Adjusting strategies, plans, assumptions and hypotheses in real time is important for organizations that are employing innovative approaches to complex problems. Teams may encounter unexpected developments, challenges and opportunities, creating a need to adjust in order to achieve the best results. This is especially true when projects are moving quickly and the context for the work is evolving.
For organizations interested in grappling more intentionally with how to adjust their work in response to new information, a framework and set of practices have been developed to accelerate learning and help teams better track and reflect on how their work is evolving over time: emergent learning.
“Emergent learning,” notes Marilyn Darling, founding partner of Fourth Quadrant Partners, which has developed and pioneered these practices, “is about making our thinking visible to each other and testing it out in our work, so that, together, we get better over time at working through very complex challenges.” Central to the emergent learning framework is its focus on real-time learning – learning that takes place at the time it needs to happen – and learning through action, rather than abstract discussion. “In emergent learning,” Marilyn states, “the only measure of success is whether you are getting better at solving the problems in front of you, not whether you are getting better at learning.”
Over the past year, CCI has adopted emergent learning as a core tenet of how we do our work. CCI’s approach to emergent learning, based on Fourth Quadrant Partners’ framework, is built around a series of daily, weekly, and “as needed” practices: learning log entries, a standing weekly learning call, before and after action reviews, and emergent learning tables. These practices help organize our learning, ensure that all staff who have a part in our work fully grasp the context and meaning of what we are trying to do, make space for reflection, and ensure that insights turn into action as quickly as possible.
What are these practices, and what has CCI learned about doing them so far?
Learning Log. CCI maintains a learning log, in the form of a shared Google Excel Sheet, where we share insights and reflections on work that we’re doing—from interviews to meetings to thoughts that arise in the course of writing, reading, or otherwise engaging in our work. All staff are expected to use the log to share call notes and background materials, and to summarize the key points that a particular piece of work has contributed to our understanding. In December 2017, CCI became the first organization to reach five hundred entries in a learning log, which we achieved in just over six months. The log serves a knowledge management function in a multi-site office, and allows us to track how our thinking and work with others evolves over time. We’ve made using the learning log a part of daily practice throughout the organization, making sure that it is quick and easy to add information and that staff find value in reviewing and comparing past entries.
Learning Calls. One of the most valuable pieces of our learning practice is a weekly, one-hour facilitated call that provides a space for staff to ask questions and further explore insights that may be emerging in their work. The learning log provides the foundation for this call, but is not the only focus—usually, there is a major question we explore as a group, where discussion can feed back into work currently in motion.
Before and After Action Reviews (BAR/AAR). Conducted prior to and following an activity or event, before and after action reviews use a series of questions to help clarify desired results, plan for anticipated challenges, and reflect on what actually occurred to identify potential ways to improve the next time (see the chart below for more detail). At CCI, we use before and after action reviews for everything from major events and meetings—including our staff retreats—to phone calls or writing assignments. We’ve learned that the timing of before and after action reviews is critical—doing BARs near enough to a meeting so that they feel pressing but with enough time to make necessary adjustments, and AARs soon enough to ensure staff remember what happened but not immediately after an event when people are exhausted.
Emergent Learning Tables. Conducting an Emergent learning (EL) table—a two-by-two box of questions that supports reflection on past work and the development of hypotheses about future work—provides an opportunity to reflect periodically on what we’re learning about a particular issue or practice of relevance to our work. For example, recent EL tables have focused on framing questions such as “What would it take to develop pre-work for our convenings that powerfully accelerates results for participating teams?” and “What would it take for us to onboard new staff rapidly and effectively so they can understand our approach?” EL tables allow us to share our stories about what has worked, or not worked, and draw insights and hypotheses about how we might use our experience to improve our results.
At CCI, we do emergent learning tables roughly monthly, and select topics based on what feels most important at the time. We’ve learned that carving out time for emergent learning tables in advance, while selecting topics closer to the date of the session, allows us to preserve time for deep reflection while prioritizing topics that feel most relevant. By pre-populating emergent learning tables with the data we already have on a particular question, we give staff participating a starting point to dive into the question at hand. Starting with comments that are top of mind—no matter where they fit on an emergent learning table—allows us to capture a breadth and depth of content in a way that restricting ourselves to one quadrant at a time would constrict.
For CCI, being a learning organization serves multiple purposes: creating institutional memory, supporting just-in-time iteration, and clarifying our hypotheses about our work. Engaging every staff member in these learning practices allows us to make our thinking visible to each other, strengthening our hypotheses and uncovering hidden assumptions. By keeping insights, assumptions, and hypotheses at the forefront of CCI’s organizational consciousness, our learning practices ensure that the design of any future work is informed by the learning of prior endeavors.