In today’s fast-paced and ever-evolving business landscape, the ability to adapt to change is a critical determinant of an organization’s success. Developing the capacity for organizational change can occur in many ways, including cohort programs, where firms across industries – or, in some cases within the same industries – learn from one another as member companies implement new systems and processes.

Working alongside partners such as Cara Plus and the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance, the Corporate Coalition of Chicago has supported more than a dozen cohort-based programs. In that work, we have gathered insights into what makes an effective cohort program and how to best foster organizational learning and growth through this model.

Cohort-based learning programs promise several advantages over other approaches. Unlike larger, one-size-fits-all corporate training programs, cohort-based programs can assemble smaller groups of companies with shared learning objectives and tailor the program to those objectives. Unlike one-on-one consulting services, cohort approaches allow firms to learn from one another, in real-time, what works and what doesn’t work, as different organizations try to solve similar problems.

Through our work leading multiple cohort programs, we’ve identified, and lay out below, several meaningful advantages of this approach.

1. Peer Support and Networking
Change can be daunting, and cohorts can provide important support systems, where participants can share experiences, discuss challenges, and brainstorm solutions within a safe space. If structured properly, peer support not only enhances learning but also creates a network of change champions across organizations. One participant lifted up “the partnerships … with other organizations in the community to help with brainstorming and with challenging the discussions around the change management workflow.”

2. Accountability and Progress Tracking
The shared journey in a cohort-based program fosters a sense of accountability that spurs participants to complete assignments, meet deadlines, and track their progress. This accountability accelerates the adoption of practice change.
Participants often note that the sense of mutual accountability moves teams to implement change faster than if they had not participated in a cohort. As participants put it:
“It was a good force of us coming together, seeing how we can help each other and how we can push the movement together.”  “Most importantly from a group cohort perspective, there was a component of holding us accountable to getting from start to finish.”

3. Immediate Application
While not unique to cohort-based programs, the cohort structure allows for practical exercises and pilots to be built into the program. Through these pilots, participants can apply new skills immediately and gather feedback from their fellow cohort members. This hands-on component, especially when combined with peer support and feedback, accelerates the integration of change practices into daily work and across organizations. As one participant recounted:
“It was a more active program instead of listening to someone [talk] about a particular subject…and I think it really made the program better than most.”

Note the pilots do not need to represent large changes. In fact, smaller changes to start with, that can be tried, shared with the group, and improved, are often more effective than large change efforts from the get-go. United Airlines, for example, first took their practice of starting every meeting with a safety check (where exits are, where fire alarms are, etc.) and, in one department, added a mental health question to the standard safety check. After seeing the benefits of this simple addition in one department, the practice spread across the entire organization.

Cohort programs enable small changes to be shared not just within participating companies, but across firms. For example, the University of Chicago shared their language for inclusive job descriptions across cohort members. Rather than having to develop their own language, several participating companies tested the UChicago language in their own firms, adapted it for their specific organizational needs and priorities, and eventually implemented it. In short, small tweaks of practice, shared among companies, can lead to rapid adoption of new practices across multiple firms.

To capture all three of these advantages, trust among cohort members is paramount. Indeed, it is the trust developed between members of a cohort that is the defining, unique aspect of effective cohort programs, an aspect that cannot be replicated in other approaches to organizational learning and growth.

Environment for Building Trust
As companies continue navigating the nature of hybrid work environments, it can pose a challenge for how to build the most effective and conducive environment for cohort programs to engage one another well. Through the pandemic, many began to encounter Zoom-fatigue, yet the opportunity for virtual connectivity also created greater accessibility to programming that may not have been available to those with limited time and capacity, or at a geographical distance.
Through offering a variety of different formats – from purely virtual to hybrid offerings – we have learned that virtual formats are not barriers to building trust. Rather, finding ways to build in-person connections up-front, combined with well facilitated Zoom meetings, can support the relationship building necessary to establish trust. Ultimately, we’ve found that the most critical element is that participants feel like their voices are being heard and that they can connect with one another.

Vulnerability is Key
Part of the process is getting the right people in the room. Those who are “voluntold” have greater difficulty being vulnerable. Not having a stake in the game creates barriers to opening oneself up to taking risks. Modeling vulnerability is the key part of building trust – but it’s not something we usually do in professional settings. Start by creating an environment where folks can show up not knowing all the answers. As Brene Brown said in her now famous TED Talk, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Companies need time to learn from one another. Socializing ideas and feeling confident to take risks among other trusted individuals, helps them take risks.

Establishing trust early is vital for creating an environment of psychological safety for cohort learning. A successful approach begins with having one-on-one conversations with participants to understand and identify pain points their teams are facing. In having a common understanding of pain points that participants are facing, facilitators can help to normalize the issues that come up, so participants know they’re not alone. It’s a soft invitation to share challenges, and thus leads to more opportunities for open vulnerability.

In an era characterized by perpetual change, cohort-based learning programs can provide an effective approach to helping companies meet the challenges of a rapidly shifting world by offering a chance to build connections and trust with other companies tackling similar issues, while also holding each other accountable for meaningful action.

Marcos Gonzales serves as the Program Director for the Chicago Resiliency Network, an initiative of the Corporate Coalition of Chicago.

Steph Dolan serves as the Program Director of the Fair Chance Hiring initiative, in collaboration with Cara Plus and the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance.