explicit like this. For the 'Be deliberate...' I use the acronym CSI (a TV series many people outside are familiar with so it is easy to remember) but with different words: consciously, systematically and intentioanlly. This of course linis to awareness, awareness of what we are doing and ultimately self awareness. If you are not aware you cannot make choices, I tell people, and so CLA won't happen unless people are aware. Once someone asked me, "but what do I do concretely?' and I responded by saying that one simply starts with awareness, noticing. After that choices start to reveal themselves.   As for the buy-in - I think it is better to focus on creating conditions for ownership - if something is owned one doesn't have to seel anything.

posted 2 years ago