Center for Public Research and Leadership: Improvement as a Series of Learning Opportunities

By Kimberly Austin, Ph.D., CPRL Engagement Manager


At the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University, we have observed a tendency in education, healthcare, and other sectors to view improvement as one of two extremes. On one hand, there is an attraction to each big idea that comes along. We are excited by results in one city or the program that seems to answer all the problems that keep us awake at night. On the other hand, there is an intense feeling of dread. We feel as if nothing ever works and our problems are too big to solve.


Upon closer inspection, we have come to see that most “big ideas” are actually a collection of smaller change ideas that were implemented through a series of trials and adjustments tied to particular contexts. And, we have traced feelings of dread to worries that implementation under “real life” conditions will fail to match the scope of our hopes. These observations lead us to believe that improvement does not typically start as a single radical reform but rather as small, incremental change ideas that communities, organizations, and leaders imagine, carefully test, and gradually improve upon by examining the gap between what they expected to happen and what occurred. To us, improvement is best understood as a series of learning opportunities.


Since our founding in 2010, CPRL has worked with scores of public and social sector organizations to share our understanding of improvement and to advance four ideas that we have seen accelerate improvement. These ideas, which comprise our Evolutionary Learning model, are:

  1. Be clear about what you expect to happen;
  2. Compare what did happen with what you expected to happen;
  3. Think about what you can learn from the difference between what you expected to happen and what happened; and
  4. Use what you learned to try again.


In January 2018, CPRL started working with several organizations and programs in Tulsa to accelerate the gradual improvement of their ideas. With help from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, ImpactTulsa, and MyHealth, CPRL hosted two Institutes for Tulsa leaders, aspiring leaders, and managers in education, healthcare, and social services to learn and apply our model. The Institutes had two goals. First, CPRL aimed to strengthen participants’ understanding of continuous learning and improvement, to increase their familiarity with improvement processes and tools, and to create a foundation for a shared language that individuals within and across organizations can use to implement change ideas. Second, we designed the Institutes to facilitate the effective implementation of participants’ own ideas. Participants learned how to lead productive improvement teams and to identify and engage stakeholders. In the second Institute, participants practiced planning and leading meetings, trainings, and other activities designed to support improvement projects.


Consistent with our belief that learning occurs best when it engages key stakeholders, we met with and researched the participating organizations and programs to design the Institutes. We also responded to feedback from participants during and in between Institutes. CPRL encouraged organizations to connect our model with the frameworks they use in their organizations. In the coming weeks, CPRL will publish a handbook that compiles key ideas, processes, and tools from the Institutes.


Our goal is for the Institutes and other resources to provide participants with the knowledge and skills to lead improvement projects well into the future and, gradually, to make their change ideas the next “big idea” for the children and families of Tulsa.