You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over. -Richard Branson
Collaborations do not exist in a static environment—the conditions in the community are dynamic and constantly changing. Therefore, collaborations must be able to adapt as they maintain focus on achieving outcomes. Indeed, the most impactful collaborations are one that learn and adapt.
Action learning is a process for problem solving that uses data to learn and adapt strategies. It helps to make efficient use of lean resources, including time, money, and partner capacity. Action learning also helps your collaboration to be innovative in creating solutions. There are many different models for action learning: Plan-Do-Study-Act has been used since the 1930s in social work, education, and business; Build Measure Learn is the model defined by the Lean Startup; and ExceleRate Illinois provides tools and resources for information resources on continuous quality improvement for programs.
Action learning uses data as a key element to test the hypothesis. Data is not used to prove how great your strategies are working, but rather to inform, as validated learning, the progress you are making. It is a good idea to create a plan for data collection after your collaboration finalizes your logic model, as you will have a better sense of what data needs to be collected to measure impact toward achieving your vision for systems change. A clear protocol for collecting data or information will help set expectations from providers, families, or other users. The team processes the collected data to assess progress and next steps. There are many ways to collect data about the progress of your strategy. Your collaboration can use intake surveys to ask questions like, “How did you hear about our program?” The collaboration partners may also agree to share program level enrollment data. Partners who work directly with families can ask discovery questions. After an event, your collaboration should take a deep dive and do a root cause analysis on the activity.
The simplest method for ensuring your collaboration is actively learning is having a detailed work plan and checking in on progress on a consistent basis. Bringing the work plan to each meeting, and designing the agenda around the objectives, is also a good model to follow. This will help you to track your progress in an ongoing cycle. Check in and ask each other: How are we doing? Is the strategy working, or do we need to adjust? As part of the continuous action learning cycle, members share progress updates and talk about challenges to implementation on each work plan item. Rather than simply report at each meeting, the action learning process uses data (such as numbers and stories from a range of perspectives) to assess, learn, and move forward on each activity. To enhance your understanding of the relationship between action learning and systems change, the growing field of developmental evaluation offers a wealth of knowledge and strategies. To learn more, check out the Lean Startup Approach and this video on The Value of Validated Learning.