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Adaptive Management

What is it?

USAID’s work takes place in environments that are often unstable and in transition. Even in more stable contexts, circumstances evolve and may affect programming in unpredictable ways. For its programs to be effective, USAID must be able to adapt in response to changes and new information. 

How to: Manage adaptively

  1. Knowing When to Adapt - A Decision Tree
  2. Discussion Note: Adaptive Management
  3. Pivot Log Template

The ability to adapt requires an environment that promotes intentional learning and flexible project and activity design, minimizes the obstacles to modifying programming, and creates incentives for managing adaptively.

How to: Create conditions to allow others manage adaptively

  1. Hiring Adaptive Employees
  2. Shock Responsive Programming and Adaptive Mechanisms
  3. CLA Framework and Maturity Tool
  4. ProgramNet Links for USAID staff

Guidance and Tools

Need help getting started?

Consider using the CLA Maturity Tool to explore how your team approaches adaptive management.

Important Tips

An adaptive employee:

  • Focuses on results and impact. Adaptation comes more naturally to staff who have a strong interest in learning about whether their work is achieving the results it set out to achieve, and who have an inclination toward action-oriented reflection.
  • Facilitates learning and builds relationships. Listening and transparent communication are critical to facilitating a culture of openness and respectful dissent. Effective communicators not only listen with attention and respect, but also actively seek input from peers and stakeholders to develop a better understanding of the context and people involved in programming.
  • Continuously learns and improves. Adaptations should be based on data and evidence, not on a whim. Adaptive managers should be able to critically review, understand, and use information to make decisions and carry out actions based on those decisions.
  • Navigates change. Adaptive management requires comfort with uncertainty, flexibility to change, and the humility to admit what one does not know or when things have not worked as expected.

As USAID strengthens its focus on adaptive management, these skills and attributes should be taken into account in recruitment and management decisions for USAID and implementing partners. While these qualities come naturally to some individuals, for others, developing them may require particular attention and practice, coaching or other capacity strengthening. By valuing and investing in the development of these skills, USAID and development organizations will enable the adaptive management practices that are becoming increasingly necessary.


Making the Case

Managing adaptively is more likely to improve outcomes when decision-making authority is placed as close to field staff and local partners as possible. A recent study analyzing about 10,000 development projects echoes this finding and found that aid agencies achieve better results when using bottom-up approaches that empower frontline workers and organizations to make decisions using their local knowledge and relationships.

Adaptive management also contributes to sustainable development particularly when it has leadership support, public support and an adequate investment of time. Additionally, individuals who are curious, have “growth mindsets,” and are able to empathize with their colleagues, are generally better able to adapt to changing circumstances.