Adaptive Management looks like it’s here to stay. Here’s why that matters.

The past two weeks in Washington, New York and Boston have been intense,

USAID's 'Collaborating, Learning and Adapting' Framework
USAID’s ‘Collaborating, Learning and Adapting’ Framework

leaving lots of unpacking for the blog. Let’s start with the numerous discussions on ‘adaptive management’ (AM), which seems to where the big aid agencies have found a point of entry into the whole ‘Doing Development Differently’ debate.

I spent a day with USAID and came away with a sense that AM has now got into its bloodstream and feels like considerably more than a passing fad. USAID is now pushing adaptive management down through the plumbing, requiring it as part of its funding procedures (not a very bottom up approach, it’s true, but when the pied paper plays, everyone dances). Its ‘Program Cycle Operational Policy’ – i.e. the new ‘guidelines to ‘implementing partners’ applying for funding, has as one of its 3 overall requirements: ‘Learning from performance monitoring, evaluations, and other relevant sources of information to make course corrections as needed and inform future programming.’ A handy two pager fleshes this out as an infographic, covering both the programme cycle, and the broader ‘enabling conditions’ (see below) for making AM more than just another buzzword. This feels like a big deal, given that USAID is (so far) the largest bilateral donor by miles, and seems way ahead of what I’ve seen in other bilaterals (DFID and co, feel free to set me straight on that).

USAID AM program cycle
USAID AM program cycle

Matt Andrews in his book The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development sets out a series of stages that institutional reform passes through:

  • Deinstitutionalization: encourage the growing discussion on the problems of the current model
  • Preinstitutionalization: groups begin innovating in search of alternative logics, involving ‘distributive agents’ (eg low ranking civil servants) to demonstrate feasibility
  • Theorization: proposed new institutions are explained to the broader community, needing a ‘compelling message about change.’
  • Diffusion: as more ‘distributive agents’ pick it up, a new consensus emerges
  • Reinstitutionalization: legitimacy (hegemony) is achieved. Reformers can all go off to the pub.

With these guidelines, USAID appears to be entering that final stage, whereas many others (including Oxfam) are still at the earlier stages, with skirmishing between AM supporters and sceptics, old school logframers or value for money/results people.

Some further thoughts emerged during the numerous conversations:

How to distinguish between adaptive and indecisive? Course corrections could, after all, merely be a sign of someone who keeps changing their mind; ‘Failing Fast’ might show that you are rubbish at your job, not a budding venture capitalist. Funders and political supporters will need some kind of quality assurance if they are to buy into this, and one option might be a ‘third party audit’ function – someone external who accompanies a programme and can give an independent view on the quality of analysis and decision making. Sounds a bit like the way The Asia Foundation has hired a

USAID AM Enabling Conditions
USAID AM Enabling Conditions

number of academics to accompany its country advocacy teams in recent years in a process it calls ‘strategy testing’.

Where’s the Evidence: In the end AM is only going to take hold if there is compelling evidence that it produces better results than the alternatives. That needs to be more rigorous and convincing than random praise-singing of iconic AM projects. One interesting approach is how AM and non-AM programmes respond to shocks – the Ebola crisis provided just such a ‘natural experiment’ in Sierra Leone, where IRC was able to compare how flexible and inflexible funding arrangements responded to events (not surprisingly, flexible did better). More please.

History: when old lags hear the hype about AM, they tend to roll their eyes and say ‘seen it all before’. Not good enough – could they then please go away and do some serious analysis of previous aid reform movements, and work out why some have had lasting impact, while others have faded away? I also have a suspicion that new thinking in aid is subject to a process of attrition, whereby it is slowly dumbed down and shorn of its more exciting aspects, as it becomes just another set of tick boxes. We probably do have to reinvent the wheel – recover the original excitement of earlier reform movements, perhaps even around the same ideas, with different vocabulary to make things seem new and funky. Is that such a terrible price to pay?

complexity-road-sign-2Are other trends in aid compatible with AM? In particular the payment by results movement just got a big boost from DFID’s Multilateral Aid Review, which plans to spend up to 30% of its funding to UN humanitarian and development agencies via PbR. In theory PbR should be compatible with adaptive management, in that it allows recipients to do what they like, as long as they get the eventual results. In practice, there are signs that it is not quite so simple, with PbR being used more to pass the buck on risk, than to liberate implementers to be more entrepreneurial.

And one lingering concern: AM could become just a technique for better programming, without any discussion of power or politics. I guess that would be better than dumb linear programming, but still, it would lose a lot in terms of understanding the system, or pursuing worthwhile change that ‘expands the freedoms to be and to do’ in Amartya Sen’s indispensable definition of development. How do we guard against that depoliticisation?

More post-US ramblings to follow.

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8 Responses to “Adaptive Management looks like it’s here to stay. Here’s why that matters.”
  1. Ross Clarke

    I think one way is to push back against the ‘management’ label. This makes it seem overly technocratic, apolitical and operations focused for me. I prefer adaptive programming – suggests the entirety of the program should be adaptive and is less of a top-down approach. We should be empowering all people – especially those at the front line – to be working in an adaptive way. Even better, how about adaptive, politically responsive programming (APRP). We all need another clunky acronym in our repertoire.

  2. Great blog, Duncan!

    Ross is right – the entirety of a program should be designed, implemented and managed adaptively, which is the main thrust of revisions to USAID’s policy guidance around how we plan, implement and manage our programs – you can read it here: . CLA, as the way that USAID operationalizes adaptive management, is required in general terms, but those terms are minimally prescribed in the revised policy, which leaves it largely to each operating unit to determine in what ways, how intensively, and how quickly it will work to become a more effective learning organization.

    Why the detailed CLA framework? Because planning and managing our programs adaptively requires specific attention to what others are doing (so we can coordinate and avoid duplication of efforts or working at cross purposes), and to the evidence that’s the basis for decisions about whether and how to adapt. And it’s no accident that some organizations are better at that than others, so we include the focus on organization conditions that enabled adaptive management.

    Is it top-down? Yes and no. Policy is typically a top-down affair, and Duncan’s point about the pied piper effect is apt. The development of the Collaborating, Learning and Adapting framework and practices, though, was actually pretty bottom-up in the organization: knowledge management, organizational learning and organizational development practices have been building in the Agency for years, and those practices and the people who have led them (including several of us at last week’s event) informed what is now CLA. Also the framework and key tools were informed by focus groups of USAID staff and implementing partners, and periodic benchmarking with other aid organizations. A blog by a colleague in the Global Development Lab makes that case that this is more than an HQ requirement (and we didn’t even have to pay her!).

  3. Dena

    I have indeed been working with Adaptive Management as a frame of reference since the late 1990’s because I did my MA in Development Studies at the same time as I was working as a researcher/coordinator at the Manufacturing Roundtable, Graduate School of Business of the University of Cape Town, on a project which was training shopfloor workers in Team Based Problem Solving using Japanese Manufacturing Techniques. So I naturally cross-pollinated ideas. Since then I have learned many development tools for Project Cycle Management, including logframes to Outcomes Mapping. I am probably one of those not quite so old hacks who roll my eyes when new things come around, but this is really exciting. I recently spoke at a USAID conference on regional evaluation in Africa and found a lot of synergy between my thinking and their future direction. It struck me then, that they key to adaptive management is the quality of decision making and management – it is more than about having the evidence, it is about what you do with it that matters. It is critical when making adaptations that the strategic intent of the project does not get lost along the way as modifications are made – and this is something that project teams can loose sight of quite quickly. Hence, the need for frequent check-ins about the direction of change that is evolving through the adaptation.