International development professionals understand the power of learning and adapting to drive effective program implementation – evidence-based program design combined with continually discovering and applying new data and knowledge can build smarter programs that achieve better results.
An “inception phase” is a dedicated period at the beginning of a program that is focused on learning and better understanding the context for implementation. Development professionals across all sectors are increasingly turning to inception phases to conduct and apply learning from the start.
We sat down with Evaluation and Learning Specialist Sarah Miller Frazer, an expert on inception phases, to learn more about what this concept looks like in practice and how it improves programs and outcomes.
What got you interested and involved in inception phases?
Inception phases have real potential to help development practitioners implement programs with greater results and sustainability, driven by data and learning. As someone involved across the phases of international development programs from the design to the implementation, research, learning, and adapting, I get to see this first-hand. I’ve recently conducted research on the history and evolution of inception phases, as well as practical experiences of programs. While the approach seems new to USAID-funded programs, it has a longer history with UK-government funded programs. I see that international development practitioners are increasingly realizing the potential of inception phases and I’m excited to see how it evolves and the impact that it will continue to have.
What is an inception phase?
An inception phase is a dedicated period of time, typically 4-12 months, to incorporate learning and adapting at the start of the program. Rather than immediately beginning implementation of a detailed scope, the inception phase is a dedicated period to zoom out and focus on learning. It’s a coordinated effort between those implementing the program, those funding the program, and the stakeholders involved at every level. Taking this time to learn helps understand the context for implementation, including what kind of localized, tailored solutions will lead to the best results. It is an intentionally participatory process and often involves co-creating, co-planning, or co-designing the interventions with stakeholders. It inspires adaptation, might involve pilots or small bets, and often involves changing the original plans or original scope with new information and participation. Ultimately, the goal is to design a program that is more effective because it is more evidence-based and better tailored to the local context.
Why would a program start with an inception phase?
A lot can change during design, planning, and procurement. Years can go by and major events such as elections, natural disasters, and even a global pandemic can bring fundamental changes.
Another reason to start with an inception phase is that it allows you to immediately apply the learning that is taking place right then. You turn the relationships, ideas, and challenges that come with the start of every program into solutions to be implemented.
And finally, it helps build the team the right way from the beginning. The inception phase is an opportunity for local staff who will implement the project activities to build relationships with counterparts and hear directly from the stakeholders about their needs and experiences. This also strengthens the localized, learning-driven participatory design.
What has been RTI’s experience with inception phases?
At RTI, I’ve seen a wide range of inception phases. I’ll share four examples. Two are examples of a planned inception period. The remaining two examples are instances when an inception phase was not officially established, but the project nonetheless began by focusing on learning, assessments, and stakeholder coalition building.
The first time I saw a request for proposal call for an inception phase was for the USAID-funded GERÉ: Project Supporting the Efficient Management of State Resources program. The six-month inception period was designed for deep consultations with government and civil society counterparts as well as USAID, and for conducting assessments to inform site selection and contextually-relevant activities. After narrowing down potential local government geographies through the stakeholder consultations, the GERE team conducted three assessments in the 15 finalist geographies: Political Economy Analysis, Gender Equity and Social Inclusion and a Technical evaluation.
Our successful inception phase during GERE had several key results. First, there was extensive relationship building between GERE staff and government, civil society, and citizen counterparts. Second, the assessment data informed the site selection process. The quantitative and qualitative data were analyzed and scored to recommend to USAID the 10 partner local governments. And third, and most importantly, the deeper understanding of the contextual realities and stakeholder needs enabled the team to develop a workplan grounded in those needs as informed by the stakeholders themselves.
A second example of an RTI-implemented project with a dedicated inception phase was the USAID/Uganda Biodiversity for Resilience Activity. The solicitation for the program did not explicitly call for an inception period but did call for several initial assessments. We proposed an official inception phase after considering with our local partners the overall context including the complexities in the environmental systems and possibilities for different focus geographies and biodiversity priorities.
