Addressing Complexity With Adaptive Management Approaches

Aug 14, 2018 by Piers Bocock Comments (0)

This blog was cross-posted from AgriLinks.

Piers Bocock is Chief of Party of the USAID LEARN contract.

One of the most refreshing changes that I’ve observed in the international development sector over the past 5-10 years is a growing recognition of the complexity of the situations in which we work. Those on the front lines are intimately aware of this of course, but in my experience, the realities of development implementation have too often clashed with institutions’ drive for for standard, replicable models and tools. The change I am seeing is less about giving up on those standard models and tools; rather it’s a shift toward flexible, adaptable and iterative frameworks and processes that start with understanding local voices, conditions and context.

At the May 2018 Market Systems Symposium in Cape Town, I facilitated sessions on adaptive management as part of an overall exposure to USAID’s Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) framework, approach and resources. At that excellent learning-focused event, I noted that the Food Security “sector” (I put that in quotes because Food Security and Resilience really cross all development sectors), and the work that we as development professionals do to support strengthened market systems, is about as complex as development gets. One approach to improving how we operate in this complexity and the enabling environments to which we must adapt is through adaptive management and CLA.

The good news is that adaptive management is now encouraged, even mandated, in Agency policy. As USAID Administrator Mark Green shared with participants at the June 2018 Moving the Needle Event, “As we embrace more-efficient ways to support developing countries on their journey to self-reliance, collaborating, learning and adapting will help ensure we are designing and implementing programs that respond to local priorities, generate local resources, and strengthen local actors. This, in turn, will make the results we and our partners achieve more durable and sustainable.”

So, what are USAID staff and partners doing to operate more effectively in these complex environments and create space for locally led approaches? Here are a few examples.

  • Global Communities provides a great example of how CLA laid the foundation for locally led approaches during the recent Ebola epidemic in Liberia. Using CLA resulted in local ownership of new health practices that not only helped contain the immediate spread of Ebola, but addressed some of the underlying vulnerabilities in community health behaviors and national health care systems.

  • When USAID/Senegal identified areas for improvement in their Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, they used them as a tool for reflection and change. After this intervention, the mission reported improvements in their organizational culture.

  • This CLA case study from Zimbabwe describes why, despite positive momentum, the Amalina Program chose to pause and take a calculated risk to improve breastfeeding behavior in western Zimbabwe. In addition to observing an increase in the desired behaviors, the team reported that their culture has shifted to become more open to identifying, testing and scaling up new ideas.

In each of these examples, development practitioners saw a challenge and addressed that complexity with CLA practices. If you’re looking for ideas of how to integrate CLA into your own work, check out these two new podcast series from USAID Learning Lab.

  • From the Inside Out was designed to empower USAID staff and partners with evidence, tips and tools to collaborate, learn and adapt in their day-to-day work. Episodes cover topics such as how to build and adaptive team, create a learning culture and collaborate strategically.

  • Leaders in Learning, which I host with Stacey Young, Senior Learning Advisor and CLA Team Lead in USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, draws on interviews with thought leaders in organizational learning and knowledge management in the international development sector. Themes include: the role of evidence and data in organizational learning; the relationship between organizational culture and learning; how organizations integrate learning into their daily work; and more.

Do you have examples you’d like us to share on USAID Learning Lab? Contact or message us at @usaidlearning on Twitter.