Continuing Your Organizational Learning Journey with CLA

By Georgia Handforth, CLAME Associate, Headlight Consulting Services, LLC
and Rebecca Askin, Senior CLAME Specialist, Headlight Consulting Services, LLC

This blog is the third and final of a three-part mini-series on organizational learning and the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) Framework.

This is the third and final post of our three-part mini-series on Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA), USAID’s approach to organizational learning. If you haven’t already, check out the first post on how Headlight approaches CLA, and the second post about two specific tools for assessing your team’s CLA practices. In this third post, we will discuss learnings from the perspective of our CLA trainees and some of our key insights about improving and supporting organizational learning for teams.

As you’re reading…
Keep an eye out for bolded CLA subcomponents—see this Learning Lab two-pager if you want a refresher on the components and subcomponents— throughout the post, and think about how you see these or other subcomponents showing up in your work.

Feedback from our CLA Trainees

Part of our data-driven culture at Headlight is the way we handle Decision-Making: we gather and consider relevant data to inform our decisions, and to document the rationale for our choices. 

Headlight recently ran an introductory CLA training, aimed at staff working on USAID-funded activities, to present the CLA Framework (see the first post of this series), orient participants to CLA resources available on USAID’s Learning Lab, engage in group exercises, and practice using tools. Recognizing that we can make data-driven decisions with a modest amount of planning and time, we asked participants to share feedback informally during the training and set aside time for participants to complete an anonymous feedback survey. 

After the training, we took time for an internal Pause and Reflect in the form of an After Action Review (AAR) to reflect on the survey feedback and share our experiences and observations as trainers. We celebrated the overwhelmingly positive feedback: 8 respondents rated both the course facilitation and knowledge gain as a result of the course at 4.9 out of 5. Respondents said we should definitely continue including interactive exercises (6/8 respondents), and suggested that future versions of the training could include more time than the allotted 3 half-day sessions (5/8  respondents). 

In our AAR, we also considered the survey question, “how would you rate your current knowledge of the CLA Framework?”, which was the only question with an average score under 4 out of 5, and one written comment from a participant who said that they had not considered the role of organizational culture in creating an enabling environment for CLA. For us, these data points reflect that training participants consider themselves new to CLA, and our hope is that they continue their journey in building CLA fluency and capacity in their organizational roles and day-to-day practices.

Enacting CLA Practices and Culture

Headlight thrives on Internal Collaboration, so we facilitated a peer learning exchange session with several of our CLA experts. We collectively arrived at a number of key insights around the hidden gems, friction points, and opportunities associated with CLA practice.

As part of our Knowledge Management processes, we are documenting and sharing this learning with others:

Focus on just a few sub-components

Headlight’s experts recommend focusing on a few subcomponents that are most important to what a team is doing. A good facilitated conversation about how a subcomponent shows up in their work, what current practices are, and what improvements can be made will help teams focus on a reasonable amount of change and identify realistic actions to “level up” or reinvigorate CLA practices.

The power of the CLA Maturity Tool is that it provides an entry point for people to engage with the CLA framework. Trying to work on all components of the CLA framework at once is overwhelming, and it is best to prioritize as a group which subcomponents have the greatest opportunity or highest need for improvement.    

Collaboration is a good entry point, but not enough on its own

Internal Collaboration and External Collaboration, the two subcomponents of Collaborating,  the “C” of CLA, are common entry points for engaging teammates and partners in CLA and seeing quick wins that build momentum. One of the best ways teams can integrate collaboration into ongoing technical work is by making use of an existing Technical Evidence Base or contributing new evidence from their own work, cultivating strategic Relationships and Networks, and making use of M&E data and lessons learned to adapt strategies or activities (Adaptive Management). These types of practices and feedback loops can deepen collaboration past coordination, and support virtuous cycles of knowledge sharing, learning, and programmatic improvements.

