Collaborating, Learning and Adapting: Facilitating Agile Program Success Through CLA

The realm of Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) is not foreign to development professionals; however, the pursuit of identifying, designing, and resourcing CLA initiatives presents an opportunity for more informed decision-making and enhanced flexibility, thereby yielding superior outcomes. A plethora of activities can serve as conduits for implementing CLA, many of which are illuminated in this article. The convergence of these activities culminates in a comprehensive CLA approach.

Development projects navigate intricate systems, whether on an international or domestic scale. Shifts in political landscapes, environmental factors, economic contexts, technological advancements, and health conditions can occur suddenly or gradually over time (refer to Figure 1). Objectives that were relevant at the project’s inception may lose relevance within the performance period of three to five years, compelling project personnel to either falter or adapt.

In such scenarios, adaptive responsiveness can determine whether the impact is positive, neutral, or negative. These decisions necessitate evidence-based informed choices, underscoring the significance of instating Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) strategies and processes at the project’s commencement and subsequently adjusting them throughout its lifecycle. USAID defines CLA as “a set of processes and activities that help ensure programming is coordinated, grounded in evidence, and adjusted as necessary to remain effective throughout implementation” (ADS 201, 2016). Consequently, development initiatives thrive when they involve relevant stakeholders, leverage pertinent knowledge, and preserve flexibility.

The CLA paradigm fosters a conducive environment for development success by fostering strategic collaboration, continual learning, and adaptive management. Collaboration engages stakeholders both internal and external through diverse avenues to solicit expertise, input, and feedback. Learning transpires as ideas and information are generated, captured, disseminated, and applied to enhance practices. Adaptation facilitates positive transformation and improvement by integrating lessons learned and evidence-based decision-making.

While numerous CLA activities are inherent to project implementation, a deliberate CLA plan empowers project personnel to strategically design and allocate resources for these endeavors. When devising a CLA strategy, project teams should consider the synergistic alignment of diverse activities to achieve specific objectives. Guiding questions assist in selecting the appropriate activities: Who needs to participate, when, and how? What resources are necessary or must be developed? How will information be generated and shared? How will insights and ideas drive decision-making? CLA activities encompass learning networks, communities of practice, training, learning events, policy reforms, and strategic organizational development (refer to Figure 2 for a deeper understanding of illustrative CLA activities).

Notably, many of these CLA activities are already embedded within daily project work plans and interactions with significant stakeholders such as donors, governments, beneficiaries, and other implementation partners. Pioneering a learning plan to comprehensively comprehend the integration of these activities within the project’s framework, identifying gaps, and expanding the application of CLA measures marks the pivotal first step toward becoming a development program centered on CLA and guided by learning.

Our engagement at the intersection of Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) spans nearly two decades, with CLA concepts and strategies integrated into our core operations since 2011. The transition from harnessing data and evidence derived from M&E endeavors to informing decision-making, change management, and utilization is a natural evolution. CLA serves as a pivotal platform for identifying and engaging stakeholders, capturing and disseminating knowledge, and facilitating adaptive management. The marriage of CLA and MEL fosters a robust knowledge repository and organizational culture that substantiates the accomplishment of project objectives.



CLA IN ACTION: Supporting USAID Learning
In collaboration with the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Contract (The Learning Contract), implemented by our organization, the USAID/Uganda mission orchestrated a “Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) Peer Sharing Event” in May 2016. This three-day peer-assist event facilitated the exchange of experiences and examples of CLA conceptualization and implementation among USAID missions and implementing partners. Organized around common-interest topics, the event delved into themes such as integrating monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL), operationalizing CLA, and facilitating knowledge transfer for seamless staff transitions. Employing the peer-assist approach, USAID/Uganda showcased its ongoing CLA initiatives. Through The Learning Contract, the mission introduced an innovative MEL training course for its staff and implementing partners. The training, conducted in two parts, allowed participants to implement selected MEL enhancements between the sessions and share their experiences during the subsequent segment. In addition to knowledge exchange, the event featured insights from USAID/Uganda’s Mission Leadership Council, technical staff, and project Chiefs of Party about their CLA implementation practices at various levels.