Institutional memory (making) and learning across project silos

Every (smart) development organisation wants to be a ‘learning organisation’. It’s perhaps a doomed enterprise, or a red herring. But there is one thing that every organisation can do to reduce its silos: to learn across its various projects and programs (let’s call them projects here).

How to ensure projects share the best lessons from one another like a champagne fountain? (Credits - KievCaira)

How to ensure projects share the best lessons from one another like a champagne fountain? (Credits – KievCaira)

Developments projects are rich learning grounds, since most development (cooperation) work follows a trial-and-error process – it’s not necessarily condemnable actually.

The basic idea is that the lessons learnt at the end of the project are carried over to subsequent projects, developing the institutional memory. Perhaps it happens, but not always. Yet it could happen throughout the lifetime of projects, not just at the end – continuous institutional memory making. Remember process documentation and related approaches?

Yet that doesn’t happen much. Everyone’s too busy. Projects take time to find their own dynamics, to create their common language, to develop trust among key parties, to get all parties involved in the transformative part where they start developing greater than the sum of the parts and start thinking outside their project box.

So let’s have a shoot at learning across project silos and explore what could be useful ways to learn and share that learning…

What could be interesting ways to learn across project silos?

Usually, projects are mostly concerned with the ‘what to do’. Few are wondering about the ‘why and how’ but this is sometimes just as important, if not even more important. The what is concerned with the activities and outputs that supposedly will bring success to the project. The why connects visions, ideals, perspectives and bonds people at a deeper level. The how is what makes or breaks a project and is the architecture that conjugates concepts and visions with actions and responsibilities. What skills, methods and processes are required to achieve the project objectives.

Why is universal and important to share in order to influence the culture (and the soul) of the organisation as a whole (across its projects), it’s what helps generate principles that guide whole groups of people and generate energy. What is usually very much focused on each project and perhaps the least share-able part of a project (because we focus so much on this partly explains why we don’t spend more time sharing across projects). How is rich in lessons, ideas, capacity development tips and tricks, tutorials and materials that guide the effective implementation of activities, and it relates to other questions such as who (a critical question), when and where etc.

So what can be learnt across projects?

Why Principles, political agendas, drives and motivations of the organization, culture, soul, mission and purpose, (implied) leadership model, assumptions about impact pathways
What Activities, outputs, assumptions about impact pathways
How Conceptual frameworks and mental models, approaches, tools and methods, guidelines and tutorials to use these, identification of capacities (knowledge and know-how) necessary to achieve objectives
Who Mapping of actors, their agendas, the nature and strength of their relationship, the density of the network, who are the connectors, who are the isolated nodes, where are opportunities to reinforce the social fabric among actors
Where Spatial scales and geographic mapping of actors and their activities
When Temporal scales and pacing of actors and their actions and of influence pathways over time

So how can we effectively learn across projects?

There are a few pre-requisites that make this learning more likely to take place:

  • A conscious approach to documenting change and willing to use what has been collected to inform activities – and a place where that documentation is easily accessible for others.
  • Realising what is good to capitalise on, in a project – the unique selling point or added value of that project;
  • A flexible monitoring and evaluation framework that embeds this learning in adaptive management;
  • Good relations among project teams and a willingness to share for a wider collective benefit – be it the organisation or anything beyond.

And there are many ways we can build that cross-pollination and learning among projects:

If we made all these aspects more explicit in each project, we could organise share fairs among projects to assess how we are looking at the rationale and ideal of the project (the why-related issues), how we are thinking of relating all activities in the project’s impact pathway (the what-related issues) and how we are thinking about capacity development and concrete approaches and methods to implement the project (the how-related issues).

Simple meetings to zoom in on one aspect of the table would also help to come up with simple and concrete guidelines that bring together the experiences and insights from various projects.

Developing fact sheets about the methods and approaches used would itself help understand the how factor better.

Planning organisational retreats to zoom in among others on the ‘why’ would also inform a collective design of projects and reinforce conditions for learning across projects.

Systematic reviews of these different aspects as part of the M&E or process documentation – undertaken or shared with other projects’ proponents – could also help cross-pollinate better.

Developing project proposals that relate to the same set of issues would also help make these projects more comparable and easy to learn from one another.

Inviting another project team in another project’s workshop is another way to share across projects.

Of course, relying on people to cross-pollinate individually (as they end up working in different projects) is another way but a slower and perhaps more hazardous one – as it also requires those people to have solid personal knowledge management and to consciously carry over lessons from the past to the present and future.

So, there really many ways to learn across these projects. Now that we are conscious of what it takes, what are we waiting for?

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From evil-inflexible to fantastic-elastic, the not-so-simple shades of willingness to change

In an era of change, it seems very easy and almost officially appropriate to criticise the resistance to change (1) of some people, or simply their need for structure, their uninspired inflexibility. On the other hand, it seems indicated to praise the elasticity of others’ minds – the liquid minds – as they are naturals in embracing change and seem able to adapt to any circumstance.

Yet, this picture is not black and white. Change, and openness to it are dancing along the shades of grey. Inflexibility comes with a reason, and provoking people by pointing to their inflexibility usually reinforces it, if anything. Alternatively, inviting people to reflect on their own stance in a friendly way can do wonders to reduce their inflexibility. If we agree that the challenge, in change processes, is to get people to review their static/solid behaviour and need for structure and turn to a more dynamic/liquid state of mind, then let’s examine some of the major factors at play behind the behaviours stigmatised as inflexible:

There are at least 50 reasons to change and not all are bad (Credits: from MP Bumsted, Biocultural Science & Management)

There are at least 50 reasons to change and not all are bad (Credits: MP Bumsted, Biocultural Science & Management)


Or rather, lack of information. The first barrier to change. Why would you change if you don’t know what you could do differently? However, stigmatising ignorance slows down change as it tends to rigidify behaviours – thus raise barriers to change – whereas providing information or knowledge instead might bring people one step closer to change.

What can be done about it?

Listen to the reasons why they do what they do, ask what’s good about it, ask where it might be limited, ask them if they’ve heard about other ways to do their work, share your own experiences and point them to others with a similar profile to hear their peers’ experiences.


Second barrier. People may be aware about possibilities for change, but they’re busy with something else. Very busy. In the famous – and thoroughly prejudiced – ‘silo’, focus is sometimes what leads people to keep going their usual way. They may not want to dilute their focus. It is not a bad thing, is it? On the contrary, focus allows a team to find a common language and dynamics. It only turns inflexibly bad when the focus is pursued to such an extreme that no change is ever considered. But the primary rationale behind silos is actually valid. In addition, while silo thinking might look static and inflexible from the outside, it can be extremely vibrant from the inside. Think twice about focus…

What can be done about it?

Listen to them, understand their focus, ask what is good about it and where it might have limits, gently hint at the missed opportunities by not communicating enough with other focused minds outside.


Third barrier to change. Perhaps they have all the information needed and they’re ready to move beyond their original focus. But in their change process, they tend to have a rather inflexible and mechanistic approach. Well here’s the thing: the less one knows about a field, the more s/he feels insecure about it. In those circumstances, we human beings tend to fight our insecurity by looking for structure, order and rules to make sense of the field around us and to get to grips with it. We follow the rules by the book and cook the recipe step by step. It might appear slightly neurotic, but actually it’s only following good scientific practice: starting with the maximum clarity and working our way up the analysis chain adding increasingly subtle and confusing factors in the mix. Only once we have enough knowledge of a field – particularly experiential knowledge – do we feel emboldened to look at the edges and play with the rules or reject them altogether to replace them with other guiding principles.

What can be done about it?

Accept that insecurity and don’t stigmatise it. Instead, offer to experiment together with them – and crucially to reflect along the way – to bring them the experiential knowledge that may free them from the rules. If nothing changes still, we should also recognise that we all have different coping mechanisms; they may not seem logical to others, but they work for us, and that’s fair enough. Let it be.

Understanding the dynamic nature of a process of change

For all these reasons, before one changes their behaviour and accepts to move off the wall, out of the beaten track and away from the box, they usually need to stick to the wall, follow the beaten track and own the box. It takes time. It takes experience, trying and trying and failing and thinking and trying again. Little by little, rigidity makes way to softer, more playful approaches and eventually our attitude is liquid enough to go with the flow.

The lessons here?

Don’t be too quick to judge someone’s apparent inflexibility and need for structure (2); instead adopt a dynamic approach and gauge where – in their own process of change – they  are. Then reach out to them, to help them find their own way to the flow of change.


(1)    See all the results of a google search for “resistance to change” to understand that this is a focus area for many.

(2)    See one example in this recent post about ‘how to be creative while following rules

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