Examples of Adaptive Management: Unlocking the Potential for Change

Mar 6, 2017 by Carl Derrick Comments (0)

Carl Derrick is a Senior Change Management Specialist in USAID's Program Cycle and Support Center, Bureau for Policy Planning and Learning.

The Setting: Adapting to a Rapidly Changing World

USAID's urgent need to adaptively plan and implement projects and activities in a rapidly changing world is quite real. This is why adaptive management (AM) was highlighted as a core principle in the recently released ADS 201.  So when I was asked to look more closely at the 2016 CLA case competition to illustrate the value of adaptive management (AM) in action, I was really excited.  With uncertainty being a new normal in USAID, we have a way to go to bring AM business practice into full swing.  As an advisor to PPL, I recently took part in data gathering on practices of AM, including interviewing several staff in AID/Washington, looking at cross-bureau survey data and even participating as a judge for the 2016 CLA case competition—which all led me to the same conclusion—there are numerous examples and approaches globally that reflect a growing momentum and interest in AM.  In this blog, using four cases that I chose from the 2016 CLA Case Competition, I will demonstrate that AM successfully drives change, improves the impact of our programming and builds long term knowledge—keys to improving the impact of our programs in our quest to end extreme poverty over the next decade.  I will then conclude with a reflection that I hope inspires you to consider taking a closer look at this growing practice.

Pause: Adaptive Management in Action

In the recent 2016 CLA Case Competition, there were four case studies that were particularly excellent examples of AM:

How did these cases approach AM? What value was added?   

The four cases reflected a very deliberate commitment from USAID to enable greater collaboration and make adjustments based on new evidence, all while gaining and applying new knowledge for future programming.  In the Tunisia case, the activity design team designed feedback loops for the M&E team into a job-creation activity, recognized mistakes early on, responded to feedback, and willingly made changes based on what was learned and being tracked. As a result of AM, an activity that was initially getting poor results ended up exceeding its target job creation levels twofold.  In the Syria example, it became clear early on that activity tools and approaches were unworkable given the evolving conditions on the ground.  Evidence produced demonstrated the need for changing approaches to financial and compliance processes, adjusting the level of prior analysis required, and enabling greater empowerment in local decision-making.  A lot was learned and decided upon along the way that is now in place for continuous adaptation. Think of the thousands of lives that were positively impacted in a war zone given the adaptable and responsive mechanisms that were created. The Jordan activity had built into it a social dialogue component that flexibly provided for collective reflection and promotion of more equitable gender policies.  Based on a large number of dialogues, the activity flexibly adjusted interventions that empowered local ownership and led to momentum to promote lasting change nationwide.  In Bangladesh, early local buy-in and strong support at all levels to adapt based on lessons learned led to over $400,000 in sales and 5,000 farmers receiving technical advisory services from women in the ag sector—a first in the history of the country.  The way this activity adapted when it encountered challenges based on local gender norms offers a powerful example that could be replicated.

Reflection: Adaptive Management as an emerging opportunity?  

The four AM cases cited were successful quite plausibly for many reasons.  In each case, there appeared to be an enabling environment to shift the paradigm away from being overly prescriptive up front to one of intentionally taking time to pause and reflect, make informed decisions and manage adaptively. Leadership at all levels was clear in each instance—the USAID Mission empowered the approach to happen and mechanisms were in place to enable change without bureaucratic obstacles holding back creativity.  This sort of leadership promoted a culture of curiosity and humility, including the recognition that those involved (inside and outside USAID) were on a journey of discovery together. Think of how tough it must have been during those early engagement dialogues between USAID and partners to frankly discuss unflattering findings, to spend time iterating, and to get the evidence together to make real time decisions.  Perhaps being able to admit that not all the data is there from the start is a good thing.  At the activity level and beyond in the surrounding community, an atmosphere of collaboration, frankness and shared ownership were clearly success keys that appeared to build a strong foundation for AM in each of the four activities.  While a lot of time and energy were clearly put into coming together, the payoffs were huge and point to scalability as a practice.  Feedback loops were put in place to enable change and the pursuit of excellence.

Imagine the power of deliberate pause and reflect moments, the knowledge that was generated, and the decisions that were made to continuously manage adaptively and get better at what we do.  What new insights could the Agency gain if we practice AM more and more in the Program Cycle, and share lessons and glean best practices for broader application?  Could we be onto something?