The project was awarded in May 2020 and the inception phase was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Four planned assessments were conducted remotely, relying on desk research, technology, and phone-based conversations. These assessments, combined with the relationship building embedded in the inception phase, provided important insights into challenges and opportunities. By focusing on learning and adaptation during the inception period, the team made sure local stakeholders agreed on the highest impact actions and then worked to match stakeholder priorities with program strategies.
The pandemic was the biggest challenge. Assessments had to take place over the phone. Still, the assessments and relationship building strengthened work planning, helped determine geographic and biodiversity focus areas, and informed co-creation with stakeholders.
What about programs where an inception phase wasn’t explicitly called for, but the introductory period served that role?
For the USAID/Haiti funded Local Enterprise and Value Chain Enhancement (LEVE) program, no official inception period was expected or planned. However, the project team spent roughly half of the first year conducting market assessments to identify specific market needs and conditions and then refine the program design for the value chains the project would work in. The team used the assessments to identify key stakeholders and leading firms to champion initiatives. The analysis also helped the team determine likely successful activities or “quick wins.”
The findings immediately challenged key elements of LEVE’s original design and led to the decision to reduce the program’s emphasis on an already-saturated construction sector and reallocate resources to improve the vocational training sector.
And finally, the USAID Governance for Local Development (GOLD) project in Senegal started in 2016 with a heavy emphasis on collaboration and stakeholder engagement. The GOLD team focused on building relationships with government counterparts, local officials, and local community groups. In addition, GOLD sought to integrate programming across sectors, bringing governance expertise to health, education, and WASH programs and bringing expertise from those sectors to GOLD’s support to local governments. This involved a lot of operational coordination, such as co-locating office space, with the other USAID programs, as well as technical coordination for joint work-planning and co-programming activities.
Additionally, GOLD spent time in the initial months selecting sites and assessing local government capacity and commitment to engage in the program, ultimately deciding that a phased implementation would work best. The GOLD team also used this introductory pseudo-inception period to adapt tools and approaches to the local context in collaboration with local partners and stakeholders. As a result, government entities have adopted some of the capacity assessment and planning tools and expanded their use into areas where GOLD is not working.
This kind of sustainability and scaling of effective approaches can be linked back to the introductory period where GOLD and local stakeholders refined these tools to ensure they were useful and relevant to the local stakeholders.
As you analyzed these four examples, did you identify any trends or lessons learned?
Four key lessons resonated with me.
Flexibility: Embed flexible decision points within the inception phase plan. This could mean regularly scheduled pause-and-reflect sessions to examine progress, challenges, and opportunities or identify trigger points that prompt reviewing strategies. Flexibility is a mindset; the team should think of the whole process as a learning and adapting journey.
Leadership: Ensure visionary leadership and attend to logistics. The focus on learning, relationships and co-creation requires strategic vision to “zoom out”, identify knowledge gaps, broker connections, and manage the strategic program design before jumping into activity implementation. And logistics are essential. Assessments require attention to scheduling and planning. Project start-up calls for attention to hiring, office space, and procurements. For example, in one project, the Chief of Party’s network and his ability to make introductions and forge connections really helped the success of the assessments.
Stakeholder Engagement: Engage diverse stakeholders and cast a wide net. If the same old voices are in the room, you will have less success uncovering what’s going on under the surface or what hasn’t worked well in the past. Seek out diverse voices and diverse perspectives to enrich your findings.
Localization: Place local partners in the driver’s seat to improve the program design and sustainability. Avoid “helicopter research” – U.S.-based staff flying in and doing assessments and leaving. The project team should work with counterparts, partners, and local communities to understand their experiences and their perspectives and together implement a project to meet stakeholders’ needs.
Where do inception phases go from here?
I believe that inception phases are gaining in popularity within USAID-funded programs because they help launch strong programs that are grounded in local realities with input and support from diverse stakeholders. I’ve seen a number of examples in the governance sector, which makes sense given the essential role of multi-level stakeholder engagement and the need to map and understand systemic challenges in institutions. As other sectors see the value in this focused time to assess the context and refine program design with stakeholders, we could see inception phases gain more prominence across sectors.
With continued support from donors and implementors, inception phases can strengthen effective, evidence-based development work.