Introducing 5DL: How We Work


Introducing 5DL: How We Work

fiveDlearning is a small firm that often works on large projects with large organizations, including national governments and multinational corporations and NGOs. Accomplishing results on this scale requires careful focus. Each project is different, so we don’t have a single formula or methodology to share. However, certain features show up repeatedly in our projects. This post discusses a few of the key elements of our process and how they contribute to your success. We start with a brief description of the “vexing” human development challenges that we usually tackle, and how they differ from the “normal work” of human development.

Normal Work. Most human development projects are straightforward. An uncontroversial, well-understood need is identified. Perhaps a leadership team needs a refresher on strategic planning, or a change in accreditation requirements necessitates a new university course. Either the organization has the in-house human and intellectual capital required to meet the need or else good-quality resources are readily available in the market. The organization procures any needed resources, develops a learning experience, delivers it, (ideally) quality assesses it and incorporates lessons-learned into future planning, and the work is done.

Vexing Problems. But some human development problems are complex and vexing. It may not be clear what exactly is needed. (This is particularly true when an organization is entering a new field or accepting a new responsibility.) There may be controversy around whether or how to meet the need. (This is particularly true for government organizations, where new initiatives may attract political conflict.) The challenge may be scale-intractable—too large to tackle all-at-once with existing resources. The organization’s capabilities in this area may be so limited that it doesn’t know how to begin to address the challenge. Necessary human, intellectual, or financial resources may be unavailable or blocked. Staff or clients may be resistant. Stakeholders may have mutually inconsistent expectations, and so on. Many human development challenges have some of these characteristics, and a surprising number have all of them. These are the sorts of challenges that fiveDlearning was founded to meet.

The remainder of this post is based loosely on a “green field” engagement model, in which we work with a client on a brand-new challenge. Even in those situations, when we are free to shape the engagement, projects seldom follow the simplest path and significant adjustments often need to be made. When we’re engaged only after a client has tried and failed to address a challenge in other ways, the needed adjustments may be many and large. In those situations, the client must move from the current, unproductive path onto a path that can achieve the desired result. Often, it requires all the deep, diverse experience of our leadership team to identify the key obstacles and work with the client to resolve them.

Challenge Expansion and Environmental Analysis. When accepting a new engagement, the first thing we do is situate the challenge in the broadest and deepest possible picture of the organization and its environment. How does this challenge fit into the client’s work? What other challenges surround it? What challenges have preceded it and what are expected to follow? What are the client’s current capabilities and what new capabilities does the project seek to introduce? First-time clients sometimes resist this step: they want the challenge narrowed, not broadened. But “taking a step back” to scan the environment can produce significant benefits, especially if previous efforts to address the challenge have not worked. An old aphorism says, “if you have only one problem, then you really have a problem, but if you have enough problems, then you can put them to work solving each other.” We often discover that the reason clients are finding a challenge to be vexing is that they are attempting to address it too narrowly. In that situation, adding other (carefully selected!) challenges to an engagement greatly improves the ROI and makes the resulting initiative more tractable, more scalable, and more sustainable. Even when expansion is not needed or not possible, understanding the environment deeply can point the way to unrecognized resources or constraints whose incorporation into the project plan will markedly improve its outcome.

Result Selection and Reverse Engineering. Once we and the client understand the core challenge in the most constructive possible way, it is time to set objectives. Many clients are so conditioned by existing human development approaches that they want to set procedural objectives: passing a course, achieving a certificate, or so on. We encourage clients to set results-based objectives, operationalized as performance KPIs/OKRs or desired, observable behavioral changes or a mixture of both. Once the desired results are established, we work backward from there to determine what interventions are needed to achieve the results. This reverse engineering requires careful assessment of organizational, staff, and stakeholder capabilities, resources, and constraints.

Stakeholder Assessment. Especially in government agencies and NGOs, stakeholder environments can be extremely complicated and also crucial to the outcome of the engagement. We work with the client to identify all relevant stakeholders, analyze their resources, constraints, and incentives, and determine which stakeholders are essential to achieving the engagement’s objectives. The picture that emerges is fed into the project planning effort, to ensure that planners fully understand the human, financial, and intellectual resources available to them and also the obstacles they may face and the constraints under which they must operate.

