Christine Livet September 8, 2016

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Market development programmes operate in highly complex environments. This isn’t new insight. We spend countless hours and resources analyzing markets. We attempt to create systemic change through behaviour change. We meticulously monitor our progress and (usually, always) prematurely demand results. We acknowledge the need to experiment – to learn better about what is happening ‘on the ground’ and adapt our interventions accordingly.

food market

Fundamental to successfully adapting is our field staff. As we wrote in a 2014 case study on the Growth, Health and Governance (GHG) programme being implemented by Mercy Corps in Northern Uganda, “when staff are engaged and curious, they are able to identify and pursue new opportunities to further programmatic goals such as identifying a new partner, or coming up with new ideas to test.” Are field staff incentivized to do good work? Are they able to relay, back up the chain, their observations on the ground?

Unfortunately, feedback loops between field staff and their managers are started but seldom closed; or rather, they are started to ensure a team reaches their targets rather than to understand system dynamics and response to interventions.

Pollen Group’s dozens of engagements with market development programmes have given us great insight into what it takes to close the feedback loop between project field staff and senior managers. Below are three things managers can focus on to ensure they are creating meaningful feedback between themselves and field staff:

  1. Promote creative tension Senior management needs to be explicit about, and continuously reinforce, what kind of environment they want to create . For example, managers aren’t always in the field and do not have the most updated or accurate information. During on-boarding, we’ve seen managers address this with pep talks to new staff of all levels on the importance of constructive dissent and feeling comfortable respectfully challenging their managers. Another agricultural program in Uganda had managers not reveal quantitative targets to their field staff in hopes of better incentivizing sustainable activities rather than cutting corners to reach targets.
  2. Build a team of the curious: meaningful feedback loops take a long time to build and require staff invested in the attitudes and convictions of the program’s mission. Closing feedback loops means both parties want what is best for the program. This can look like staff approaching each other without prompting to get feedback on an idea, or going to meet with market actors on their day off because of a nagging question on their mind. To build that culture, managers can start with how they hire and incentivize the performance of staff. Job descriptions for market facilitators (field staff) might include language on curiosity and willingness to learn, and interview processes will emphasize emotional intelligence as equally important as hard skills. When it comes to performance reviews, field staff can be rewarded for their observed critical engagement throughout the quarter.
  3. Tools and processes support feedback, but they do not guarantee feedback: this might seem obvious, but we want to emphasize, for example, that having retreats and performance reviews do not mean a feedback loop is closed. Feedback processes should be designed in such a way that staff are actively engaging and providing feedback in many different ways: GHG’s quarterly review processes feature intervention teams critiquing each other’s logic as well as progress. Another aspect is ensuring that M&E tools focus on capturing key pieces of information and insights: programs we’ve worked with tend to use weekly, monthly or interaction-based tools that ask qualitative questions, such as “What did you do? What was the intended result? What actually happened? What did you learn?” This allows field staff to record meaningful, nuanced information that can be easily monitored and followed-up with by their managers.

When closing the feedback loop with your field staff, never underestimate the importance of engagement. From hiring for a curious mindset to encouraging feedback at all levels – especially where there’s tension – this will keep an organization adapting and ultimately lead to more meaningful work.

Join discussions on the important role of organizational culture and effective learning through admitting failure during the Fail Fest at the SEEP Annual Conference next week!

christine livetpollen groupChristine Livet is a Founding Partner and Senior Strategist with Pollen Group, currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. She has worked with several clients in different agricultural markets across Nepal, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. Prior to Pollen Group, Christine worked with the Canadian International Development Agency, advising on economic growth policy and programming, as well as with Oxfam Canada and the Centre for International Studies and Education. She has a degree in International Development from the University of Ottawa.

Three Things Thursday is a weekly series highlighting 3 (easy) things that people can do in their day-to-day work lives to incorporate feedback and adapt based on it. Leading up to the Feedback Summit, we want to hear feasible feedback actions from across the Feedback Labs community. Have you incorporated feedback into your work? Do you have advice on how to adapt your work based on feedback? If you’d like to share your or your organization’s experiences on the blog please contact [email protected]

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