November 14, 2018

Bringing learning to life at the Boston Fed

By Colleen Dawicki

The Working Cities Challenge model features a set of four “core elements” that we ask cities to prioritize and build into their initiatives. We know these elements—collaborative leadership, community engagement, systems change and learning orientation—are all vital to improve outcomes for low-income residents, as well as strengthen and sustain a community’s civic infrastructure.

The Working Cities staff here at the Boston Fed believes in taking our own medicine: That is, if we truly think that the core elements enhance a team’s impact, we should apply them ourselves. So what does it look like to adopt a learning orientation with our team at the Boston Fed, and how does this strengthen our work?

We define learning orientation as, “The willingness to tackle hard questions about your community and the problem you’re addressing, to use evidence to inform your decisions about strategies and priorities, and change course when needed.” Through our own observations and those of our independent evaluator, Mt. Auburn Associates, it’s clear that teams make more progress faster when they are open to change, examine data to better understand an issue, name and test assumptions, and adapt as they better understand how their efforts align—or don’t—with resident needs and outcomes.

It requires commitment and follow-through to learn in a way that yields results. Given the demands on the Boston Fed’s Working Cities team members —we each implement a round of the competition, which spreads across 16 cities in three states (and counting!)—we’ve adopted a BOLD approach to learning.

BOLD is an acronym for how we learn intentionally: We use the adaptive leadership technique of “getting off the dance floor and onto the Balcony” to Learn about a key question and decide what to Do differently. Once per month, our five-member WCC team gathers for two hours to answer a question on our ”learning agenda,“ a list of questions developed by our team that help us discover ways to improve our model and better support the work of WCC grantees.

As we update our 2018 learning agenda based on the questions that are most timely and actionable, we’re also reflecting on how our BOLD approach has already helped reshape the WCC model:

We asked… We responded by…
How might we help new teams best navigate the transition from planning to implementation? Presenting a day-long session on governance for the CT teams, since we learned that this was a topic that was tripping up many new grantees early in their work.
How can we help teams adopt the core elements during implementation? Developing a set of interim progress benchmarks that help teams see whether they are successfully integrating the core elements.
How can our early lessons about supporting sustainability in the inaugural round of WCC in Massachusetts shape the way future teams think about their initiatives beyond Year 3? Distilling research on sustainability, providing consulting support to Round 2 teams who are ready to begin discussions about how to scale and sustain their impact, and asking questions of our Round 2 teams to better understand their sustainability planning and support needs.
How might we integrate racial equity in the WCC’s core elements to better convey both its importance and our expectation that teams prioritize this? Revising the framing of our core elements based on the results of our BOLD discussion and a conference call with teams across all three WCC states. Stay tuned for a blog post reflecting those changes!

In our next ”learning-oriented” post, we’ll share the remaining learning questions on our agenda for 2018, along with a new tool we’re using to answer them. We’ll also begin sharing the results of those BOLD conversations here, for the benefit of our teams and our colleagues in the field.