#AccessEd 14 – Postcard from America

In which your intrepid correspondent reports back from the cutting edge of structured, improvisational feedback…

This week it has been my pleasure and privilege to be able to come over to the US to attend the Feedback Labs Summit, in Washington DC. Feedback Labs, hosts of the event, are an organisation dedicated to developing a culture of listening and responding to participants in any social programme. “Because people should drive what affects them most”: a simple, powerful principle which unlocks a persistent problem across the social sector as a whole: how do we best understand, and improve, the impact of our work on the people and communities we exist to serve?

As I said today to Dennis Whittle, the co-founder of Feedback Labs, this summit has been the most inspiring and enjoyable event of its kind that I have attended, by some margin. The attendees, a diverse mixture of practitioners, funders, government officials and policy makers, are united by an enthusiasm for building feedback loops into their work, in order to ground their decisions in an understanding of the lived experience of those their programmes exist to support. It is significant, and highly unusual, that this audience combines both national and international development agencies, cutting across an entrenched – yet arbitrary – divide which persists in the social sector.

The sessions I attended today covered adaptive management, behavioural insights and ‘funding feasibility’ (the ways in which funders can encourage the meaningful use of feedback in their programmes). My colleague Gen Maitland-Hudson, from Power to Change (our funding partner on the ‘Pathway’ strand of the Impact Management Programme), and I were also given the opportunity to run a session. With a hint of whimsy, we used the analogy of Jazz as way into understanding how best to support a healthy culture of listening and responsiveness within social programmes.

The starting point for this is the misplaced idea that ‘anything goes’ within Jazz, built as it is with a culture of improvisation at its core. In truth, improvisation is only possible within a consistent structure, which gives the players a bounded space within which they can play and explore. Our contention was that this provides a useful model for us to consider how much structure we as funders need to provide in order to allow our grantees and investees to ‘improvise’ in the feedback they give us, and for us to respond in turn.

In the context of Access, the two halves of our world provide contrasting examples for how this balance can be struck. The Growth Fund has a pre-determined set of reporting requirements: a detailed ‘score’ which our fund managers, and by extension their investees, we require them to ‘perform’. Our Capacity Building Programme, meanwhile, is bounded by a set of design principles (be transparent, data-driven, committed to sharing and learning), and we have more freedom to determine how these are best expressed.

In Jazz terms, the Growth Fund is akin to a Duke Ellington piece – tightly scored, with a specific part for every player. The aim is therefore to support our fund managers to play this score *with feeling*: because as the Duke said, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. In practice, this means encouraging our fund managers to tell us how best they can collect meaningful data from their investees, and allow for some variation between them in how they approach, for example, collecting information about the participants in the service they are providing (and, crucially, responding to this information to improve that service).

The Capacity Building Programme, meanwhile, is more like ‘So What’ by Miles Davis: a melody and a chord progression, from which basis a set of skillful, attentive players can improvise to make the music come alive. This translates, in the case of both our Reach Fund and Impact Management Programme, into setting a minimal set of KPIs (the ‘melody’) and agreeing a set of principles within which to set further KPIs as the programme progresses (the ‘chord progression’). Central to making this approach work is a focus on listening across all of the ‘players’ – grantees, programme managers and the team at Access itself. 

The discussion in our session offered me some more useful reflections. Across both contexts, it behooves us at Access to check that everyone is able to play – they have enough knowledge and skill to master their instruments, and they can hear whether or not the music is hitting the right groove. We also played with the idea that the role of the funder is probably as the ‘drums’: we set the tempo, but no one wants to hear an interminable drum solo. We need the rest of the band to make good music, and they need us to lay down a decent beat.   

Having spent an enjoyable, playful hour exploring this train of thought with our group, I was heartened to discover that, unbeknownst to us, the aforementioned Dennis uses precisely the same analogy with incoming members of staff, to encourage them to improvise within the structure he gives them. Great minds.

As I publish this post, I’m looking forward to another day of exploration and discovery with this wonderful and driven community of feedback enthusiasts. Next Tuesday, meanwhile, we have Feedback Labs Summit London to look forward to: about which I may blog in due course…