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Supporting program leaders to learn and adapt on their own

The ability to adapt is critical for mission-driven organizations looking to build lasting, sustainable impact. This has never been more evident: the last couple of years have brought on unexpected challenges which forced organizations of all shapes and sizes to rapidly adjust to a global pandemic.

At R4D, we think of adaptation as the ability to be flexible — but with intention. To be creative and iterative, but to do so informed by knowledge. Through our evaluation and adaptive learning (EAL) practice, we have worked alongside organizations as learning partners — helping them embed these principles into their programs prior to and during implementation. We support partners to assess their effectiveness, make-evidence based changes, and, ultimately, scale successfully to achieve the education, nutrition and health outcomes they are striving for.

Our EAL work, allows us to (temporarily!) take on some of the toughest evaluation challenges alongside a partner program, wearing the researcher hat while also facilitating the learning and iteration process. But that level of engagement is not accessible to every organization doing good work. In fact, we often find that smaller organizations, with limited resources or just starting to design their programs, are the least likely, but perhaps the most in need of adaptive solutions.

Last year, as we found ourselves entering a new phase of work with our Tanzania-based Better Way Foundation NGO partners, we wondered, how could we make adaptive learning more accessible to smaller organizations like them?

We decided to test a new approach. This time, shifting from our traditional “hands-on” learning partner role, to supporting country partners to lead adaptive learning themselves.

What did the process look like in practice?

At its core, the adaptive learning process consists of identifying key learning questions to be investigated in a program model, conducting lean data collection and analysis on these questions, and reflecting on findings to identify the best way(s) to improve and iterate on existing program activities.

Through this process, we sought to share these critical elements and skills of adaptive learning in a practical way, so that our partners — Tanzania Agriculture and Home Economics Association-Mwanza (TAHEA) and Amani Girls Home (AGH) — could draw on these tools to adapt to challenges whenever needed, with or without our long-term support.

To instill the principles of adaptive learning into our partners’ work, our team developed a three-pronged approach. These were:

(1) Facilitating an inception meeting to define partners’ learning questions. At the beginning of our process, R4D and partners jointly explored how adaptive learning principles could be best applied to their programs’ by developing a learning question that would be explored through data collection. Our partners ultimately landed on the following learning questions:

  • TAHEA: How can we increase community participation and support for ECD centers in order to improve their sustainability?
  • AGH: How can we motivate members of women’s economic empowerment groups to more consistently contribute to ECD and pre-primary centers?

(2) Co-creating a research agenda. With support from an in-country expert, the R4D team provided arms-length advice to TAHEA and AGH on developing their research methodology to answer their learning question, drafting interview and focus group discussion protocols, conducting data collection, and finally, cleaning and analyzing the collected data. Importantly, our partners owned this entire process, driving key data collection decisions, and taking on tough work of cleaning, analyzing, and synthesizing findings.

(3) Facilitating a learning check workshop. Once data had been collected and analyzed, the R4D team facilitated a joint session to partners’ findings and determine how they might influence future changes in program implementation. In addition, these workshops served to their surface reflections about our adaptive learning process and explore practical ways for partners to apply it to their future work independently: TAHEA expressed a desire to include our adaptive learning process into their strategic plan and to apply it across their programs. On the other hand, AGH were keen to extract specific aspects of the process for future use, such as making learning checks a regular component in their project management process.

What did we learn?

Stepping back and facilitating a process can be challenging. But just like any other work undertaken in genuine partnership, it’s a worthwhile effort in supporting sustainable change.

Here are a few lessons we learned about coaching along the way:

1. Passing on an approach takes more than technical skills.

Technical expertise is only one of the components required to supporting others to adapt. An effective “coaching team” should include strong facilitators and local context experts to ground technical processes in practioners’ reality. In this instance, our team of R4D technical experts was supplemented by a local Tanzania-based expert, Edward Kigenza whose experience working alongside ECD programs in Tanzania was invaluable.

2. Co-create from the start, allowing partners to lead.

From our “norms for collaboration,” to the learning question development, and data collection tools, each step of our partnership with BWF partners was co-created. As partners to them, we often took a back seat, taking the reins of the process only to facilitate critical intervals. This gave our partners decision-making power at every step of the way.

3. Establish a reflective culture, where asking questions and sharing failures is commonplace.

Trust is a key ingredient in handing off an approach like EAL. But it takes time and effort. Conscious of this, our team always built in time to openly discuss what is going well and what could be improved as partners navigated through the adaptive learning process, allowing them to unpack any doubts and frustrations. This often led to bonding over common challenges, for instance: both TAHEA and AGH noted it was difficult to obtain nuanced responses from focus group participants (many felt intimidated and gave short responses). R4D has encountered challenges like these many times, and by reflecting and working through solutions together, we developed the trust required for a true coaching partnership.

What’s next?

Our experiment in supporting our partners to take on EAL on their own was really well received and in the process, we also learned a lot. In the next couple of months, we will be sharing more details about this experience in a report that captures what we’ve learned and how others might take on this approach on their own.

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