Standard 11: Evidence based, action-oriented project management.
Make collaborative, timely, and informed decisions to ensure that project activities deliver intended impact to participants within the approved time, scope, and budget.
Promote and facilitate intentional project reflection, learning, and adaptation.
Effective project management requires an intentional approach to learning and a collaborative environment where diverse perspectives and ideas are solicited and valued. Effective project management is also guided by the understanding that each project’s unique and dynamic operating context affects and is affected by the project, and that sharing project learning with other stakeholders is important for project relevance, influence, and impact. Project teams must continually gather and reflect on project knowledge, identify and explore knowledge gaps and questions, and use this learning in project decision-making, including appropriate and timely adaptations to project activities and strategies.
Intentional promotion and thoughtful facilitation of project opportunities for reflection and learning:
- Support informed, transparent and inclusive decision-making.
- Enable project teams to modify their actions and interventions in light of emerging practices and new insights.
- Contribute to improved program quality for the focus project and other projects as well.
- Facilitate CRS’ and partners’ ability to positively influence other stakeholders and interventions.
- Primary responsible: Project manager or chief of party (PM/CoP)
- The PM/CoP establishes an enabling environmentThis enabling environment is sometimes referred to as a “psychologically safe” workplace. Dr. Amy Edmonson defines “psychological safety” as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes” (for more on psychological safety, see the TEDx talk in “Other Resources”). for project reflection, learning and adaptation, ensures intentionality in project learning, and oversees the documentation and dissemination of project learning outputs.
- Others involved: Head of programming (HoP); country representative (CR); CRS and partner project team, including MEAL staff; technical advisors (country program, regional, and global); country program and regional business development staff; IDEA staff; Program Impact and Quality Assurance (PIQA) communications team
- The HoP supports the PM/CoP in establishing the enabling environment and supports key learning and sharing activities;
- The CR provides leadership in reinforcing an enabling environment for reflection, learning, and adaptation in the wider country program; CRS and partner project team membersConsistent with CRS’ guiding principle of subsidiarity, it’s especially important for the PM/CoP to facilitate the engagement of CRS and partner staff who work most closely with communities, households, and individuals participating in the project. actively contribute to project reflection and learning, including by sharing their day-to-day observations and questions, identifying topics for deeper learning and sharing, and helping to plan and implement learning activities;
- Technical advisors (MEAL, sector specialists, partnership and capacity strengthening staff) support project learning, including identifying topics, audiences, and opportunities for sharing learning;
- Country program and regional business development and IDEA staff strategize about the most effective ways to share project learning with institutional donors;
- PIQA communications team staff may provide support with guidance and templates for documenting learning and sharing it with external stakeholders.
- Ongoing throughout project implementation.
- Aim to hold at least one project learning event per year.
Follow these steps to promote intentional learning and adaptation throughout project implementation:
Regular project opportunities for continuous learning
- At the start of project implementation, the PM/CoP establishes a regular frequency (e.g. monthly) for project team meetings to check in on project plans, discuss field observations --particularly observations that are unexpected in light of project assumptions--and make tactical adjustments as needed.
- The PM/CoP develops an agenda for these check-in meetings along with a meeting facilitation approach to encourage intentional learning and open sharing of successes, challenges, opportunities, questions, and concerns, including project issues and risks (see Standard 11, key action 2).
- Review and adapt the example Monthly Monitoring Meetings ChecklistCRS Zambia’s MAWA project team developed this checklist to encourage reflection and learning in their regular meetings, using an “evaluative thinking” approach (for more on evaluative thinking, see the videos under “Other Resources”). as useful. Talk to staff with experience facilitating similar learning-focused check-in meetings.
- Use these meetings to reflect on learning, guided by a series of simple questions.
- Use the Getting Started Guide: Practical Learning at CRS for ideas on how to promote a common understanding of learning across members of the project team as well as exercises and activities to foster intentional learning.
- Organize and manage the check-in meetings using approaches that enable differing and even conflicting experiences to be expressed and heard.
