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Evidence-Based Practice and Leadership Development:
A Learning Synthesis
November 7, 2010
A Learning Synthesis
November 7, 2010
A Learning Circle Overview
Twenty-one funders and evaluators gathered for 1 ½ days to have a conversation about evidence-based practice and leadership development (see Attachment A for a list of participants). The session began with an introduction to Evidence-Based Practice and some examples of how EBP has been applied in the field of leadership development. We took an in-depth look at the Theory of Aligned Contribution and the Leadership in Action program with Victoria Goddard-Truitt. Powerpoint slides from both presentations are available at the meeting wiki, along with an overview of the purpose, process, and content of the meeting.
On the second day we engaged in an Evidence-Based Practice Application Lab. In what follows we provide a learning synthesis for that Lab.
The Development and Testing of Hypotheses
Context: We framed the context for the EBP Application Lab to focus on understanding leadership approaches that support large-scale results. Large-scale results are described as a community result, a change in the condition of well-being of a population, a systems or field level result. This was our starting point because we are interested in utilizing hypotheses, and other learning tools to bring increased rigor to our understanding about what leadership approaches contribute most to catalyzing large-scale change. Our goal was to explore whether we can successfully apply these approaches in a variety of leadership contexts to scale the impact of leadership work and catalyze social change.
What is a useful hypothesis?:To be able to create useful hypotheses we recognized the need to better understand what creates a strong hypothesis so we invited a team of experienced leadership evaluators and investors to weigh in on the question. We provided a number of existing hypotheses that had been developed by researchers and leadership program staff as a starting point.
There was general agreement that the process of creating a hypothesis helps a group to identify its assumptions. Our discussion focused on raising questions about
- Our clarity about results
- Our clarity around the intervention
- Our willingness to test our assumptions
Results: Clarity about results focuses on the “then” part of the hypothesis statement. Some of the results that were identified were too global and without a clear results focus. It’s important to articulate results that are achievable, and have measurable indicators for tracking progress towards large-scale results. A strong result addresses a condition of well-being. Too often we are vague about the results we seek, and are content to articulate outcomes we think we can get funding for without a clear idea about how we will know if we are making progress in the desired direction.
Interventions: Clarity about the intervention focuses on the “if” part of the hypothesis statement. Our knowledge about what works in leadership development is neither well-researched nor widely known. We have not clearly articulated and tested our assumptions among peers or with participants in our leadership programs. Most leadership programs have multiple interventions that interact with one another to create leadership outcomes. Testing the relative contribution of various interventions and understanding how they work together is new territory for most leadership programs.
Testing Hypotheses: Interesting questions were raised about how willing we are to test our assumptions. Sometimes we are unwilling to test our assumptions for fear of being honest about what’s not working. Since we don’t generally have a funding culture that values learning, we often don’t ask ourselves hard questions or test our assumptions with those that are most affected by a proposed intervention.
We asked for 3 volunteers to offer their program context for small group work designed to collectively develop a testable hypothesis. All of the groups struggled with this assignment but found the exercise illustrative.
- Group I: The first group chose to create a hypothesis that would predict the result of integrating a class, culture and power analysis into the work of all leadership programs.
- Hypothesis: If participants in a leadership program have conversations about race and understand structures that perpetuate disparities they will be better able to develop strategies that close disparity gaps:
- The group of participants is diverse
- Participants are brought together in a safe container
- Conversations about race are linked to making meaning of the life experiences of participants
- Participants commit to measuring racial and class disparities in the outcomes they are seeking
- Question: This group asked the question, is it worth testing this hypothesis given the probable investment of resources that it would require to establish its validity, or should we just embed this in leadership programs because we know it to be true.
- Group II: The second group formed to discuss a network approach to building community leadership.
- Questions: Group II did not develop a hypothesis but did focus their conversation around these questions.
1. What strategies support residents to take up leadership in their communities and pass it on to others?
2. How is the integrity of a networked approach to community development maintained, while also meeting the demands that require an organizational structure and procedures?
3. How does community leadership and positional leadership in an organization co-exist so that each thrives where appropriate?
- Group II: Group III formed around developing a hypothesis for global leadership work that builds women's leadership capacity.
- Questions: This group also spent its time developing key questions related to the work as a prerequisite to getting deeper into assumptions informing the work.
1. Is working with women leaders an effective pathway?
2. Is this work influenced by a Western mindset?
Key components of a leadership development intervention
As we dove into the hypothesis exercise it became increasingly clear that we would benefit from some shared understanding of what we mean by leadership development in order to ground our conversation and our own assumptions. One such assumption is that we are more likely to achieve larger scale results through collective leadership approaches. We thought it would be useful to articulate what we mean by collective leadership and what we believe we know about how to support it.
