34: Establishing a learning culture

We live in a complex and rapidly changing world. Establishing a strong learning culture around implementation and management, one that questions, tests and refines knowledge and assumptions, is the only viable approach for navigating towards a more sustainable, safe and just future. This work card discusses how you can grow this kind of learning culture.

Bringing together the coalition, stakeholders critical to the implementation phase, including representatives of important partnering organizations, discuss and agree on an adaptive approach to implementation, including how actions will be safely tested, and the Change Narrative revised, through that process.

Suggested approach: Meeting

Time required: 2-4 hrs

Facilitation skill level: High

Resources: Outputs of Phases 3 and 4 of the Wayfinder process, recording materials

Embracing a learning approach

All interventions in complex systems will produce a range of results, including those we have not been able to foresee. This is both because our systems knowledge is imperfect and because conditions constantly change. Therefore, Wayfinder emphasizes the need for a learning approach to management, where you treat your Change Narrative as a hypothesis that you continuously test through implementation of your Action Plan. These implementation experiments are designed to probe the system, to gain experience, to engage new partners, explore key assumptions that you have made as you have assessed the system and planned for how to change it up to date. Over time this will allow you to refine your Change Narrative, guiding the next cycle of interventions and strategies for change.

Establishing a strong learning culture around implementation, that continuously questions, tests and refine assumptions, provides the best foundation for dealing with the complex and dynamic social-ecological systems in a rapidly changing world. Photo: iStock.

Embracing a learning approach to implementation requires a major shift in thinking and practice. Much of what we do today is dictated by misguided demands for efficiency, whereas in reality what is really inefficient is not learning from what we are doing. Despite best efforts, it is highly likely that many of the actions and strategies that you have developed will not be successful. That does not mean the assessment and planning process has been a failure. The ‘failure’ is actually an opportunity to rapidly improve your understanding about the system. We typically learn more from failure than from success, but you need systems in place to recognize and capture that learning.

A shift in mindset

Achieving the necessary mind-shift can be difficult, but it is very important to spend sufficient time on building a learning culture before implementing your actions and strategies. Having a strong and consistent leadership that will advocate for this approach is necessary. Many funders and agencies have unrealistic expectations about the amount and rate of change that can be achieved in complex systems. A critical issue is to manage their expectation. Early on in the implementation phase, make sure that you engage with leaders in your own organization and beyond, to talk about the need for a learning-based approach to management, and that learning needs to be shared among concerned stakeholders.

While this may be challenging, establishing a learning culture, where implementation is viewed as an opportunity to test knowledge and assumptions, is one of the most powerful things we can do to manage complexity and navigate towards sustainability in the Anthropocene.

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35: Assembling a skilled implementation team

To enable the learning-by-doing approach you need a governance structure to oversee implementation – an implementation team. This team will be responsible to test new actions and strategies, to reflect on monitoring information, to communicate to partners and stakeholders, and to navigate sensitive issues of power and politics. This work card describes important issues to consider when building your implementation team.

Approach key individuals and organizations within the system (if they have not already been involved in the process) who are critical to implementation of the Action Plan. This is best done using a personal approach in one-on-one and small meetings to establish clear roles and an understanding of the approach to implementation.

Suggested approach: small meetings

Time required: 1-2 hrs

Facilitation skill level: Medium

Resources: Output from Work card 32 and supporting material

Overseeing implementation

The implementation team provides a reference group to design and test new actions, to review and reflect on monitoring information and to connect and communicate with partners and stakeholders who are involved in implementing the actions. You can think of this team as the custodians of the evolving knowledge and learning, who will be able to make detailed contributions to updating the Change Narrative over time.

To enable the learning-by-doing approach you need to put together an implementation team. As the Wayfinder process shifts character in this phase and becomes about real life testing and practical work on the ground, members of this team needs a wide range of skills and capacities, including both the know-what and the know-how. Photo: iStock.

The implementation team should include people from the Coalition, but it may also include other key people that have participated in the Wayfinder process, and some additional people with specialist knowledge about the system or the cultural or political dynamics in the system.

Navigating change requires a range of capacities and skills at different scales, from the individual to the project team and the larger organizations involved. Think about know what and know how, see box 35.1. Use the attached discussion guide to help you reflect on how to put together a capable implementation team that has the range of skills required.

Navigating power and politics

One of the major challenges of this type of sustainability work, where the explicit goal is to move away from business-as-usual and change the development trajectory of a system, is that vested interests will want to maintain status quo. Changing the system dynamics means that the distribution of benefits among actors in the system will change, which will translate into the loss of resources, status and power for some people or organizations in the system. These power dynamics often only emerge when change starts to happen in a system. At this time, however, power networks that have not been obvious may start to emerge, counteracting the emerging change. It is important that the implementation team is prepared for this, and its members probably need to practice their skills for navigating power and politics. Below, we list a few useful tips for navigating power and politics.

  • Try to understand the power dynamics at play, particularly who benefits from the current system configuration and how.
  • If possible, engage with powerful actors to understand their views and make them understand the views of other actors in the system.
  • Ensure that the implementation process empowers other voices than those already in power.
  • Ensure there is strong ownership and buy in of the aspirations and higher-level goals of the Wayfinder process from the majority of stakeholders.
  • Focus on joint aspirations and goals during discussions about power and vested interests.

Box 35.1 – Resilience practice skills and capacities to be developed and nurtured at different scales

Individual: Self-reflection, communication skills, curiosity, empathy, humility, questioning of one’s own assumptions and biases

Project team: Leadership, linking actions with conceptual models, testing assumptions, reflexive practice, communicating and sharing information

Organizational: Leadership, learning culture, linking actions with conceptual models, creating new routines and practices to reinforce systems thinking and practice

Crossorganizational: Creating networks through communities of practice, developing shared visions, creating a common language, creating shared conceptual models, agreeing on measures of change and success, sharing and devolving power

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