“We do not think and talk about what we can see; we see what we are able to think and talk about.”– Edgar Schein.
Tracking milestones, setting targets and reaching KPIs have become so commonplace within work settings, that their meaning has begun to jumble. What began as a tool to celebrate progress, incentivise ambitious behaviours, and assign accountability and responsibility — has instead become a sort-of-league table and a way of competing.
Rather than seeking to learn about what works, for whom and how in partnerships and platforms, and the results they contribute to — we have begun to see a focus on equating success with the things already known. Be wary of any evaluation that seeks to ‘prove what we already know’ or ‘confirm anecdotes we’ve heard’. These are common requests we hear from partnerships and platforms, and they are clear signs that a culture of inquiry has not yet been established.
In our experience, the most important element of any learning and evaluation system for partnerships tackling complex problems is to foster a culture of inquiry.
A culture of inquiry is one that encourages and supports curiosity, experimentation and risk taking. It requires trust among those involved and a tolerance for failure. A culture of inquiry is not easy to create — many multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSP) struggle with creating these conditions, which are not always supported by the broader systems and institutions in which MSPs are placed. Examining the structures, functions and outcomes of an MSP requires a willingness to unearth mistakes, poor decisions, false assumptions and ineffective investments — as well as successes and achievements. Trust, resolve and co-ownership of wins and losses are therefore at the heart of an inquisitive culture for MSPs.
Building a culture of inquiry requires support and stewardship from distributed leadership — which means both top down and bottom-up leadership. This includes those within the secretariat, MSP working groups and committees, and other MSP members: all of whom need to be encouraged to ask questions about the MSP and the work it does. When done well, this results in an environment where learning is a part of what everyone does, and what they are expected to do.
MSPs are often established to tackle complex problems. Those who invest their time, skills and resources in collaborative working do so because of a belief in the power of collaboration to discover and foster innovation, and sustainable change. They do so because they are curious and hopeful about what the partnership might learn.
We’ve spent time working in and with a range of partnerships and platforms that are intentionally focusing on learning and evaluation, and in doing so, also building a culture of inquiry. We’d challenge any hard and fast rules on how to go about doing this — our experience suggests that creating space for people to reflect, talk and ask questions, is likely a good place to start. We recognise that partnerships are at different stages of evolution, and that cultural readiness and appetite for learning must become part of the fabric of any partnership seeking to make real change.
You can read more about some of the ways to create a culture of inquiry in Strengthening Platforms and Partnerships through Continuous Learning and Evaluation, as well as additional resources at dayfourprojects.com.
And if you’re interested in continuing the conversation, you might like to join our Community of Practice of likeminded folks working in partnerships to tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems.