Adaptive Management: If Not Now, When?

Aug 15, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (4)

This blog is the sixth and final in an ongoing series exploring the components of USAID's Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting Framework. Here is the first blog on organizational culture, the second on effective learning, the third on the resources necessary for CLA integration, the fourth on effective collaboration, and the fifth on processes that support CLA.

We’ve saved the best for last.

Adapting—or adaptive management—refers to intentionally and systematically using relevant knowledge to inform decision-making and ultimately take action. Within the development context, that action could be adjusting interventions or whole strategies, experimenting with new ways of working, scrapping programming that simply isn’t working, or scaling approaches that have demonstrated value.

CLA framework

Adapting is arguably the most important element of collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA). If we collaborate and learn effectively, but don’t do anything differently as a result, then what was the point? Yes, effective collaboration and learning can often make your job more enjoyable. BUT, ultimately we all want to achieve results, and adapting is essential for doing so more efficiently and effectively.

Adapting is also, though, the most difficult aspect of CLA. When we conducted a CLA stocktaking exercise with 14 USAID missions in early 2015, we found that adaptive management was a common challenge. A similar theme is emerging from our analysis of the 2015 CLA case competition submissions—we “get” the collaborating and learning pieces of CLA, but adaptive management can remain elusive.

Essentially, going from having knowledge ---> making informed decisions ---> action is not the straightforward trajectory you would expect. This happens for a variety of reasons, which I won’t go into here, but most are captured in the other components—particularly culture and resources—of the CLA framework.

Bottom line: rather than the exception to the rule, we should consider adapting—however minor—the expectation. If we don’t start thinking this way, how will we ensure we’re constantly improving and achieving better outcomes with and for target communities? If we don’t take the leap now and put the systems and people in place to start managing adaptively, will we ever?

What Does Effective Adaptive Management Throughout the Program Cycle Look Like?

Effective adaptive management requires we:

Graphic: Learn, Reflect, Decide, Act

  • Learn. Adapting without learning is dangerous territory. It begs the question - on what basis are we making this change? Without first learning, adapting can easily become politically motivated or based on skewed perceptions and inaccurate information rather than an intentional and systematic approach to more effective management.

  • Reflect. It is essential that we analyze and process what we have learned with colleagues and stakeholders to reach the right conclusions and make good decisions. We know from existing literature that reflecting on our experiences is critical for learning (see Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance). Building in systematic opportunities to pause and reflect, preferably using participatory approaches based in adult learning techniques, creates an environment where candid conversations become the norm and surfaces learning that is most crucial for making informed design and implementation decisions.

  • Decide. As development professionals, learning and reflecting must have an end game. No disrespect to academia intended, but we are not academics; we don’t have the time to ponder existential matters without it leading to changes in how we design or implement programs. We are typically overworked and understaffed. So if you want to commission an assessment or evaluation, make it count. Go ahead, host a stakeholder reflection, but conclude it by outlining key decision points and action steps moving forward to improve health, biodiversity or education outcomes. Schedule that portfolio review, but make it worth everyone’s time by having it end with identifying ways we can make our programs better. Just decide: are we continuing with this? Is there evidence it works? Should we scale up? Adjust? Or should we stop altogether because we’re not seeing intended results or may even be causing unintended harm?

  • Act. Deciding and acting are two different things. All too often we actually get to the list of things we need to do differently after a reflection, evaluation, or site visit, but then no one follows through or, if they try to, they run into too many barriers along the way. Adaptive management only happens if we make those changes. Otherwise, again, what was the point?

How Can We Manage More Adaptively Throughout the USAID Program Cycle?

  • Develop or Access the Skills Needed to Facilitate Effective Pausing, Reflecting, and Adapting: Having skilled facilitators on staff or as consultants to design decision-making processes and manage group dynamics can greatly improve the quality of activities meant to help staff members pause, reflect, and adapt.

  • Enable Flexibility: Adapting is much easier when the expectation is clear from the outset that it is not only expected, but likely inevitable. It then becomes essential to build flexibility into strategy, project, and activity design and implementation. Using adaptable mechanisms can help us do this more easily; for more on this topic, see the blog on the Resources component of the CLA framework.

For examples of adaptive management in action, see:

  • CLA and Community Connector: Proving the Concept (Video) - USAID/Uganda and its implementing partner highlight their approach to CLA through the Community Connector project. The activity was designed by USAID to include a modular approach that enables systematic learning and adaptive management.

What are your examples of adaptive management? What enables you to manage adaptively? What’s stopping you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!


What does Effective Learning Look Like?

Apr 4, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (9)

This blog is the second in an ongoing series exploring the components of USAID's CLA Framework. Here is the first blog on organizational culture.

Now that we’ve gotten why learning matters out of the way, I wanted to share briefly how we have articulated learning within the USAID Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) framework and the CLA Maturity Matrix.USAID CLA Framework GraphicStrategic learning (the yellow portion of the CLA framework) focuses on:

  1. Tracking, using, and contributing to the technical evidence base
  2. Testing and exploring our theories of change
  3. Identifying game changers and planning scenarios
  4. Ensuring our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are designed to help us learn from implementation, in addition to meeting established reporting requirements

CLA Maturity Matrix Key Concepts Card  CLA Framework Key Concepts Card

CLA Framework Key Concepts Card CLA Framework Key Concepts Card 

This two-pager offers a deeper dive into the key concepts under learning and examples of CLA in action.

What are some examples of effective learning in your organization? Submit your response in the comments below.

Filed Under: CLA in Action

Announcing RFA for New USAID-Funded Learning Network!

Mar 22, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (2)

UPDATE: Amendment 1 to the RFA was released on April 15, 2016. You can find Amendment 1 in this blog post.

USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL) seeks partners to participate in a Learning Network and engage in a co-creation process to collaboratively advance its understanding of measuring and demonstrating the effects and potential impact of material investments in strategic collaboration, program and organizational learning, and adaptive management.

Partners selected will help PPL transform the way USAID and others in the knowledge management/organizational learning and international development sectors understand the principles, approaches, and value of collaborating, learning, and adapting.

Specifically, this activity aims to understand, measure, and assess the impact of collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) in international development. Partners selected will jointly advance approaches to answering the following questions:

  • Does an intentional, systematic and resourced approach to collaborating, learning and adapting contribute to development outcomes?

  • If so, how? And under what conditions?

More information can be found in the Request for Applications.


Please note, questions are due by March 30, 2016. There will also be a webinar on Tuesday, April 5, 2016, for prospective applicants interested in applying for the CLA Learning Network. Register here for the webinar. The closing date for application submission is April 30, 2016.


This Request for Applications, issued by The QED Group, LLC, (QED) through its subcontract with Insight Systems Corporation (Insight) under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded contract Feed the Future Knowledge-Driven Agricultural Development Project, is seeking applications from organizations from the United States and developing countries (Geographic Code 937). However waivers are possible for applicants from all non-restricted countries subject to USAID Contracting Officer approval. We encourage applications from a wide spectrum of offerors. These applications are for a Grants Under Contract mechanism to provide assistance for the program entitled “Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA)”. The authority for the RFA is found in USAID Prime Contract Provision H. 23 GRANTS UNDER CONTRACTS. The sum of the proposed activity is not to exceed the amount of $100,000 beyond an 18 month period based on a Standard Cost Reimbursement Grant.


Learning: Four Reasons Why It Should Matter to You and Organizational Leaders

Mar 21, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (1)

As our name implies, we here at LEARN love learning. But why does it really matter? We ask ourselves that question continuously and have found, in asking others as well, there are four key arguments worth sharing:


In a nutshell, “Learning matters because it empowers us all to make better decisions and achieve greater impact.” If we gain relevant knowledge about our programs, sectors, and operating contexts, we can use that knowledge to make wiser decisions. Others working on similar interventions or in similar contexts can as well. This ultimately enables us to continuously improve and leads to better development.

Shelia Jackson from FSN/TOPS

Shelia Jackson, TOPS/FSN
“Learning matters because it empowers us all to make better development decisions and achieve greater impact.”


This argument is a bit more nuanced. Learning can actually slow things down. We need to carry out assessments, evaluations, collect monitoring data, reflect with stakeholders and local communities, and synthesize all that we learn into something usable for decision-making. So no one is debating that it takes time and resources.

But on the flipside, if we are spending years implementing the wrong intervention or using the wrong approaches, how much of our time and resources are we wasting? And if we come to realize, only years later, that we reinvented a wheel that already existed and failed to function, how much time, energy, and money could we have been saving and putting towards something with greater promise?

Courtney Calvin USAID LEARN        Maciej Chmielewski, USAID LEARN  

Left: Courtney Calvin, USAID LEARN, "Learning matters because the wheel has already been invented."
Right: Maciej Chmielewski, USAID LEARN, "Learning matters because stupid is more expensive."


What made you excited about coming to work today? I’m guessing it wasn’t the four page memo you had to write explaining your lost receipt. It is the discipline of development that pulled us in and keeps us around. So wouldn’t we be a happier and more engaged workforce if we spent more time grappling with the tough questions and strengthening our discipline?

women holding a sign
(l-r): Karishma Patel & Kat Cooley, DAI and Monalisa Salib, USAID LEARN
"Learning matters because...if I stop learning, am I really living?"


