Continuous Learning & Improvement: A cornerstone of ImpactTulsa’s approach to collective impact

By: Lauren King, MA


Jessica Smith, Senior Director of Education and Collaborative Action at ImpactTulsa, shares the history of Continuous Learning & Improvement (CLI) and how it became a central part of the organization’s mission to align the community to provide a pathway for all students to thrive. 


How was ImpactTulsa first introduced to Continuous Learning & Improvement (CLI)? 

ImpactTulsa started work with Continuous Learning and Improvement as a convener. In 2017, ImpactTulsa, along with our national partner StriveTogether, facilitated impact improvement networks for the Tulsa community. 


The focus on CLI expanded as individual team members had opportunities to practice using the tools within their own project areas and begin to make connections as to how it could move systemic work forward. For example, It was at a Carnegie Foundation Summit that I first learned about the results that CLI was helping develop in school districts across the country. In addition, once I became an ImpactTulsa staff member in October 2017, I joined an improvement team as a participant alongside partners on the data team at Tulsa Public Schools. As a participant, I got to learn the steps and see how the CLI cycle supports teams in thinking about problem solving in a deeper way- using data-driven decision making and doing root cause analysis to create strategies more intentionally


Each interaction with CLI continued to further my understanding of how it could be a tool for meaningful change. I wanted more Tulsa partners to benefit from knowing how to incorporate this way of thinking into their own work as well as have a common language we could use across partners, so I began advocating to bring additional training to our community. Through the support of BEST, we were able to hire a team from CRPL to train a variety of cross-sector partners in Tulsa. CPRL supported multiple teams to go through the CLI process with something each organization wanted to improve internally, and CPRL also created a facilitator training as a follow-up for all of the organizations. ImpactTulsa co-developed the facilitator training with CPRL, so there was the opportunity to put emphasis on the tools and ways of teaching that would most align with the needs of our partner organizations. That was the start of ImpactTulsa being able to both convene improvement teams, but also have the expertise to teach and coach teams through the process.


What do you find most valuable about CLI?

A lot of people inherently do continuous improvement without knowing it. Once I was trained, I realized I had been doing it my whole career, I just didn’t have the language for it. For those types of people, it expands their ability to effectively integrate continuous improvement through sharing concepts and tools that push them to use community feedback to better understand and resolve the problem. 


For people who do not naturally think through an improvement lens, CLI provides a framework that guides them and helps them slow down in their problem solving process. It also illuminates how small tests of change can be a better option to rolling out solutions because it allows you to tweak and learn as you go.


Further, I love that CLI exposes teams to tools that range from simple to complex. For example, if teams have limited meeting time, they can use the 5 Why’s which is a root cause analysis tool that ultimately helps teams move past focusing on the symptoms to identify the underlying cause. It’s quick and easy, but very effective. When teams have more time to reflect, they can make use of tools like the Iceberg which is a more complex root cause analysis tool that helps teams identify factors contributing to a problem across four categories: events, trends, underlying structures and mental models.


How has the way ImpactTulsa uses CLI evolved over the past few years?

As our organization continues to refine our approach to being an anti-racist organization, we look to centralize racial equity in our programming. While looking at disaggregated data to help identify racial disparities has always been part of our approach, over the past year we have been more intentional about how we insert tools to support teams in identifying and understanding inequities. Further, we believe that community authority is a vital component to the process. Thus, we have worked to be more intentional about creating opportunities to co-design projects with partners and community members, which aligns with what we teach. We have also focused on creating more opportunities to integrate youth voice into the work.


Ultimately, because we aim to continuously improve internally as well, we work hard to stay on top of current trends and best practices related to continuous improvement. Through partnerships across the country, we are able to gain access to new tools and concepts that have shown to be effective. We are then able to individualize CLI coaching and use tools that most align to a specific team’s needs, interests, and skill set, which is a unique value add that ImpactTulsa brings to each team we coach. Our work and what we bring to support partners is always evolving and improving.


Why do you think CLI is an important tool for the Tulsa education sector to learn and utilize?

Overall, we can’t keep doing things how we have always done them or we are never going to see our outcomes change. We need to disrupt our thinking and how we normally create strategies, which CLI helps us do.