- Invite staff to share what they have heard from project participants during project field visits and other interactions with community members.
- Depending on the size and structure of the project team, the PM/CoP may also need to work with senior field-level staffIf senior field-level staff will lead these meetings, invite them to participate in a PM/CoP-facilitated meeting early in project implementation. Provide coaching and accompaniment as needed to help staff create the enabling environment for intentional learning at field-team level. to establish a similar pattern and plan for meetings with CRS and partner field-based staff. Follow up with the leaders of field-based meetings to ensure they document and share key points.
Build project team knowledge, skills, and attitudes for adaptive management:Adaptive management is an approach to tackling complex challenges. The starting point is an assumption of uncertainty about what will work to address the challenge. It is then characterized by a flexible approach involving testing, monitoring, getting feedback and – crucially – making course-corrections if necessary. (Adaptive management: What it means for civil society organisations, Bond, 2016) The PM/CoP should work with project team members to assess their knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) relating to three areas that are key to effective project management:
- Collaborating – intentionally identifying internal and external key stakeholders and engaging them appropriately
- Learning – identifying knowledge assets and addressing knowledge gaps, testing the project theory of change, assessing risks and opportunities, optimizing monitoring, evaluation, and accountability efforts
- Adapting – taking time to reflect on learning and the bigger picture, and to act on that learning.
Ask colleagues with experience in these KSAs for suggestions on how to strengthen them. See also Standard 14, key action 2 (Identify gaps in staff skills in project management, and develop and implement plans to address them) for additional resources.
- The PM/CoP carefully plans for intentional learning in each formal quarterly and annual planning and review meeting.
- See Standard 11, key action 3 for detailed guidance on collecting and analyzing project MEAL data.
- See Standard 11, key action 4 for detailed guidance on planning and facilitating quarterly and annual project planning and review meetings.
Amplify the voice of staff closest to project participants: The most meaningful project learning and most effective adaptations often emerge from the perspectives of staff who work most closely with project participants. However, many projects fail to ensure that the views of these staff are heard, especially in larger meetings with more senior staff. When planning any project check-in or review meeting, the PM/CoP and any other facilitators must pay close attention to participant dynamics and structure the meeting in ways that amplify the vital voices of these staff. Remember that efforts to foster a culture of learning and openness in formal meetings will only succeed if that culture is also modeled and cultivated in day-to-day project team interactions.
- The PM/CoP and project team use the learning emerging from these meetings to make appropriate tactical and strategic adjustments to implementation strategies and plans, and to adapt formal project learning activities (see below).
Formal project learning activities and events (internal and external)
In addition to adopting the intentional approach to learning described above across all project planning and review activities, use the following guidance to effectively plan and implement project activities and events explicitly focused on learning.
- The PM/CoP works with CRS and partner project team members and others as needed (e.g., sectoral and MEAL technical advisors and others who have organized similar activities) to plan formal project learning activities. Internal and external project learning activities and events may include the following:
- Reflection meetings and after-action reviews (AARs)
Typically focused on internal learning, project teams organize these following important project milestones, such as finalization of the project baseline or mid-term evaluation, transition from project start-up to full implementation, or completion of a major project process. See MEAL Procedure 3.7 and the Getting Started Guide: Practical Learning at CRS for approaches and good practices for project reflection events and AARs.
- Research or special studies
These studies examine programming or operations issues of particular importance or interest. CRS and its partners may have identified focus issues for research or studiesKeep in mind that in-depth assessments conducted during project start-up can also be rich sources of learning and generate important information for sharing outside the project team. during project design or MEAL system development, or through analysis of project data and review of project implementation experiences. Research and special studies are often useful for both the project team’s learning, and for discussion and reflection with other stakeholders. Identify potential stakeholders in advance and build their interests and communications preferences into planning of the research or study.
- “Brown-bags” and other presentations and discussions
These can be built into department meetings, online discussion fora (e.g. the CRS MEAL Solutions Exchange), and other sharing opportunities, or organized as focused face-to-face sessions or webinars. Typically less formal and internally-focused, these activities engage CRS colleagues beyond the project team, at country program, regional, or global level.
