How Do We Learn During COVID-19?

As global warming is already becoming a crisis with more potential for disruption than COVID-19, we cannot afford not to learn. How well we make sense, grow our understanding of what is important, needed and possible now and in the months to come, is crucial. We will have to be even more disciplined in carving out time and space to reflect and learn than before COVID-19. To learn effectively from this crisis, we need to capture the learning as it happens, in-situ, in order to avoid retrospective coherence. Sonja Blignaut explains: “If we don’t capture learnings in the moment, we will connect dots after the crisis has passed, in ways that satisfy our need for linear cause and effect and we will create stories that make sense to attribute success and justify failure.” Dave Snowden agrees: “The real learning happens during the crisis as  you go through it. Don’t wait till the end to review it. After the event, politics and hindsight come into play.”


Cartoon by Chris Lysy from Fresh Spectrum @clysy

Intended vs. Emergent Learning

There are two different types of learning. Intended learning is based on knowledge (from past learning) and skills and competencies needed for the present. This learning is crucial in maintaining business as usual. It can happen with the help of predetermined strategic learning questions, that guide an oganisation’s inquiry. However, with COVID-19 we ended up in uncharted territory, and our old maps of  how the world operates are no longer helpful. Our existing approaches may no longer work very well either.

Using the Cynefin framework to better understand our conetxt, we can identify if we are working in chaotic, complex, complicated or simple contexts – or what combination of these domains of change is present. As we discussed here, instead of making big moves towards a defined future goal, in complex environments, we need to identify entry points and take small safe-to-fail steps in directions that might offer the most potential. Dave Snowden offers a helpful metaphor of crossing a river on stepping stones.

As Sahana Chattopadhyay points out, when faced with complexity and ambiguity, learning from the past or continuing to build on existing knowledge doesn’t always work. According to her, under these circumstances we need to move to emergent learning, defined as learning that goes beyond the cognitive to integrate the heart, gut, body and intuition. It happens from a place of reflection and sensemaking. Snowden agrees: “The last thing you want to do is follow the successful practice of the previous era when the new era is going to be very different. Hindsight does not lead to foresight in complexity – you have to manage in the moment.”

Chattopadhyay believes that holding space for emergent learning is one of the preconditions for creating a thrivable and anti-fragile organisation, one which flourishes in the face of change and disruption. However, since most organisations struggle to become and remain a Learning Organisation in the best of times, getting good at learning during a crisis is no mean feat. What can we do to strengthen emergent learning in our teams and organisations during COVID-19?

1. Carve out dedicated time and space – Collective reflection and learning will not happen if no specific time is allocated for this in staff member’s busy schedules. Some staff will instinctively feel the need to take time “off” the job for dedicated reflection and learning – but individual learning does not automatically lead to team and organisational learning. In order for the latter to take place, a learning rhythm needs to be developed, consisting of set times and spaces where individual teams and the organisations as a whole get together to reflect and learn on and from the work. If the organisation does not have a very strong reflective and learning practice, it is wise to start small. It is important that reflection and learning spaces are safe spaces where staff can open up about success as well as challenges and failures – if this is not yet part of your culture, start creating this by focussing foremost on what works well and how this can be strenghtened. It is important that the individual reflections and lessons feed into the team reflections and lessons, which then feed into larger organisational processes of reflection and learning. This is a bit of a tricky one and you need to get the balance just right. “Feeding into” does not mean “repeating verbatim” the reflections that already took place elswhere – make sure you are having the strategic discussions where they belong. This links to the question of frequencey. If empowered and decentralized teams are reflecting on issues weekly and addressing them successfully at team level, a monthly organisational reflection and learning session will do just fine.

2. Strengthen individual, team and organisational reflective practice – In times of upheaval, it is important to reflect often: formally, informally, individually, and collectively. Learning should be initiated and/or strengthened at all levels of an organisation. An effective way to build reflective practice is for staff to start integrating small measures of observation, reflection, learning and planning into everything they do, so that it becomes a natural practice. As individuals, we learn by doing (which is effective for simple tasks) or by trial and error (where we try something and if it does not work, we try something else). In times of crisis, we need processes of deeper learning too. Reflective practice (also referred to as Action Learning) is a more conscious way of how human beings naturally learn from experience. In its simplest form it involves thinking about, or reflecting on, what you do. The difference between reflecting “on the run” and reflective practice is that the latter requires a conscious effort to pause and think about experience and/or practice. Learning here, is about surfacing deeper implications and guidance for the future. Ideally, individual staff members take some time out at the end of each day to write down their observations and reflections, which they can then share within the bigger team at the end of the week, in a reflective practice session. An After Action Review is one of the tools that can be used by teams to collectively reflect on practice. The Harvard Business Review developed a helpful guidance note on After Action Reviews (AARs).

