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!


bsteiner wrote:

When I think about adaptive management, I think about the change management strategy for and culture of an organization that are needed to support it. For instance, how are decisions made? Decision-making is required to adapt and adapting causes change with inherent risks that are not present in the C or L parts of the CLA framework, apart from the risk of wasting time. It's easy to say we want to be iterative and adapt our work and this blog expertly outlines how to go about that very intentionally which is very helpful, but without a culture where people are emboldened to make decisions (i.e. where there is less risk or where risk is tolerated) it's very hard to operationalize this part of the construct. Thank goodness for risk takers out there, but in order to mainstream adaptive management you need to invest in creating/strengthening the enabling environment. 

posted 5 years ago
bfillip wrote:


I see two aspects to the adaptation challenge with regards to decision making.  First, as you point out, people need to be willing to take risks, including by pointing out what is not working and needs to be changed.  Second, you need an organizational structure and culture where management is genuinely interested in listening AND taking action.

One of the challenges I've encountered in conducting group reflection activities to identify and document lessons learned -- and potentially, actions to take moving forward -- is that groups find it much easier to point at the external obstacles that were thrown at them and over which they had no control than pointing at themselves.  They will then make recommendations or spell out lessons in terms of what everybody else (including management) should do to fix the problem(s).  When the groups leans in that direction during a session, I try to redirect the conversation towards what the members of the team could have done differently themselves and what they have learned (as opposed to what they think others should learn).   This is where teams can get disappointed with lessons learned activities where they spell out everything that should be changed yet they have no power to make those changes occur.  

It doesn't mean the groups shouldn't discuss things outside of their control, but it helps to make the distinction upfront and to have a different strategy to communicate "lessons for management" or "suggestions for partners" etc.... so that expectations are clear in terms of what is realistic and where the accountability lies in terms of follow up and actual change.

posted 5 years ago
monalisa wrote:

Great points, Barbara. Thanks for sharing!

posted 5 years ago
monalisa wrote:

Brit! Thanks for your comment. I couldn't agree more. We do actually include decision making in the framework under processes. See more here:

It's an absolutely critical sub component particularly when it comes to adapting. If people lack clarity about decision making, they won't take the decisions they need to adapt. Some other aspects of the enabling conditions you're talking about also come into play under the Culture component. 

posted 5 years ago