- Formal project learning events such as workshops and symposia
Formal project learning activities.These activities will likely have been identified during project MEAL system development and detailed implementation planning but will evolve as project implementation and learning evolve (see step 4 above). Seek technical advisor (TA) inputs into what learning to share with external stakeholders. Keep in mind the available human and financial resources. Where appropriate, link learning events to other project processes and events which are likely to bring together many of the key stakeholders who would participate in a formal learning event. This can help optimize use of project resources and stakeholder time typically include external stakeholders and focus on sharing learning related to key project components or approaches. These events often incorporate the findings and interpretation of research or special studies as well as project evaluations (see the 7 Steps of Planning Summary and Workshop Agenda under “Other Resources” for an example of a national-level learning workshop).
- Face-to-face meetings to share project learning with key external stakeholders
Key stakeholders may include policy makers, other government officials, practitioner or research organizations, and donors.
- Presentations in external fora
Common fora include emergency cluster meetings, NGO working group meetings, technical conferences, etc.
Sharing learning with external stakeholders: Plan thoughtfully for external stakeholder engagement in project learning events, keeping in mind the learning objectives and interests of both the project team and each external stakeholder. Refer to project plans and analysis related to stakeholder communication and influence (including any project donor engagement plan and the (forthcoming) SMILER+ stakeholder communication plan). Reflect on whether the learning would be best shared and discussed in an event with a wider group of stakeholders, or in meetings and discussions with individual stakeholders or smaller stakeholder groups. Refer to MEAL Procedure 7.2MEAL Procedure 7.2: Communicate progress and evaluation findings to key stakeholders according to their information needs. when planning how to share project learning from baseline studies and mid-term evaluations.
- The PM/CoP, with support from the HoP as needed, engages the region and PIQA to assist with documenting project learning. Regional and PIQA support will vary depending on the project and its available resources, as well as the stakeholder’s communication needs and preferences. Adapt and package source information and messaging to each target audience. Think creatively, and contact IDEA donor communications staff for support with templates.
- Click here for a list of Common Formats for Sharing Project Learning
- Internal and external technical briefs
- Research papers
- Summary reports from learning events
- Success stories
- Audio-visual formats (e.g., short video or podcast interviews with project staff and/or participants)
- Blog posts
- Syntheses of project data (assessments, baseline reports, mid-term reviews, etc.).
Keep in mind that whatever the format for sharing project learning, the learning itself must be grounded in project data.
Focus on learning that is immediately relevant to the project: The possibilities for project learning can seem limitless. Discussion of project learning priorities during MEAL system development helps the project team focus on key areas for learning. However, learning priorities may evolve during project implementation based on changes in the operating environment and data from the project MEAL system. Focus on generating learning the project team can apply to make appropriate adaptations during the life of the project.
- The PM/CoP leads the CRS and partner project team in implementing the formal internal and external learning activities and events.
- Click here for Tips to Keep in Mind for External Learning Events.
- Ensure technical specialists (e.g. senior country program TAs, sectoral specialist consultants supporting the project, and regional or global TAs) are part of activities to share project learning with technical counterparts from external organizations (e.g., ministry staff, technical staff of peer NGOs, etc.).
- Engage the HoP and/or CR as appropriate in leading events with senior-level managers at donor or counterpart organizations.
- Develop clear talking points and agendas for both individual stakeholder meetings as well as multi-stakeholder events to ensure that CRS staff participating in the meeting communicate a clear and consistent message that is in line with stakeholder information needsMEAL Procedure 1.3: Create a MEAL system that meets a range of stakeholder information needs and will inform ongoing project decision-making and learning. identified during MEAL system development. Craft messages with inputs from TAs, communications staff as needed, and IDEA staff for centrally-managed donor relationships.
- Organize practice sessions, especially before dissemination activities with highly strategic stakeholders. Consider building these practice sessions into internal sharing activities.