This last one is related to how we see ourselves and the world in which we live. If we recognize that there is so much we have yet to understand about the contexts in which we work, how change happens, and how best to go about achieving results, we see a clear need for institutionalizing curiosity in our organizations. There is always another question, but how can we go about answering those questions without systematic, intentional, and resourced approaches to learning?

Melissa Patsalides, USAID/PPL

Melissa Patsalides, USAID/PPL, "Learning matters because we don't know everything."

woman holding sign

Suzanne Polak, USAID/RDMA
“Learning matters because there is always another question.”

woman holding sign 
Lauren Leigh Hinthorne, USAID/PPL
“Learning matters because there is so much that we do not understand (yet).”

Is My Organization’s Culture Conducive to Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting?

Feb 19, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (2)

This blog is part of ongoing series exploring USAID's CLA Framework.

An organization's culture is made up of all the norms—often unwritten and unspoken—that influence how we work and what we expect of ourselves and our colleagues. Organizational culture affects how we behave, interact, prioritize, and carry out our work. One way to think about organizational culture is to ask yourself:

  • What am I encouraged to do within my organization (either explicitly or implicitly)?
  • What am I discouraged from doing within my organization (again, either explicitly or implicitly)?

In asking these questions of organizations I have worked with or people I have trained in organization development, I’ve received wide range of responses. Here are two (overly simplified) hypothetical organizations as examples:

 Staff are ENCOURAGED TO:Staff are DISCOURAGED from:
Org A
  • Seek help and input from colleagues in other offices and organizations
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Talk with leadership when concerns arise
  • Proceeding without considering previous learning or good practices
  • Keeping working documents and personal reflections private
Org B
  • Avoid raising sensitive issues in group settings
  • Get in early, stay late, or work on the weekend
  • Stay the course
  • Straying from your lane
  • Trying new ways of working or taking risks
  • Giving equal weight to staff member inputs (depending on seniority)

When comparing Organizations A and B, which do you think is more conducive to integrating collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) into their work? 

To help you think this through, imagine a situation in which both organizations have planned for an upcoming portfolio review. Even if both organizations follow the same facilitated process, Organization B’s review is more likely to induce anxiety and frustration among staff—some may feel uncomfortable sharing challenges or what they have learned. They may feel unheard in the process or that ‘it’s not their place’ to speak up. Organization A will likely benefit more from the exercise because staff feel more comfortable challenging the status quo, seeking input from others, and, as a result, Organization A is more likely to surface useful learning that informs future activities.

While the above example is overly simplified, it illustrates why organizational culture is so important. It affects all organizational processes, even when we’re not fully aware of it, and influences the extent to which our processes contribute to organizational success or waste time and resources as box-checking exercises. 

How can we create and sustain an organizational culture that supports CLA integration? 

To answer this question, we first have to look at our organizational values—the core principles that dictate our organizational norms and culture. Many organizations may not have explicit organizational values. Or perhaps their values are explicitly documented somewhere but not put into practice. Whatever the case may be, it is important to look at our organizational values and determine if they enable CLA to thrive. 

LEARN, the USAID contract working with the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning to integrate CLA throughout the Program Cycle, used an appreciative inquiry approach to identify our core values1. In a 2-hour group session, each team member shared a story of an experience on LEARN when s/he felt most valued, proud, and engaged in our work. We then identified the values represented in each of these stories, clustered those that were similar, and agreed on the seven values that we felt best represented our collection of stories. By creating visual reminders of our values and talking about them regularly, we work hard to keep them front and center. 


Download poster here.

After establishing these values, we also worked to operationalize them. Because we felt ‘walking the talk’ was our core, overarching value, we created a voluntary ‘Walk the Talk’ working group open to all team members to make sure we operate according to our values and implement the types of CLA practices that we ourselves promote. We also consider our values during the hiring process, asking interview questions that help us  make sure we are bringing people on that share our values and collaborative ways of working. Lastly, we create processes, like quarterly reflections, and implement initiatives, such as working to improve how we give and receive feedback, that reinforce our values. These approaches would not have been possible without supportive leadership. Senior leaders in any organization need to model and reinforce core values among staff.  

As you can see, LEARN’s values fit nicely with CLA. But I hypothesize that any organization that goes through this process and comes up with values specific to their organizational members will likely uncover positive values aligned with CLA integration. Why? Because the values that make collaborating, learning, and adapting possible in an organization are the same values that make us happy to be at work, motivated, and excited to contribute. 

1. For more on the approach, see:
Thatchenkery, T., & Metzker, C. (2006). Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Thatchenkery, T. (2005). Appreciative sharing of knowledge: Leveraging knowledge management for strategic change. Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Taos Institute Publishing.
Filed Under: CLA in Action
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