Staff in Uganda reflect on an activity.

3 Tips to Walk the Talk on Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting

| 3 Minute Read
Can the development community move from talking about CLA to truly living by its credo? Marcos Moreno shares practical advice.

Collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) is an approach championed by USAID to help projects work effectively with partners, reflect on implementation, and change course when needed. The concept is simple, but implementing the approach in practice is another story. With projects’ detailed scopes of work and precise indicator targets, it can be difficult to figure out how to be adaptive without straying too far from the project’s initial vision.

Because of this tension, I have noticed my colleagues searching for a recipe book that defines CLA and explains how to do it — an easy, step-by-step guide to ticking off the CLA box. But the beauty and the challenge of CLA is that there is no single recipe. Each team has to decide what CLA means in their context and work hard every day to live by its principles.

My staff and I on the Feed the Future Uganda Youth Leadership for Agriculture (YLA) Activity have spent a lot of time deciding what CLA means to us. Here are three tips that we have used to transition from paying lip service to CLA, to working according to its principles every day.

1. Change Your Team’s Mindset

The most important step to implement CLA is to instill a mindset among the team in which everyone is listening to beneficiaries and looking for opportunities to improve development impact. This can start as early as the recruitment process, by looking for prospective staff who are inquisitive and interested in learning.

Changing behavior takes time, so on YLA, we practice. We talk as a team about opportunities to learn and adapt and when we find them, we call them out. By repeating the principles of CLA over and over, we move from understanding the approach to truly believing it. The more we apply something, the more we learn, and the end result is a team that is empowered to be flexible and push boundaries.

It is time to recognize that none of us has a crystal ball, and open ourselves up to a process of collaborating, learning, and adapting.

2. Walk the Talk

To take a CLA approach to development, we cannot operate on autopilot. We have to internalize the goals of our project and be relentless in looking for new and better ways to achieve those goals.

The best way to internalize your project’s goals is to walk the talk in everything you do. YLA is about empowering youth and we take that message to heart in our daily operations. For example, when it came time to design and furnish our office, we did not buy foreign-made fixtures. Instead, we awarded the work to a partnership between a youth-owned design firm and a vocational training school to create jobs and learning opportunities for students. We also have a target of reaching beneficiaries who are 70 percent women, so we saw it as a problem when we held a recruit for project drivers and did not have any female applicants. After opening a new recruit that specifically stated that women can and should apply, we were blown away by the result and now have three women on our staff of seven drivers. By holding ourselves to the same standard that we are asking of our grantees, partners, and beneficiaries, we become more in tune with our project’s goals and can make sure we are truly executing those goals rather than going through the motions.

3. Design in Reverse

Designing in reverse means that before beginning any initiative, we start by asking our partners and beneficiaries what they need. It is easy to begin with preconceived notions or to focus on our own agendas and indicator targets, but it is important to set that aside and listen to what is working, what is not, and adapt if we want to be effective.

YLA primarily operates through small grants. At the beginning, many partners approached YLA by “selling” concepts to fund their organizations that explicitly met YLA’s contractual outcomes, rather than their own business objectives. Sustainability and innovation come from enabling the private sector to drive the design process by focusing on what they need to successfully function as a business. Therefore, one of the main pivots has been to design in reverse by embracing partner-led implementation whereby a greater emphasis is placed on improving the business profitability and efficiencies of our partners that in turn enable YLA to meet its contractual objectives. By meeting partners’ business needs, YLA meets youth at the natural nexus between where they are and the market demand, creating a dynamic that is more organic, profitable, and sustainable.

Truly adopting CLA will require abandoning the fallacy that development professionals can accurately predict how a project’s three to five years will play out. It is time to recognize that none of us has a crystal ball, and open ourselves up to a process of collaborating, learning, and adapting so we can all do development better.

A professional headshot of Marcos Moreno.

About Marcos Moreno

Marcos Moreno is the chief of party for the Feed the Future Bangladesh Horticulture, Fruits and Non-Food Crops Activity. He is an agriculture and youth development expert with more than 30 years of experience, including 20 years at senior management levels, creating sustainable economic opportunities for the next generation via agribusiness development projects in East…