One intern shares Living Cities key lessons' from our seven year history of building, managing and convening multi-site cohorts across our portfolio.

This post is the third blog in a series about what Living Cities is learning from our work convening multi-site cohorts. Read the introductory blog and the prior blog.

For the last several years, multi-site cohorts have been a defining feature of Living Cities work to build a New Urban Practice that gets dramatically better results for low-income people, faster. Living Cities’ cohorts vary in size and scope. During my summer internship at Living Cities, I conducted interviews with staff members who have played an integral role in supporting cohorts to surface key themes and lessons from across the different initiatives.

In my last two blogs, I shared my understanding of multi-site cohorts and why they are valuable learning tools, and discussed four lessons about building relationships and trust among cohort members.

Living Cities has also learned a number of valuable lessons about how best to shape and manage a cohort to achieve large-scale, population level results. Here are four lessons that you can apply as you manage or build cohorts into your work:

Lesson 5: Diverse Cohorts Should have a Strong Common Vision

It is critical for a cohort to have a clear vision and well-defined goals. Strong facilitation skills are key to making this happen so that cohort members are able to both participate in the process and see the overall outcome. It is important to be explicit about expectations and to use clear, understandable language. Bringing people together from different sectors, backgrounds, and content areas can be a challenge to cohesion, which makes the need to develop a strong common vision for a cohort even more essential. On the other hand, this same diversity allows for cohort members to gain more depth of knowledge and perspectives.

Another obstacle is that the people representing each cohort site can change as people come and go from participating institutions. At Learning Communities, for example, there are often many new people who do not have the same foundational knowledge as other attendees who have been there for a long time. This reality makes it ever the more necessary to maintain focus on the shared vision and goals so that cohort cohesion continues even as individual participants change.

Lesson 6: Cohort Models Need to be Adaptable and Meet Cities Where They Are

While it is imperative to have a strong common vision for a cohort, local site vision, goals, and needs cannot get lost in the process. It is essential to have open communication with individual sites in order to design convenings around issues that are most relevant to cohort members at that time. It is important to listen and evolve alongside, not ahead of, cohort members. Depending on the purpose of the cohort, it might be necessary to develop a model that can adapt to the work cities and/or initiatives are currently doing–and what they’re learning–without being overwhelmingly prescriptive.

I found this lesson more relevant for some cohorts than others, but flexibility is important nonetheless. As one staff member frames it: “We try to give the cities enough space to try different things and do what they feel they most need to do.” A rigorous model that is not grounded in the experience of cohort members will not resonate with sites on the same level as a model, or structure, that they’ve played a part in developing. And, while Living Cities can play a central role in making meaning across sites and bring important tools and frameworks to bear on their work, the cohort members are the context experts. Cohort members hold the knowledge about what it takes to actually advance change in their city. Living Cities truly believes that change must be locally led and locally owned.

Lesson 7: The Importance of Vulnerable, Open and Honest Dialogue

An open and safe space where cities feel they can share both successes and failures is critical to a successful cohort. When sites feel they can be vulnerable and share their honest opinions and struggles, they form stronger relationships and benefit from more powerful knowledge transfers. To create this space, it is important to reinforce the idea that the goal of convenings like Learning Communities is to learn and share, not to look impressive.

Living Cities found that, at these convenings, creative interactions that encourage dialogue between participants provides a more memorable and engaging way to learn than direct presentations or panels. The journey-mapping exercise has been a successful tool to achieve this end at Learning Communities. During the exercise, cohort members tell their personal story of how they got to where they are today and the issues that are meaningful to them. Asking members to share their personal narrative encourages them to be more authentic, which can alter the tone of subsequent interactions for the remainder of the convening. At one PLC convening, journey-mapping allowed for candid dialogue to take place on the often sensitive issues of race, sex and gender. Participants reported that they enjoyed the exercise and that it made it much easier to form connections with other people at the event. Dialogue often leads to new information and insights in ways that a simple static presentation cannot.

Cohort members also reported that they appreciate and value Living Cities’ openness and honesty about its own failures. At a recent convening, where the topic of racial equity and inclusion was to be discussed, CEO Ben Hecht helped to set a more open and honest tone for the rest of the event by sharing Living Cities’ own learning on these issues. He shared how Living Cities was grappling with how to advance racial equity and inclusion in a way that felt authentic to the institution and in a way that can achieve dramatically better results for low-income people. He spoke openly about the stumbles and challenges in the work. As an organization, Living Cities highly values being open about failures and what the organization has learned from them. And, as a funder, Living Cities encourages a policy of openness with sites.. This has helped Living Cities, as a convener and manager of cohorts, to create and sustain safe spaces for sharing.

As one staff member put it, “Eating your own cooking is something that we try to do and model. I think that’s huge. If we’re not willing to admit our own faults, how can we with any level of credibility ask other people to do the same thing?”

Lesson 8: Adequate organizational capacity is important for meeting cohort demands

One of the most common obstacles in managing cohorts was capacity. The work to simultaneously plan for and execute on several cohort functions, such as knowledge sharing, logistics and convenings places large demands on staff time. It is essential to ensure that the appropriate level of staff capacity and resources are in place.

Living Cities often hosts more than 10 cohort-related convenings within the span of a year and, without dedicated staff to plan these convenings, staff with many other responsibilities would be left scrambling to meet all the demands of their work. This can impact the amount of time available for other activities and functions that are of equal importance to Living Cities’ mission. With experience, Living Cities has worked to figure out staffing levels that make sense and organized its staff to execute on the various functions required to support cohorts. This takes time, and as you work to figure out the right levels and skill-sets, it is important to regularly check in on how you are doing and what additional capacity you might need to be successful.

As one staff member pointed out: “You have to make sure that you have the substantive knowledge and the reputability on the issue and the credibility of having done some version of it. You have to have that administrative and project-management/logistical support and they often should not be the same person.”

With these four lessons in mind, you should have a good foundation to build, manage and convene cohorts that help members achieve dramatically better results, faster.

Do these, or the previous four lessons, resonate with you? What are you seeing in your work? We invite you to share your thoughts and reactions in the comment section of this blog.