An effective AAR involves comparing what actually happened with what should or could have happened and then carefully diagnosing the gap, be it positive or negative. The goal is to learn. Teams that are not used to reflect on their work could start holding short AAR meetings and keep things simple at first, developing the practice slowly. Alternatively, they could start this practice at an individual rather than team level, with the support of an “Innovation and Learning” officer alongside COVID-19 response teams. Chris Bolton from WhatsthePont developed a process for this.

To ensure that a rigorous AAR process is followed, they should be run by a facilitator rather than a team leader. Trying to get a full and accurate picture of what occurred requires considering multiple perspectives. The reflection relies heavily on staff’s observations and impressions, but if data was collected, this can also be brought into the conversation.

An AAR is not a post-mortem. Rather, it is forward-looking and connects to thinking about how the work could be improved. However, AARs can also fulfil an important affirmative practice, by identifying what is going well and how this can be strengthened – this is often a good place to start for teams that are new to the practice.

3. Act on hunches and insights, but also allow the seeds of action to germinate – As Julian Barr points out, the risk of working adaptively is that failures are not learnt from as well as they could be, as it might feel more useful and exciting to try and test the next approach, rather than reflect on an approach that does not seem to be bearing any fruit. As much as reflective practice is forward-looking and should inform decisions and action, it also requires an ability to stand back, suspend judgement and acknowledge that there is a lot we simply don’t know yet. Sometimes the biggest insight from an AAR is a new or better formulated question, rather than a proposed change of activities or strategy. Numerous short cycles of “plan, implement, reflect, learn, act” allow teams to validate lessons for their own use and to ensure that the lessons they share with other teams have sufficient depth. Documentation of AAR conversations and lessons learned is fundamental, so that they can be shared with others. Since rigorous learning processes are the backbone of a more adaptive M&E system, some donors might be interested in receiving (a sample of) these reports too.

4. Focus on the “how” more than on the “what” – Chattopadhyay observes that, at the organisational level, we often restrict reflective practices to “project retrospectives” and don’t tend to include taking a conscious look at emotions, quality of experiences, the relationships, and the overall energy flow. Chattopadhyay: “By only focusing on what needs to be done, we ignore how it gets done. However, it is the “how” which creates the movement of energy, the joy of moving toward a common purpose”. It is also the “how” that distinguished our organization from others doing the same kinds of activities. It is important to reflect on “how” things are done (process dimension), so that we become more conscious and continuously strengthen our practice. This is especially important during times of crisis, as we are often experimenting with novel approaches and practices.

5. Collective sense-making – In a crisis, we’re exposed to so much ‘information’ about what is happening and what is trying to emerge that, in addition to reflecting on our intervention, it is important to engage in regular collective sense-making. Sense-making is the process by which we make sense of the world so that we can act in it. According to Chattopadhyay, organizations that allow information to flow freely irrespective of positions and power, naturally create the conditions for sensemaking. When everyone in the organization has access to freely flowing information, they can interpret, respond, and build shared awareness of the context and the ecosystem. However, in addition to free flowing information, it is important to meet and engage in collective sensemaking. Collective sensemaking helps reduce cognitive bias (unintentional blindness). All of us are predisposed to only see what we expect to see. Collective sensemaking can help teams and organisations to surface assumptions, give people who aren’t normally heard a voice and help improve the quality of decision making. Dave Snowden explains: “The collective has sensory capability, psychological support and response ability that cannot be possessed by the individual, or the some of the individuals. Mass sense – so engage large networks of ppl from different backgroudns to do situational assessments in near real time, so you can see something that the organisation needs to pay attention to. In this blog post, Chris Corrigan describes what a sense-making process could look like. The team at Lankelly Chaseturned one of their team meetings into a shared sense-making space and are attempting to harvest the insights they are gathering from conversations and experiences. The meeting is purposefully short. Here is an example of what was distilled in one such meeting.

6. Learn from your response to this crisis in order to deal with future shocks – With major disruptions also come opportunities for innovation and reimagining the future of organisations. The way we navigate through this crisis and the lessons we capture along the way will contribute to the robustness and resilience of an organisation’s strategy post-COVID. As we are being forced to do things that would have normally taken a long time to change – how do we make sure these changes stick? Dave Snowden advises that we should seize the day to create a resilient organisation. He says: “You don’t have to go back to old ways of doing things. Instead, keep carrying through these practices as they make you a more attractive org to work for.” Once we get out of COVID-19, the focus can shift carefully on training for the next crisis and for that we also need the material we will draw during the crisis to do this.

NB: Where I have not hyper-linked Dave Snowden’s name, his quotes come from the webinar on  Leading Through Complexity and Chaos, which took place on 28 May 2020 and was organised by the Human Capital Leadership Institute.






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