A Stealth Approach to Integrating Learning Habits

By Irit Houvras

A big part of my job at American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is to make sure the organization is always learning—to facilitate opportunities for staff to reflect on data, develop new insights and improve our work. We do this because, as one recent report noted, “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.”

I was invited to participate in the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s Lab for Learning just as we were refining our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. One of our main goals for overhauling the M&E system was to increase reflection and learning opportunities, especially across teams, countries and regions. It was the perfect time to test out some of the new learning habits that I’d explored with the Lab for Learning—but I wanted to do it without placing the burden of extra trainings on staff, who already had plenty of demands on their time.

Here are two examples of how I integrated the learning habits into my work at AJWS, while keeping it simple and limiting the amount of staff time and effort involved:

Making Thinking Visible

This habit is about clarifying underlying assumptions in people’s thinking and pinpointing what we need to learn next. (Read more about this learning habit and others in this Medium post by Julia Coffman at the Center for Evaluation Innovation.) To put it into action, I added a new step to prepare for AJWS’s first biannual reflection sessions: facilitating before- and after-action reviews.

After-action reviews, first developed by the U.S. Army, are used to clarify the intended results of an action (before) and compare these intended results to what actually happened (after), so teams can discuss what contributed to the actual results and consider ways to optimize their actions in the future.  The after-action review process supported AJWS staff—especially those who are critical to coordinating team efforts but are not in formal leadership roles—to make a bigger contribution to organizational learning. It’s an important step, given AJWS’s commitment to gather perspectives from people working at all levels of the organization. The review process also contributed to directors on the grantmaking team better communicating their thinking to their staff. Together, we were able to unearth ways in which we could all contribute to improving the year-end reflection sessions.

Answering the “Now What” Question

After gathering new information or experiencing something new, most people spend a lot of time focused on what happened. They often spend less time discussing why it was important and how it should influence future actions. To apply this habit at AJWS, I prompted staff to pivot their reflections, focusing less on answering the “What?” and more on investigating the “So what?” and the “Now what?”

I integrated these questions into a training activity on our revised M&E form. During the activity, staff had limited time to report on the “What?” question. They also visualized the “What?” in a simple chart, which helped them move on to the “So what?” and the “Now what?” Holding staff to a short window for discussing what happened was essential to making this process efficient. While they only had 5 minutes to share deeply complicated information, their summaries were still rich and the prompts to discuss implications and next steps led to meaningful dialogue.

Later, in an unexpected turn of events, senior staff (including our executive team) began using the “What? So what? Now what?” framework in other settings, including a board of trustees meeting. When the exercise was repeated with the board, the trustees got the chance to discuss and better understand the staff’s decision-making—and the strategic thinking behind it.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly this learning habit picked up momentum throughout the organization. My experiment showed how the right habit can strengthen existing learning efforts and instill new concepts that can be easily adopted—without a formalized roll-out or time-consuming training for all staff.

But to sustain any habit, we need to keep using it. I’m looking forward to the ongoing challenge of reinforcing and building learning habits at AJWS.

Irit Houvras is the Director for Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation.