Rapid Cycle Learning: An evaluation tool for strategic and rapid decision-making

At the start of COVID-19’s spread, many thought changes to our day-to-day lives might be temporary. Now, it has become clear that the pandemic will likely forever change the way we work and live—and organizations are re-examining their priorities, resources, and programming.

Although leaders are faced with tough decision-making during this time, evaluation tools, such as Rapid Cycle Learning, allow for the flexibility to respond to emerging needs, help quickly test key program adaptations, and inform how best to achieve desired results. This method can also help to bridge short- and long-term goals by integrating rapid feedback to minimize the data collection processes and maximize the learning and action.

What is Rapid Cycle Learning?

Rapid Cycle Learning maximizes learning and action, while simultaneously minimizing the data collection and analysis processes. The process is quick and intentionally remains flexible to adapt to real-time learning. There are four iterative steps: Plan, Do, Study, Act.


  • Think big. Brainstorm a persistent barrier or challenge—it can be as small as a simple task, or something larger like participant retention with virtual engagements.
  • Think short-term. Identify one thing that you change about your approach to the challenge in the next week or month.
  • Think ahead. What is your expected outcome(s) and how will you measure success? Make sure your outcome is reasonable to assess quickly. This can be as simple as gathering feedback on what worked, what did not, and why.

Do. Carry out your “one thing” (see Step 1.b.). If possible, try your new approach several times.

Study. Reflect on the impact of your changed approach and what was learned. Did you see (even small) improvement?

  • If yes! Identify small tweaks for continued improvement.
  • If no, and it is still worth experimenting with…Identify small tweaks for improvement.
  • If no, and it is clear this approach will not work…Scrap it! The benefit of this approach is that you can quickly learn what ideas don’t work and move on to another strategy.

Act. Build on your successes and learn from what did not work. How else can you chip away at the barrier or challenge you first identified? How could you scale your successes? What other challenges can you tackle? Start the process again.

Does this rapid process really work?

Periods of rapid transition are stressful. They require keeping many balls in the air and focusing on both short- and long-term goals, and it is easy to move from one crisis to another, rather than making intentional and strategic decisions. Rapid Cycle Learning provides a structure for quick learning and adaptation by minimizing data collection processes and maximizing learning and action, and has contributed to meaningful systems reform, including within international development during and after international crises and to refine child welfare at state and local levels.

As many of us are experiencing firsthand during the pandemic, strategic decision-making is reduced during prolonged stress exposure as a result of altered cognitive processes and activation in the brain. How might those same processes affect decision-making about programs and services under stressful times such as these, when we are rapidly pivoting our priorities to address short-term needs? In recent projects with clients, we have found that pausing to create structures that support strategic, yet rapid, decision-making is worth it:

BRIDGE Housing Corporation

BRIDGE Housing Corporation (BRIDGE) provides affordable housing in California, Oregon, and Washington, with over 11,000 apartment units. In early May, BRIDGE started to notice residents requesting rent deferments and feared that many residents were faced with choosing between rent and food. Aware of the hardships that residents faced, BRIDGE raised funds to provide $300 one-time relief cash grants to over 400 randomly selected recipients.

Asking residents about their needs at the beginning of the pandemic didn’t seem right. BRIDGE staff knew that many of the BRIDGE residents are essential workers, work in the service industry, have incomes at 60% of the Area Median Income or lower, and face food insecurity. They also knew that many residents lack access to technology. Rather than ask residents to complete a lengthy application process, or have to determine whose needs were greater, BRIDGE leveraged the data they have collected over the years (e.g., unique IDs, demographics, income, phone numbers) from nearly all of their properties to understand the landscape and conduct a random sampling to distribute the relief funds.

To assess the impact of the relief funds BRIDGE is using feedback loops already in place between property managers at residences and asset managers located in headquarters. In addition to their usual information sharing regarding the current needs and concerns of residents on the ground, BRIDGE is gauging if the relief funds were helpful and how they were used.

First 5 Placer and San Joaquin

Less than one month into shelter-in-place, we approached several of our First 5 partners, including First 5 Placer (F5P) and First 5 San Joaquin (F5SJ), about using a rapid learning cycle to collect real-time data about the impact of COVID-19 on the community they served. They were both excited about the opportunity to better understand the most pressing needs of their funded contractors and the families they served.

We worked with F5P and F5SJ to rapidly develop a survey with the following goals: 1) understand the immediate impact of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place on their contractors, staff, and the local families with young children; 2) identify how F5P and F5SJ could help connect their contractors and the families they served to existing resources across the county; and 3) facilitate an opportunity for their contractors to leverage the support of each other. For both organizations, within a month of initial discussions, we launched surveys, analyzed the data, and held webinars with staff and funded contractors to share back the learnings and identify next steps.

As a result of this rapid learning, contractors were able to share resources with each other and provided staff with important information to better understand the emerging needs of the families with young children and the providers in the community. In addition, F5P was able to provide extensions in contracts to their funded agencies. This year, F5SJ will continue to assess the implications of COVID-19 on the community and these findings will serve as baseline data.

Just remember, stay focused on the “rapid”

Data can be collected through these difficult times, but it’s important to be creative and flexible, and accept that it may look different than you had expected. Below are several key considerations for adapting to rapid cycle feedback:

  • Capture what you’re learning. Consider how you can capture what you’re already seeing and reflect on it. Anecdotes and stories are important sources of information. How else might you learn about client and staff experiences quickly? For example, consider utilizing social media platforms to capture information. Who might you reach and what might you learn through a poll on Instagram or Facebook, What’sApp SMS, and other social media platforms?
  • Make small modifications to existing strategies. You can use this as an opportunity to test your assumptions about why a practice or strategy doesn’t work as well as you would like it to. Consider identifying something you think might help improve your impact, and then test your assumptions. Don’t forget to write down what you’re learning along the way.
  • Recognize this process is about organizational learning, rather than distributing your findings. The purpose of Rapid Cycle Learning is to quickly gather information, reflect on the learnings, and identify when and how refine practice or try something entirely different. At the end of the crisis, or times of rapid change, you can reflect on your documented efforts and consider how to share what you learned. But for now, focus on the internal learning and practice.