In an emergency room, much as in the response to a global crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, saving lives requires teams to learn fast, to shift their thinking, and to adapt their practices in real time. It requires the application of simple, nimble practices for evaluating, learning, and reactingnot the creation of detailed planning or checklistsbut processes for gathering and sharing knowledge about what is working, what is failing, and why.

Luckily, there are a suite of nimble tools, linked to a practice called Emergent Learning that can easily be adapted by teams working on the  World Bank’s crisis response. Tools like the After Action Review (AAR), first developed by the United States military to extract lessons and shift tactics between battle, can be applied at pivot points in project operational cycles. The Harvard Business Review Article, Learning in the Thick of it, describes how the army, and many fast-moving, consumer goods companies, use the tool to generate and distill raw data from the front line, and to feed this back into the implementation cycle. An AAR can be conducted anywhere, often, and is most effective when carried out at key decision points throughout an implementation cycle. It is also most effective when all team members are engaged in the process. The tool is used—and is increasingly gaining traction—amongst humanitarian agencies, beginning with the Tsunami response.

IEGs 2014 evaluation, How the Bank Learns, called on the World Bank to “to become better at learning from lending”a need all the more dire in the times of COVID-19.  The evaluation challenged the World Bank to integrate lessons from active experience—from both effective and failed efforts—into ongoing operations, even if that meant changing a course of action. This is the point of emergent learning: it promotes contestation and iteration. It encourages the organization and its operations to make learning a part of all activities, and part of everyday work, and less an isolated chore. With increasingly complex development challenges, this becomes ever more important.

There has been a wide call for organizations, including the World Bank, to think differentlyto integrate complexity into development practiceand to make learning an integral part of the way that they think and act. At the World Bank, Michael Woolcock makes the case for iterative and adaptive work. In his work with the British government’s Department of International Development (DFID), Ramalingam navigates the “wicked development problem”: the gap between what is trying to be achieved, and the methods being used to achieve it. Flexible, adaptable approaches were happening despite DFID’s corporate processes, not because of them. Oxfam’s Duncan Green provides hope and optimism about how change can happen. As Green puts it, quoting Milton Friedman much before the COVID crisis, "only a crisis produces real change”.

Or, we can take a cue from Benedict Carey, in his book, How We Learn. Did you know that taking a test on a subject before you know anything about it improves subsequent learning? The premise seems absurd, but it reminds us that stimulating our awareness of context and refining the parameters of a problem are helpful in identifying and formulating solutions. In addition to AARs, the field of emergent learning offers four essential tools for making the approach to the current pandemic more effective:

  1. The ‘Framing Question' is built with the simple phase: “What will it take to”….[deliver healthcare to the most vulnerable COVID-19 patients?]. It creates a focus for collective learning by asking what it will take to achieve a desired outcome. It is a forward-focused, action-oriented challenge to the group to ensure alignment around an agreed premise or idea. When done well, the framing question is at once a mechanism to coalesce around a desired outcome and a means to define individual contributions. A good framing question has the ability to "train a group’s attention forward, in a collective inquiry that leads to action”.
  2. Emergent Learning Tables needed to surface and capture data, insights, formulate hypotheses and identify opportunities for further action. A way to “bring the team around the table”—the tool encourages teams to reflect by asking ‘what do we know so far?” Importantly, the process helps the team make a deliberate connection between the past and the future to ensure that previous lessons inform subsequent actions.
  3. ‘Before Action Review’ is an opportunity to discuss in detail what success will look like, and to establish intended results and identify anticipated pitfalls. The review sets the team on a learning pathway—linked to iterative, and often held, 'After Action Review' (see below).
  4. After Action Review’ enables real time reflection on how the actual results compare with the intended ones. What caused the results and what will sustain or improve them?

View a quick animated presentation about these 4 emergent learning tools


As countries and organizations like the World Bank Group move quickly to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, nimble tools are needed to shine a light on and assess what is working and what is not. Traditional monitoring and evaluation approaches—built on established theories and project baselines—are of limited use in a fast-moving and constantly changing crisis. Project teams should be encouraged and supported to reach for a wider set of emergent learning tools for enhanced contestability, and to create an environment of constant learning and where mistakes are acknowledged—and where both contribute to improving the impact of interventions. The stakes are high: during the times of COVID-19, learning fast can help protect the most vulnerable and ultimately save lives.  

pictured above: Medical professionals assigned to the 531st Hospital Center conduct an after-action review following the mass casualty scenario outside the operation room of the field hospital at Sierra Army Depot, California, on Oct. 28, 2019. (image credit: Spc. ShaTyra Reed/Army) Note the appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.