How Can Organizations Encourage Adaptive Management? Three Insights from Mercy Corps’ Evolution Toward Agility

Sep 11, 2017 by Emma Proud Comments (0)

Regular readers of the USAID Learning Lab blog may agree that in these complex times our effectiveness relies on learning about, and adapting to, the unique dynamics in the contexts in which we work.

We are starting to get a better picture of what adaptive management looks like on the ground (the Adapting Aid report that Mercy Corps compiled with IRC gives six examples), but it is tough in practice. It’s easy to point at donor constraints, but the buck doesn’t stop there. An organization’s internal enabling environment has a massive role to play.

Even if a donor gives us complete flexibility, our internal culture, systems and mindsets can constrain us. And conversely, if we have cultivated the right culture and expectations we can find flexibility in programs that look like they came with straight-jackets.

So how can an organization encourage and enable on-the-ground adaptation?

At Mercy Corps, this is something we’re trying to find out. We have taken stock of the last few years of our organizational journey, to share our progress - and challenges - towards becoming more agile. A standard report would not capture the nonlinear nature of these changes. Instead, this interactive Kumu diagram allows you to explore our journey through a five click presentation (with a chance to go deeper in the pieces that interest you):

Our journey is mapped on three pathways, which intersect and combine. These are emergent, rather than planned. That is, some, but not all, of this work has been designed with agility in mind. Looking retrospectively, these pathways are the key ways we are growing more adaptive (and we still have a long way to go!):

1) Cultivate Adaptive Programming

Making program management adaptive means designing approaches for a specific programmatic context, shifting those approaches when the context changes, and iterating on the approaches in response to learning about what works. This pathway describes how we’ve aimed to encourage this approach in all 400 of our programs by trying to get the fundamentals right, identify innovations, and then share those practices across the agency.

2) Innovate Across a Decentralized Agency

Mercy Corps is a largely decentralized agency, with a great deal of autonomy at the country and regional levels. This decentralization has immense advantages in terms of freedom for innovation, but it means the pathways to scale and uptake are less clear. This pathway illustrates these dynamics, and how we’re learning to optimize them, through several examples.

3) Align Internal Systems

Mercy Corps’ internal systems are the infrastructure that enable programmatic impact. Our operations, finance, and other systems make our existing efforts more effective and efficient, creating space for innovations and adaptation. This pathway traces several initiatives aimed to upgrade our internal systems and keep them aligned with programmatic needs and opportunities.

Questions, not answers

As you learn more about the journey we’ve been on, where are the parallels to your own agency? Where have you faced similar challenges? How have your different structures or mission led you to adapt in different ways? What can we learn from each other?

With thanks to Dave Algoso ( for the research, and Morgan Wills (and Kumu) for the interactive diagram.