Adaptive and Program Management: Coaching the Same Team

Nov 14, 2017 by Lisa Robbins-Garland Comments (0)

This piece was cross-posted from It was originally published on November 6, 2017.

Setting the scene

When I joined our global program management team at Mercy Corps in 2014, I finally had the space to think about how we work, and not just race to get it done. I started learning about the resources available in our organization and in the sector for project and program managers. That would have been nice to know, I thought, back when I was reinventing the wheel as a program manager in my internet-less corner of the world. I wondered how many other managers felt the same way, too stressed for time to reflect, pressured to implement quickly, always feeling behind. The answer is too many.

It’s two months into a six-month program, and you’ve just been hired as the program manager, go! Too much to do, too little time. There are so many demands on managers’ time that even internally we end up competing for the small bandwidth our teams can spare. As a result, we’re always trying to figure out how to make sure important resources are easy to find and use. It also pushes global teams to strip down resources to the essentials.

Given this time poverty, it’s essential to support managers to critically reflect on how they work and where they could invest to set their teams up for success in achieving impact. How can they manage well, make time to incorporate learning, and still give themselves space to innovate?

Program management: laying the foundation

In 2012, Program Management at Mercy Corps (PM@MC) was created so that teams have the foundations to manage well and achieve impact through their programs. So they know what’s expected of them, and feel equipped with the resources to meet those expectations. It includes our Program Management Manual, Minimum Standards, Toolkit, online course, training curriculum and facilitator cohort. Our approach is closely linked to Project Management for Development Professionals (PMD Pro), and it continues to evolve.

We work in diverse contexts across over 40 countries. So we take a “flex to context” approach where we ask teams to meet certain minimum standards to ensure they have a strong program management foundation, but how they meet those standards and what tools they use is completely up to the team and their needs. Every team needs to have a workplan with clear roles and responsibilities, but whether that’s an Excel spreadsheet or using Agile methodology on Trello is up to the team. 

We don’t want to weigh teams down, but free them up so they have a strong foundation from which to move efficiently and effectively to achieve impact. For example, I see too many managers that rush to start without ensuring their team members understand how their work fits into the bigger picture, or how basic logistics and finance procedures work. This slows teams down later. It may not be the sexiest of subjects, but program management is critical.

Did you say adaptive management?

Speaking of sexy, what about adaptive management? When I first heard people speak about adaptive management, it was with whispered reverence, as if someone had just found the holy grail. I was skeptical. After working with our internal gurus on the subject, Emma Proud and Alison Hemberger, and joining external conversations, it took on real meaning...

Read the full post at