For the sake of our joint work we offered the following understanding of collective leadership:
Collective leadership emerges as a group responds to an identified need with a common goal, acts collectively, learns and incorporates learning.
The group acknowledged there might be a bundle of elements that support collective leadership as a strategy for achieving large-scale results. We jointly identified these key components of effective leadership development approaches:
- Individual work: For individuals to be effective in collective work they need capacities for self-awareness, seeing themselves as agents of change, engaging in identity work to develop a deeper understanding of self and power, values centering, and the capacity to unleash human potential.
- Action learning: Action learning engages diverse groups in a process of learning from their experiences in ways that increase their capacity for collective influence and progress around some shared goal.
- Bridging: Supporting participants to develop commitments and skills to build relationships across divides of race/ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual preference; and to understand that forming relationships across sectors is critical to the capacity of networks to achieve large-scale change.
- Alignment: In collective leadership group alignment occurs when group members share common concerns, values, and a commitment to action for results. Alignment requires the cultivation of trust and creates the basis for shared accountability around a result.
- Class, power, and race analysis: Frameworks that enable participants to understand personal, intrapersonal and institutional forms of oppression provide participants with the ability to frame and reframe their experiences in ways that take structures and systems into account.
- Results focus: Supporting groups to use data can help them better understand how successful they are in moving towards their results. Focusing successfully on results requires having the capacities to uncover assumptions, engage in aligned action, and learn from experiences about what works to produce a result.
As the group identified some of the elements of cultivating collective leadership there was humility about the need for deeper learning about how these capacities are best developed, e.g. a couple of participants asked, what do we know about strategies that support alignment or how to move people towards collective accountability?
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Answering our original question: Would an Evidence Based Practice approach help us to make better decisions about our leadership work?
EBP approaches in the medical field are based on extensive experimentation and 80% of the trials produce failure. We asked: What is our tolerance for failure in the leadership field? Larry Green’s work on EBP in public health describes evidence as being generated by sound practice rather than laboratory experiments. This approach looks for exemplary programs and outcomes.
- A number of participants wondered whether the field is mature enough to support an evidence-based practice approach. Alternatively, a number of people in the group resonated with the idea that we need more practice-based evidence to move our thinking forward.
- Participants found the case studies and the concrete details of the Leadership in Action Program extremely useful. Deeper analysis of case studies and practices that are achieving impressive results could generate some important general principles for the field.
- To move from ‘practice based evidence’ to ‘evidence based practice’ would require a deeper understanding of what in our current leadership evaluation methodology is producing ‘good evidence’. There was some concern that by rushing to embrace EBP we might be discouraging experimentation, creativity, and innovation. Since innovation in designing leadership strategies that support collective leadership is still relatively new and experimental, we wondered whether we didn’t need more investment focusing on supporting emergent practices.
Next steps for advancing field level learning about scaling leadership work
A significant group stayed after the meeting ended to help brainstorm next steps. The following actions and topics will shape the work of the next year.
- Identify big questions for the field and develop a meta-framework to support our learning about collective leadership.
- Use the framework to help structure our thinking and create a common learning platform for informing and testing our hypotheses
- Put the framework on googledocs so we could all access it and help to develop it
- Explore literature that may be helpful, e.g., community development and community capacity-building, e.g., Chrislip and Larson; organizational development field; community coalition literature in Public Health
- Review the literature and refine and develop a model for collective leadership that we could all test across our experiences
- Look at different case studies and identify a series of question to advance our thinking
- What are the common themes across case studies?
- How do our model compare with what we see in case studies?
- Select case studies across different types of contexts where collective leadership is applied (international, domestic, differences in the who, network vs. collaboration)
- Karl Umble volunteered to do a case study based on his work evaluating the Public Health Leadership programs.
- Do webinar consultations looking at specific leadership program designs, and theories of change
- Hold quarterly webinars on relevant topics
- Possible invitees for webinars: LCW, Public health network, co-lab, Novant health, 21st century fellows program, Rockwood, CompassPoint – have a theory of change, Network of Social Change leaders at Wagner – using a different model for crafting the curriculum for social change leaders
- Create and share a resource directory
- Help people frame their evaluations
Though the verdict is not in on the potential value of EBP approaches in leadership, the value of the conversation was clear. This meeting of evaluators and funders produced more energy for continued cross program learning than previous meetings. The bar has been raised. A couple of participants have even shared efforts to create hypotheses for their work since the meeting. The group agreed to hold quarterly webinars and to get together again next year to see how we are doing as a field in our learning about investing in collective leadership to achieve new scale.