Evaluation for Learning and Adaptive Management: Connecting the Dots between Developmental Evaluation and CLA

By Monica Matts and Belen Mekonnen

Since Headlight’s inception in 2019, we have honed our expertise in a few practice areas, including Developmental Evaluation (DE) and Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA). These two approaches are certainly related and reinforcing, but they are also distinct. What’s the connection between DE and CLA? How are they similar and how do they reinforce each other? In this blog, I’ll share my thoughts on the relationship between the two, and would be interested to hear your thoughts.

First, let’s define a few terms. Developmental Evaluation (DE) is an approach to evaluation, marked by a few key characteristics. DEs are:

  • Supportive of continuous adaptation
  • Establish iterative learning and feedback loops
  • Use-focused
  • Adaptable in nature

In an earlier blog, we gave a comprehensive introduction to DE. One of the notable features of the approach is that the Developmental Evaluator is embedded with the implementation team while maintaining independent reporting and management lines for objectivity. DEs emphasize rapid and continuous cycles of data collection, analysis, and reflection to support teams in making evidence-based decisions and effectively adapting their strategy, operations, or activities in real time. The Developmental Evaluator uses their expertise in evaluation methodologies and analytical techniques to choose the best method based on the learning and evaluation questions, which may change throughout the project/activity’s implementation. According to USAID’s program cycle policy, DEs are an accepted approach for performance evaluations.

CLA is a component of USAID’s program cycle and is how USAID operationalizes organizational learning and adaptive management. CLA is a holistic approach that considers collaborating, learning, and adapting as part of programming and the enabling environment for organizational learning. CLA is not meant to be a separate workstream; instead, its approaches should be integrated into ongoing work.

How do DE and CLA support each other?

Both approaches are concerned with using evidence and learning in an ongoing and systematic way. Ongoing and effective adaptive management are central to both. DE and CLA are not cookie-cutter approaches and they must be tailored to meet the needs of stakeholders and context in order to be effective. The table below shows how DE relates to or supports the elements of Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting.

CLA Framework Element and Sub-elementsDE Connection

Internal Collaboration
External Collaboration
  • Effective DEs are built on a strong base of collaboration between the evaluator and the team they are working with.
  • DEs’ focus on systems means that they engage a broad range of stakeholders.
  • DEs encourage collaboration by facilitating connections and collaborative learning opportunities.
  • DE staff can create stakeholder maps to assess relationships and dependencies and identify how people and groups can work together towards a common goal.
  • DEs can collect ongoing data regarding the effectiveness or inhibitors to collaboration practices and facilitate collaborative learning.

Technical Evidence Base
Theories of Change
Scenario Planning
M&E for Learning
  • DEs contribute to the evidence base of their relevant technical sectors through the evaluative and learning activities they undertake.
  • DE learning questions are based on an activity or intervention’s theory of change.
  • A DE Lead can help a team develop a TOC, if they do not have one, in order to narrow in on learning questions.
  • DEs are use-focused and encourage continuous learning.
  • DEs support iterative cycles of learning through targeted evidence generation and synthesis, leveraging an expansive learning toolbox.
  • DEs help develop a learning culture by facilitating regular reflections, maintaining focus on key learning questions, and providing capacity building around learning approaches.

Pause & Reflect
Adaptive Management
  • DEs make use of pause & reflect opportunities to help teams understand and process new learning.
  • Adaptive management is a foundational element of DEs. The evidence and learning from DEs should contribute to decision-making and ongoing adaptive management.
  • DEs support the implementation and testing of adaptations.
  • DE teams themselves adapt, based on how recommendations are or are not working for their stakeholders.

Relationships & Networks
Continuous Learning & Improvement
  • DEs work best in teams that are open to frank discussion about what does and does not work.
  • DEs encourage a systems view of development challenges and take networks into account when generating evidence.
  • With their focus on rapid feedback, DEs support an environment of continuous learning and improvement.

Knowledge Management
Institutional Memory
  • DEs may provide teams with evidence about and feedback on operational and management issues, and how they are affecting their work.
  • DEs provide structure and prompts for evidence-based decision-making.
  • DEs prompt teams to reflect on how decisions are made.
  • DEs provide and coach clients around tools to document institutional memory during staff transitions.

Mission Resources
CLA in Implementing Mechanisms
  • DEs can draw attention to resource gaps, bottlenecks, and other key operational enablers and inhibitors.
  • DEs build teams’ capacity for learning processes, such as learning question formulation, evidence review, and action planning, even after the DE is complete.

As the table illustrates, DEs bring to life the components of CLA and can strengthen systematic CLA practice in a team or organization. When embedded, DE Leads provide technical evaluation expertise and support to implement data collection and analysis. At the same time, they also support adaptive management so that clients can act on new information to make evidence-informed decisions and align existing resources with strategic priorities.

What is your experience with these topics? What other connections do you see between DEs and CLA? Please share them with us in the comments below.

Leave a Reply


no comments found.