The Learn Phase: Creating Sustainable Change in Human Services Programs

Publication Date: February 21, 2019
Cover to The Learn Phase: Creating Sustainable Change in Human Services Programs

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The Learn, Innovate, Improve (or, LI2) process is a way for human services leaders to intentionally launch and systematically guide program change and to incorporate evidence and research methods into such efforts. This practice brief provides an overview of the first phase of LI2—the Learn phase—which is intended to lay the foundation for successful and sustainable program changes. The Learn phase involves two primary steps: (1) clarifying the reason for seeking change and the problem to be addressed, and (2) assessing the program environment’s readiness for change.


The LI2 process stems from a desire to more effectively use and produce evidence through more meaningful collaboration between human services program staff and researchers. This approach seeks to overcome some of the persistent challenges programs and researchers commonly encounter in their attempts to inform practice with research, such as the limited practical relevance of research publications and clearinghouses; differences in communication styles (research “speak” and practice “speak”), which can impede collaboration; and the lack of program capacity to systematically use an analytic, evidence-driven process for change and improvement.

LI2 repurposes and reframes existing, reliable research methods into an understandable and replicable series of steps. LI2 gives careful attention to high-quality, context-driven implementation—in other words, it focuses heavily on designing for or adapting to the local environment. Through the activities in each of its three phases, LI2 aims to make research and science more accessible, and to generate timelier, more reliable information for decision making.

Key Findings and Highlights

Before embarking on a change process, it is important for key stakeholders to understand and agree on the “why”—that is, to articulate a shared motivation for change. The “why” is logi­cally linked to the problem at hand. The first step of the Learn phase is intended to bring key stakeholders together for an open discussion of the factors that each person sees as a driver for change. This dialogue should:

  • Include diverse perspectives from within and outside the organization
  • Generate insights about the status quo of program operations, performance, the underlying problem(s), and the aspirations for improvement

The second step of the Learn phase is to take stock of the program environment in order to understand how various factors (both within and beyond practitioners’ control) are contribut­ing to the existing problem(s) and might affect possible solutions. An assessment of the program environment should lead to a deeper understanding of its strengths, challenges, and opportunities across the following general set of topics:

  • Local community context
  • Program goals and context
  • Infrastructure and staffing
  • Service delivery process
  • Performance management


McCay, Jonathan, Michelle K. Derr, and Ann Person (2019). The Learn Phase: Creating Sustainable Change in Human Services Programs, OPRE Report #2019-15, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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