What Difference Does Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting Make to Development?

Key Findings from a Recent Literature Review

With roughly 120 collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) Case Competition submissions over the last two years, we have significant anecdotal evidence that an intentional, systematic, and resourced approach to CLA improves development outcomes. But our team wanted to dig deeper and review existing literature. Because CLA is a USAID construct, we expanded our review to include other search terms such as strategic collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptive management.

We wanted to know: 

  • Does an intentional, systematic and resourced approach to collaborating, learning, and adapting contribute to development outcomes?
  • If so, how? And under what conditions?

So what did we find?  

First, we found that there has yet to be a comprehensive review of the impact of a holistic approach to strategic collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptive management on organizations’ ability to advance their missions. Instead, the literature presents evidence confirming that aspects of collaborating, learning, and/or adapting matter to development outcomes and organizational performance.

Highlights include:

  • Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is positively and significantly associated with achieving development outcomes when incorporated into program management and designed to support learning and decision making. A June 2016 World Bank study[1] analyzed large sets of data to determine if there was a correlation between the quality of M&E and project outcomes. It found that good-quality M&E that informs decisions during and after implementation is positively and significantly associated with project outcomes. In addition, several cases in the literature pointed to the importance of using evaluation for learning to enable adaptive management and improve performance.[2]
  • Taking the time to pause and reflect on our work is critical to learning and improved performance. Harvard Business School researchers found that “…purposeful reflection on one’s accumulated experience leads to greater learning than the accumulation of additional experience.”[3] This means that to learn, we can’t just consume information and then turn around and implement it. We have to stop and ask ourselves how our efforts are progressing, why, and what we should do differently to learn and be more effective.
  • Strategic collaboration improves the bottom line. Private sector companies with better collaborative management capabilities achieve superior financial performance.[4] This is a big deal and has implications for overall organizational effectiveness, including organizations for whom profit is not the goal, such as NGOs and government agencies. Why are more collaborative organizations more successful? Because collaborative relationships among individuals and groups are important for innovation and the creation and distribution of knowledge. By collaborating effectively, groups and teams develop “transactive (or shared) memory systems,” which enable better group goal performance.[5] However, collaboration is not a panacea. It has to be strategic, or else it can lead to time wasting and high interaction costs that can slow decision making, with knock-on effects such as poorer work quality, interpersonal conflict, and loss of motivation.[6]
  • Locally led development is most effective. The literature emphasizes the need for approaches that are embedded in the local context and negotiated and delivered by local stakeholders. This type of development requires that implementers think and work politically, which in turn requires strategic partnership and iterative learning by doing that leads to continuous improvement. The literature concluded that that this approach resulted in better development results.[7]
  • Leaders are essential to creating a learning culture, the foundation of learning organizations.[8] 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.


Excerpted with permission from USAID Learning Lab. For full-length blog post with citations, please visit: https://usaidlearninglab.org/lab-notes/what-difference-does-collaborati…

Strategic Objective
Mitigation, Integration, Adaptation
Training, Partnership, Monitoring and Evaluation

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