Hidden gem subcomponents, according to Headlight staff

Technical Evidence Base

Favorite subcomponents
of Headlight Staff

Scenario Planning

Culture as enabler

To the point raised by our training participant, the role of organizational culture— ways of operating, types of relationships, and norms around communication, reflection, and learning—as part of the enabling environment for CLA is often overlooked. This oversight is significant because, as the handy phrase “CPR keeps CLA alive” reminds us, it is the Culture, Processes, and Resources, the right side of the CLA Framework graphic, that form an anchoring enabling environment for the more visible Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting activities to thrive.  

The Openness subcomponent of Culture is an area where our CLA experts have seen ‘aha’ moments when facilitating activities such as the Yarn Toss and Maturity Tool (see the second post of this series for more on these activities). This subcomponent relates to sharing ideas, hearing other perspectives, and trying new things. Crucially, this also means accepting uncertainty and being willing to share about the successes and the challenges of trying something new, especially in a field like development that involves working with lots of other people in complex contexts. Ironically, a system that prizes ‘expertise’ affects stakeholders’ willingness to be open about what is or isn’t known, even when that information could inform learning activities and ultimately lead to filling gaps in the Technical Evidence Base, planning for effective Adaptive Management, and structuring more efficient Decision-Making.

Headlight staff thoughts
on putting

Scenario Planning
into action:

“I have seen it enable action for Adaptive Management, pre-planning likely scenarios and escalations ahead of time.”

“Even if it’s just documented assumptions. I think Technical Evidence Base is the hidden gem that enables better Scenario Planning, better CLA overall, by having something to start from.“

Strong organizational learning capacity takes support

Supportive Culture is one aspect of building and maintaining strong CLA capacity for your team or organization, especially because of the behavior change that is often required to adopt new practices and approaches. Headlight staff also pointed to the importance of Resources, which is often overlooked but can make the difference between strong and sustainable CLA practice and starting over again with CLA every few years—which can be demoralizing and ultimately require more time, energy, and resources from already-scarce reserves. 

Another facet of supporting CLA work, from introducing new practices to building on existing strengths, to embarking on a rebuilding phase of CLA capacity, is maintaining optimism. For practitioners who have first-hand experience of some of the pitfalls or friction points around implementing CLA, looking for opportunities to get small wins, build momentum, and celebrate successes over time is critical to sustainable and ultimately impactful CLA practice.

Doing the work is more important than using the terms

Now that we’ve spent time unpacking the CLA Framework and learning ways to explore and apply it, the final piece of wisdom from our practitioners is that the behaviors, norms, and investment of resources are the important part, not the terms themselves! This directly relates to one identified friction point: treating CLA as another “box to check” in a long list of requirements or best practices.

CLA practices and approaches are meant to support and augment technical and programmatic work, and will be more effective the more systematic, intentional, and resourced they are. Building shared clarity around the benefits of incorporating these practices, including tangible examples of the resulting improvements to programming, counteracts the perceived burden or idea that this is separate, additional effort and lays the groundwork for continued learning and improvement. That is why it is completely fine, and in many cases highly effective, to start by looking at the practices and norms the team already has and guiding conversation about strategic ways to “level up” that practice, with or without reference to the CLA Framework itself.      


And with that, we’ve accomplished what we set out to do in this mini-series: we have introduced why Headlight chooses CLA for organizational development, we have discussed two tools we keep coming back to for assessing and improving CLA practice, and we have shared our own experiences and insights from a collective pool of more than 35 years of experience with organizational learning, CLA, and supporting better development practice.

Thank you for reading, and as always we welcome your questions and comments! Be sure to subscribe to this blog if you haven’t already, and keep an eye out for some exciting upcoming posts on Developmental Evaluation later this summer!

For more information and resources on CLA:

The USAID Learning Lab CLA Toolkit

USAID CLA Learning Lab Two-pager

USAID CLA Example Cases (CLA Case Competition)

Headlight’s Pause and Reflect Guide

If you have any questions about organizational development and learning or would like help assessing or improving your CLA capacity, Headlight would love to support you! We have the breadth and depth of experience to tailor-meet your needs.

 For more information about our services, please email 

Headlight is a certified woman-owned small business and therefore eligible for sole source procurements. We can be found on the Dynamic Small Business Search or on via our name or DUNS number (081332548).

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