The systems, tools, and team culture that have fostered learning and adaptation within the AVC project team.

Our previous blogs were about organisational culture and some of the fundamental technical concepts that the Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) project team in Bangladesh uses to guide our new market systems approach. This blog presents a third component of our new approach, which complements and connects these topics: learning and adaptation.

The Guidance section of BEAM Exchange describes adaptive management as the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, operate effectively in complex environments, and experiment with trial and error. For the AVC project, particularly as the team continues to get their feet wet with the new technical approach, learning and adaptation is key to making sure the new activities we try are really working. This blog will focus on AVC’s efforts to infuse the project team and activities with systems, tools, and a team culture that enable learning and adaptation.

A system: the portfolio review

To formally integrate learning and adaptation into the AVC project, we expect our team and partners will be on a steep learning curve, especially in the first stages of trying the new approach. To capture and apply this learning, every quarter AVC will convene a two day “Quarterly Portfolio Review” for the technical teams to reflect on the past quarter’s work.

Our knowledge management team, led by Wasel Syed with support from Kat Cooley (project manager) and expat consultant Eric Derks, designed and facilitated the first Portfolio Review. The schedule included presentations from each value chain team that highlighted ongoing interventions and current challenges, facilitated group conversations to identify which challenges may be relevant across teams, and small-format break-out sessions to enable more detailed discussions of tactics and specific cases. 

Conceptually, the goal of the Portfolio Review was clear: to reflect on the approaches and tactics applied last quarter, and determine what was working, and what did not generate results. In the first Portfolio Review, we prompted staff to think about key questions like:

  • What are expected signs of progress or failure?
  • What factors are driving success or failure?
  • Has our partner selection contributed to positive results?
  • What do we need to do to accelerate the pace of change and crowd in others?  

We also came up with some group exercises designed to facilitate deeper, more analytical conversations to identify learning opportunities and strategies for adaptation. In the cases of approaches and tactics that are working, the objective of the meeting was to figure out the specific drivers of success and identify opportunities to scale up those efforts. In the case of interventions that were not working, the purpose of the learning workshop was to diagnose the underlying reasons that the approach/tactic/intervention did not perform as expected, and create a strategy to address the root problem.  

Strategies for addressing underperforming interventions ranged from a quick tweak of our tactics (such as revisiting the way we pitched the market opportunity or reconsidering the specific people included on an email) to a deeper, more fundamental re-assessment of the development hypothesis and approach to how AVC works in a certain market space. Often in development projects, specific activities or approaches are designed at the bid phase, and once the project is speeding ahead with a million irons in the fire, there isn’t always commitment to take a timeout and attempt this kind of team reflection. Thus, USAID’s support for the CLA approach affords the team a unique opportunity to move into the somewhat uncharted territory of iterative programmatic learning. Many of the prescribed adaptations that result from the CLA approach can be implemented immediately within our current budget and contract structure. In cases where the team would like to embark on more drastic changes, we have case-by case discussions with out counterpart at USAID to determine the best route forward.

In practice, designing the right conversation prompts and group exercises to enable the type of reflective and analytical conversations was less obvious. This is because facilitating a lively conversation about learning opportunities and improvement requires more than the right prompts and exercises ‒ it also requires an office culture where staff are comfortable being open about potential weaknesses and engage in constructive criticism. Fostering this type of open and candid environment takes time and reinforcement through repeat messaging and “learning by doing.” This event supported AVC’s ongoing cultural shift, moving away from a siloed, task-oriented workplace to a more empowered team of collaborators. The event challenged staff to move away from descriptive narratives towards more critical analysis of how interventions feed into the broader systemic changes that the project is promoting.

Add, Expand, Adapt, Maintain, Drop

At the first Quarterly Portfolio Review some exercises launched the team into animated and productive conversation, while others were non-starters. In this case, the exercises that flopped provided a great example of “opportunities to learn,” and we were able to adjust the schedule on the fly to spend more time on exercises that were productive. One of the most provocative and productive exercises was “Add, Expand, Adapt, Maintain, Drop,” which tasked teams to review their Year 3 work plans and quickly assign each activity to one of the As ( any ideas for a catchier name for this exercise are welcome!).  

  • Add: Add a new partner or new product; add an activity that takes advantage of a new market opportunity or technology.
  • Expand: Expand successful pilots and partnerships; scale up activities that are generating results.
  • Adapt: Adapt an activity in response to a change in market intelligence or shift in approach; replicate an activity that’s working in a different value chain; adapt a tactic so that it is more effective.  
  • Maintain: Stay the course with an activity that is too early to assess or is performing well.
  • Drop: Drop an activity in a particular region in response to donor congestion, limited market opportunity, or change in market intelligence; drop an activity that is not supporting sustainable, market-driven growth.

To set up this exercise, we required each team to add at least two activities and drop at least two activities. These very clear instructions required staff to be more candid ‒ particularly when selecting activities to be dropped. Teams were not allowed to respond that all their activities were going fine, or that people were happy with the services/goods offered. They had to dig deeper and provide real, meaningful evaluation of the quarter’s activities.

Learning about learning a practical demonstration

Implementing the Portfolio Review was an experiment, so we went back to staff to get their perspective on the event itself, and ask them which exercises they felt were most useful, and which did not add the value we intended. That’s right, it’s development practice’s most meta event yet: a learning exercise for the learning exercise!

Conversations about the Portfolio Review served two key purposes. The first is clear, using the feedback from this quarter’s event, we plan to add and remove activities for next quarter’s event. But reflection on the reflection also served the more subtle purpose of driving home the message that this process is a full-team collaboration, and the Quarterly Portfolio Review planning team will be open and responsive to constructive feedback and adaptation from the staff, in the same way AVC activities should be adjusted and adapted based on regular evaluation of the intervention’s desired outcomes versus the results to date.

Has anyone in our BEAM network rolled out learning and adaptation as priorities within a project? We would love to hear about your experience, specific challenges, adaptations, and exercises that worked well! We are repeating the Quarterly Performance review in a couple of months, so all ideas and feedback are welcome.

Read blog #1: Market systems in practice: field notes from AVC Bangladesh

Read blog #2: From principles to technical strategy: a model for building a new technical approach

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