Adaptive Management

On this page:   What is it?   |   How do I get started?   | Important Tips

What is it?

USAID’s work takes place in environments that are often unstable and in transition. Even in more stable contexts, circumstances evolve and may affect programming in unpredictable ways. For its programs to be effective, USAID must be able to adapt in response to changes and new information. The ability to adapt requires an environment that promotes intentional learning and flexible project and activity design, minimizes the obstacles to modifying programming, and creates incentives for managing adaptively.

Adaptive management is defined in ADS 201.6 as “an intentional approach to making decisions and adjustments in response to new information and changes in context.” Like other donors and development organizations (see, for example, the following initiatives: Doing Development Differently, Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation, Thinking and Working Politically, and The World Bank’s Global Delivery Initiative), USAID is increasingly recognizing the importance of adaptability for its work to be effective. ADS 201 integrates adaptive management approaches throughout the Program Cycle, and “manage adaptively through continuous learning” is one of the four core principles that serve as the foundation for Program Cycle implementation.

How do I get started?

Manage adaptively throughout the Program Cycle. See the Discussion Note on Adaptive Management developed by the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL), on which this page is based, for details on entry points for adaptive management in each of the phases of the Program Cycle.

Manage adaptively in your day-to-day work.  The key concepts pertaining to adaptive management according to the Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) framework are the following:

  1. Analyze learning from implementation and/or pause & reflect opportunities.
  2. Inform decision-making.
  3. Follow through on decisions reached to manage adaptively.

Support the enabling conditions for adaptive management. USAID’s Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) framework defines three components of the enabling environment that support continuous learning and adaptive management: culture, processes, and resources. The following are brief overviews of each; see the Discussion Note on Adaptive Management for more details.

  • Organizational culture. An organization's culture consists of norms – often unwritten and unspoken – that influence how individuals work and what they expect of themselves and their colleagues. Organizational culture is observable through staff and leaders’ behavior, how people interact, and what is perceived to be encouraged and rewarded in the organization.
  • Processes. Without supportive systems and processes in place, it is difficult for continuous learning and adaptive management to become established in an organization.
  • Resources. Like most organizational initiatives, adaptive management needs to be supported with adequate resources in order to be sustainable. Resources that support adaptive management include budget, staff, and implementing mechanisms.

Important Tips

In addition to being impacted by the organizational context, adaptive management is an approach practiced by individuals and exhibited by their behaviors and attitudes. These include but are not limited to:

  • Curiosity. Adaptation comes more naturally to staff who have a strong interest in learning about whether their work is achieving the results it set out to achieve, and who have an inclination toward action-oriented reflection.
  • Communication and listening skills. Listening and transparent communication are critical to facilitating a culture of openness and respectful dissent. Effective communicators not only listen with attention and respect, but also actively seek input from peers and stakeholders to develop a better understanding of the context and people involved in programming.
  • Critical thinking. Adaptations should be based on data and evidence, not on a whim. Adaptive managers should be able to critically review, understand, and use information to make decisions and carry out actions based on those decisions.
  • Comfort with uncertainty and change. Adaptive management requires comfort with uncertainty, flexibility to change, and the humility to admit what one does not know or when things have not worked as expected.

As USAID strengthens its focus on adaptive management, these skills and attributes should be taken into account in recruitment and management decisions for USAID and implementing partners. While these qualities come naturally to some individuals, for others, developing them may require particular attention and practice, coaching or other capacity strengthening. By valuing and investing in the development of these skills, USAID and development organizations will enable the adaptive management practices that are becoming increasingly necessary.