What Have You Committed to Lately? Nine Adaptive Management Practices We Take Seriously

May 20, 2019 by Matt Baker Comments (0)

Evidence shows that adaptive management leads to better results. Within international development, there is a growing recognition that adaptive management skills and processes are critical for successful development impact, but there isn’t consensus or clarity about what this means in practice. How can we raise the bar to ensure that adaptive management is more than just rhetoric? How can we change what we do on a daily basis to embody adaptive management principles?

One way to do this is through voluntary codes of conduct or practice. There are countless examples of these on all levels, from international agreements all the way down to the organizational level. There may even be one where you work.

USAID LEARN, for example, uses a set of key values, including agility. These values are operationalized throughout our work, including in our performance management processes—for instance, we have an Evidence Badge that feeds into our internal performance management system to incentivize evidence-based practice. These efforts are a start but they do not necessarily provide us with practical guidance on how to implement adaptive management for better development results. USAID LEARN recently brainstormed around our own experiences of managing adaptively and came up with a set of essential adaptive management practices. These practices can be applied at three levels: the individual, team, and organization.

Individual Practices

1. Be curious, collaborative, responsible and open. It is critical to remain open to discovery, especially in collaboration with others, and take ownership of personal errors that result from flawed assumptions.

2. Expect things to change, and anticipate course corrections. A disposition centered around accepting and not resisting change helps to ensure that you leverage opportunities to adapt.

3. Give and receive feedback. Be receptive to asking for and giving feedback about how you work. It’s a way to keep yourself and your team honest and allows room for personal improvement.

Team Practices

4. Be open to adaptation and staying the course. Adapt relevant plans, actions, and interventions when the evidence and context necessitate it. It is important to agree internally and with your donor about what evidence should prompt those changes - ideally ahead of time; this should be built into your work plan and monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) plan. For example, you might develop a set of scenarios or use contextual indicators to inform adaptation decisions. The flip side of this also applies: be open to staying the course. Staying the course may be appropriate; don’t adapt just to adapt. Clarity about decision making processes used is critical to ensuring you are systematically practicing adaptive management. For an example, check out this adaptive management decision tree.

5. Structure flexibility into design and planning processes. Integrating flexibility into our design can enable us to more easily and effectively respond to anticipated and unanticipated changes. Building in pivot opportunities can be helpful. This means it will be important not to over-resource the first iteration, as you may need to - and in fact should plan to - change it.

6. Build in time for pausing, reflecting, learning, and documenting your work. Finding time to pause and learn from our work is a critical first step. Equally important, though often neglected, is the discipline of documenting these conversations and changes so they can be referenced later. Using pivot or change logs or a process diary are two useful approaches.

Organizational Practices

7. Actively recruit and retain adaptive staff. Finding staff who have the right technical and interpersonal skills to manage adaptively is critical to an organization’s success. For help with identifying staff like this, check out the Guide for Hiring Employees.

8. Review operating processes to continually improve. We often focus only on programming when we talk about adaptive management, but internal processes should also be improved upon regularly, so don’t neglect to review and improve these processes, too. Improvements in operating processes can provide the additional time and space to enable programmatic improvements.

9. Incentivize learning from failure and success. Integrating formal and informal incentives for sharing and learning from failures gives teams opportunities to identify possible red flags and plan to adapt accordingly.

What do you think about this list of adaptive management practices? What behaviors or practices have you used at your organization? What could we add to this list? Please comment below with your own ideas or experiences about what works well (or less well).