Learn and adapt

Learn and Adapt

Systemic change requires a transformation – a move from one state to another. To do this we have to be willing to learn and adapt, to let go to move forward. This is a critical building block and set of tools to be applied across all the other building blocks to support systemic change. Learning can happen when we pay attention to what is occurring (monitor), reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and then make new choices based on that reflection. A practice of doing this on an individual, community and systemic level must be designed into the process. Learning is not something we do only once; it’s a lifelong daily pursuit — a practice - and practice requires paying attention, repetition, consistency and commitment. Ensure that regular reflection and adaptation is an ongoing part of the process

Transforming systems through experiential learning – and making it a habit.

Why is Learning and Adapting important in systemic change? Because the solution is rarely known at the outset, participants have the opportunity to engage in learning-by-doing and adapting to discover the best way forward. Whether it’s a working group that learns a hoped-for-solution won’t work, or a task force that realizes the funding promised is no longer available, or evidence for a committee’s hypothesis that didn’t materialize, every group of stakeholders trying to change a system will experience a dead-end, a roadblock, a failure and many complex challenges — if they are approaching it right.

Learning and adapting is key throughout the effort, not only when we’ve achieved our goals. Therefore, developing a culture of learning starts at the beginning of the journey and continues until the end.

What do we know about people who are good at learning? Learners are people who don’t necessarily want to fail, but who are not afraid to admit failure and mistakes made. They embrace change, are good listeners, have a bias for action, aren’t afraid to be different, want to have impact and have a purpose driven by empathy. Enabling and building these capacities is critical. They build psychological safety within the group, which in turn allows us to be courageous when taking chances with ideas, proposing potential solutions, building on others’ ideas and being vulnerable.

Adaptation requires certain mindsets, behaviours, and competencies too. Participants are better able to adapt to their situation if there is a focus on results and impacts; if there is emphasis on facilitating learning and building relationships and if there is support with navigating change. The structure of the effort also needs to provide space for continuous learning and improvement.

Researchers have long understood the importance of a reflective practice to support learning and development. David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle is one model that is a valuable tool for learning and adapting. Illustrated by Carlotta Cataldi.



Learn and Adapt

Backbone Support

1.    Practices, processes and systems for monitoring, learning and adapting are embedded throughout all Building Blocks

2.    Results and impact are reported through a Participatory Monitoring System

3.    All stakeholders are telling the collective story

Stakeholder Actions

1.    Learnings are shared and communicated

2.    Any change in the system, stakeholder community and/or individuals are documented and measured

3.    Next steps, if any, are identified

4.    The collaborative effort can work with the emergent future

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Essential Practices

Monitoring, Learning, Adapting


Read more about this Building Block on the ECA Guidebook

This is a living guide. If you have suggestions on how we can make it better, please write to us at methodology.feedback@ undp.org