Staff Assessment. We develop projects that are owned by our clients, not by us. It is essential that client staff have the capabilities needed to own the project both initially and over its entire, expected lifetime, which is normally much longer than our expected engagement. Sometimes, staff have almost everything they need. Sometimes, we identify important gaps that need to be filled. Occasionally, we encounter situations where staff capabilities are mismatched to what is needed to own the project successfully. In those cases, we must incorporate a comprehensive staff-development process and interim staffing model into the overall project plan, ensuring that the project can still advance effectively while the staff are developing their capabilities. When the engagement is intended to develop a new organization or unit, or to accompany a staff expansion, that plan may include comprehensive recruitment and hiring plans.

Organizational Assessment. Once the project is implemented and the staff have their new capabilities, is the organization ready to support and sustain them? New human capabilities often require changes to organizational structures, policies, procedures, practices, and personnel. We review carefully all related organizational elements and make recommendations to our clients about how best to adjust the organization to maximize ROI from the new project. If asked, we assist with all aspects of organizational realignment.

Collaborative Project Design. We talk about ourselves in part as a ‘design’ firm, so clients often expect us to present them with fully formed project designs with little client input; in fact, some first-time clients expect this at the first meeting! That’s not how we work. For clients to own a project, they must also own the design of that project. In addition, for a complex project to succeed and be sustainable, key stakeholders inside and (often) outside the organization must also own it. We use a collaborative project design process built around Community Charrettes™ (see our blog post entirely on this topic for more information). Charrettes engage all vital stakeholders in a collaborative, deliberative process producing a project plan that meets all requirements while taking account of all available resources and relevant constraints. When conducted properly, charrettes lead to a project that enjoys substantial “buy in” from all major stakeholders inside and outside the organization. One reason we favor charrettes over other potential approaches is because they build capabilities even as they do their work. Once a client organization has participated in delivering a Community Charrette process, learned the skills, and seen the benefits, its people will never go back to designing projects without stakeholder input again—and its future work will be more successful because of that.

CQI, CII, Sustainability, and Exit. Most human development projects can deliver “quick wins” but the large majority of a project’s ROI almost always takes time to arrive. People need time to grow, and then they need time to use their new capabilities to deliver value back to the organization. It almost never makes financial sense for a client to engage us long enough to realize the full ROI on their projects. Instead, our goal is to exit as quickly as possible, keeping the client’s costs down so that total ROI is maximized. We exit when we and the client are certain that the project is on a healthy, sustainable, ROI-maximizing path. Projects don’t arrive on such paths by accident: they must be started down the right path and managed in such a way that they stay on the path. To accomplish that, we incorporate Continuing Quality Improvement (CQI) and Continuing Impact Improvement (CII) planning into our project design process (see the blog posts on these topics for more details). As with all other aspects of the project, these plans are owned and operated by client staff (with developmental assistance from us as needed). They fulfill the quality assurance needs of the project as well.   

Implementation Phase. Often, human development plans are done “to” an organization. Our plans are done “by and with” our client organizations. When an organization has all the knowledge and skills required to implement our project design, we provide only coaching (and sometimes not even that). When there are skills or knowledge gaps, the organization collaborates with us on the plan to overcome those gaps and then implements the plan to complete the project successfully. Our goal, always, is to ensure that the organization does as much as possible of the work itself, so that it captures all the developmental benefits of that work (ROI). Our qualified and experienced project management professionals are also fully certified coaches, so that they can coach the client’s people through the process of managing the project for themselves.

In Summary. As a human development firm, we feel it is vital to our core values that we design every engagement to “work ourselves out of a job.” If we do our work well, our clients should develop the specific capabilities they hired us to develop and also the ability to do more of the same sort of work in future without engaging us at all. This may seem counter-intuitive: are we trying to go out of business? Not at all. For one thing, there are more interesting, vexing human development challenges out there than our small firm could ever engage. For another, our team includes some of the most intensively trained and broadly and deeply experienced human development professionals in the world. As clients develop their own capabilities, their desire to grow further also expands—and our people are ready to meet those expanded expectations. Clients may not come back to us for an exact duplicate of a previous engagement, but they often come back for a next-step project, or an entirely new sort of project that their new capabilities now allow them to consider undertaking.

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