- The PM/CoP, working with the HoP and technical advisors as needed, identifies any other CRS stakeholders who might be interested the learning products or the project team’s experience planning and implementing the learning events, and shares the relevant information.
Learning beyond the project team: Learning from one project can contribute to strengthening the design, planning and management of other projects. TAs will bring important perspectives on what may be innovative and of interest, and can help frame project learning within the larger context of a technical programming area – share learning with them, and seek their inputs regarding other CRS stakeholders who might be interested in project learning. Disseminate relevant project learning within the country program, to regional and headquarters staff, and to donor engagement staff.
- Following internal and external learning events, the PM/CoP uploads relevant learning documentation to Gateway, for future reference and use.
- If required by a project donor, upload learning documentation to relevant donor databases as well (e.g., Development Experience Clearinghouse).
Use project learning to regularly update project past performance references. Past performance references (PPRs) are a good way to summarize information about project achievements and key learning, and are very important for CRS’ business development efforts. Update PPRs regularly (e.g. annually) to reflect the most recent project results and learning. See MEAL Procedure 8.1MEAL Procedure 8.1: Complete end-of-project past performance references (PPRs) to document project learning and post to Gateway. for more information.
When CRS is a sub-recipient
- Partners should be full participants in project learning and sharing activities. Engage them as “reflective practitioners” or “knowledge workers”, rather than mere aid deliverers. Their field-based experiences, conversations and observations are often very informative, insightful, topical, and based in on-the-ground realities. This is invaluable when it comes to scanning for unintended consequences, both good and bad, arising from project interventions (see also Standard 11, key action 4).
- Support partners to promote an enabling environment for reflection, learning and adaptation, including planning and implementing learning and sharing activities and events at partner-level.
- During project team analysis of the target audiences and messages for project learning (see step 6 above), CRS and partners may in some cases determine that partners are best placed to share learning with certain stakeholders. In those cases, work with partners to plan and prepare for activities in which partners may play the lead role, as well as planning partners’ roles in activities during which CRS may take the lead.
- In projects where CRS has a research or technical partner leading a component of the project, the partner may lead documentation of project learning for that component. In most projects, however, CRS takes the lead in documenting project learning.
- The prime will determine the frequency and focus of project-wide review and learning meetings.
- Follow the process described above for learning around the project components managed by CRS, but remember that the prime will guide the project’s engagement with the project donor around project learning.
- Emergency PMs must be particularly attentive to integrating intentional learning into ongoing project review and planning meetings, given the dynamic operating context for emergency response.
- Emergency projects often have a more compressed schedule for learning events,including Real Time Evaluations 6-8 weeks into a responseMEAL Procedure 3.5: Conduct a real-time evaluation during emergency responses to contribute to agency learning and inform the next phase of the response. depending on the stage and urgency of the emergency response.
- Assessment information is often a key input in emergency project learning. Share assessment reports and relevant learning from reviews of project monitoring and evaluation data with emergency cluster members and other stakeholders as appropriate, as this learning may have broader relevance for many actors involved in the emergency response. When sharing and presenting such information, be transparent about the methodology used and its limitations.
Tools and templates
Policies and procedures
POL-OOD-PRG-008: MEAL Policies and Procedures, including procedures 3.7 and 7.2 Procedure 3.7: Reflect on evaluation findings with partners and other stakeholders to generate appropriate recommendations and inform agency learning.
Procedure 7.2: Communicate progress and evaluation findings to key stakeholders according to their information needs.
ALNAP Evaluation of Humanitarian Action Guide
Building a psychologically safe work environment (Dr. Amy Edmondson TEDx talk)
CRS MEAL Policies and Procedures website resources for policy 3 (Evaluation), policy 7 (Accountability to donors and stakeholders), and policy 8 (Learning)
Example 7 Steps of Planning and Agenda (National Sharing and Learning Workshop for the WALA/IMPACT project)
MEAL in Emergencies online course, building block on Learning
Video: The importance of learning in organizations (Harvard Business Review)
- Primary responsible: Project manager or chief of party (PM/CoP)