Smart thinking from USAID on putting adaptive management into practice

April 23, 2018 11 By Duncan Green

I recommend USAID’s recent paper ‘What difference does CLA (Collaborate; Learn; Adapt) make to development: Key findings from a recent literature review’, which provides further evidence that USAID for all its problems with the Administration, continues to do some really interesting work. The 12 key findings are neatly summarized in this graphic:

USAID Learning Lab Graphic from Literature Review

The paper’s only 5 pages, but for those that can’t even manage that, I’ll pick on the four findings that struck me as the most interesting;

Finding: Individuals who are curious, have “growth mindsets,” and are able to empathize with their colleagues are generally better able to adapt to changing circumstances. Ultimately, it is individuals who take on the work of collaborating, learning and adapting within organizations and across partner organizations. Individual personality traits, habits and competencies can affect who is more likely to take on these behaviors. The literature reviewed found the ability to be flexible and adaptive is highly related to individual personalities, which in turn drive office culture and institutional appetite for change. Across sectors, the literature found that hiring those with “adaptive mindsets” (inquisitive by nature, able to ask the right questions, flexible skillsets) and those that show sensitivity to the feelings and needs of their colleagues had a direct impact on a team’s ability to learn and adapt to effect change.

Implication for USAID Staff: In hiring for key positions, place value on adaptive mindset, soft skills and change management experience. Habits and competencies that make an individual more likely to learn and adapt need to be considered and intentionally nurtured through coaching and training in order to incentivize behavior change. As with any change effort, intentionally seeking out CLA champions with a high propensity to promote and model learning behavior will be critical for CLA uptake. If these behaviors are desirable, then clear signals need to be given to indicate that (praise in meetings for changes based on new information, leadership encouragement of trying new things, etc.)

Finding: Leaders are essential to creating a learning culture, the foundation of learning organizations. The literature discusses how organizations that encourage honest discourse and debate and provide an open and safe space for communication tend to perform better and be more innovative. Leaders are central to defining culture and “learning leaders” are generally those who encourage non-hierarchical organizations where ideas can flow freely.

Implication for USAID Staff: Mission and implementing partner leadership must model strategic collaboration, continuous learning and adaptive management. As we know from experience and confirmed by the literature, leaders are essential in creating an “enabling environment that encourages the design of more flexible programs, promotes intentional learning, minimizes the obstacles to modifying programs and creates incentives for learning and managing adaptively” (ADS 201 guidance, page 11). But achieving this enabling environment begins with leaders who truly lead by example and create the space for staff to collaborate, learn and adapt more effectively. Leadership training and coaching can help leaders at all levels within the organization improve their skills and create a culture that supports CLA.

Finding: Continuous learning is linked with job satisfaction, empowerment, employee engagement and, ultimately, improved performance and outcomes. A growing body of evidence from both private and public sector organizations recognizes that having a strong organizational learning culture increases psychological empowerment and sense of autonomy, which drives a collaborative team culture, high levels of commitment and employee retention. In the USAID context specifically, CLA is strongly related to staff empowerment, engagement and job satisfaction.

Implication for USAID Staff: Leaders should model CLA. In addition to missions using CLA approaches to improve strategy, project, and activity design and implementation, CLA can also be seen as a leadership tool for creating more effective organizations where employees are more satisfied, engaged and empowered. We are already seeing CLA being used to improve staff engagement in USAID missions, including Uganda and Senegal, as well as in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.

Finding: Teams that have high levels of trust and are considered safe for interpersonal risk-taking tend to be better at learning and adapting. Managing adaptively requires a level of group tolerance for risk-taking, which by extension is contingent on teams having trusting relationships. The literature reviewed found that high trusting teams generally tend to be high-performing. Why are high trusting teams higher performing? Because they also tend to have high levels of “psychological safety,” which is the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. This means they are more likely to participate in risk-taking learning behavior, and by extension proactive learning-oriented action, which positively impacts results.

Implication for USAID Staff: Create space and time for team members to develop trusting interpersonal relationships. Activities that build mutual understanding and shared trust—such as group reflection moments, team problem-solving and equal conversational turn-taking—aid collaboration and evidence-based decision-making and should be prioritized. Informal opportunities for information sharing and practicing social sensitivity are also important for building team trust and psychological safety. This is especially important in the context of partnerships with local actors