How to do Adaptive Management in 15 easy steps – from a top new toolkit

Yesterday I summarized the thinking behind an important new toolkit on adaptive management. In this second post, I want to have a look at the tools themselves. These come in the form of 15 ‘guidance notes’. The 15 notes cover the 3 elements of Adaptive Management that Angela Christie and I identified a couple of years ago – adaptive governance, programming and delivery, and add a fourth, more upstream one – adaptive contracting and procurement. That’s a great addition, because if you’re a donor trying to pick the right organization, it’s not that easy to tell the difference between adaptive management and plain old bad management – you need to ask the right questions to sort them out.

The full list is:

Adaptive contracting and procurement

1. Screening for implementers

2. Adaptive contracting

Adaptive governance

3. Policy dialogue

4. Internal program management for PILLAR

5. Donor – Contractor ways of working/decision making

Adaptive programming

6. Establishing readiness

7. Thinking

8. Acting

9. Reflecting and learning

10. Adapting

11. Scaling and transition

Adaptive delivery

12. Recruiting and developing staff for adaptive management

13. Adaptive risk management

14. Flexible budgeting and delegations

15. Measuring adaptive management

Each note comes with checklists, document templates, worksheets and step-by-step guides to make it as practical and off-the-shelf as possible.

The ambition is high:

‘The intent is that, by following these notes, they will serve as a comprehensive alternative to the planned, log-frame driven and top-down approach to aid design and delivery which tends to dominate the development sector. Together, these notes form an adaptive, politically informed and locally led model for the end-to-end (from procurement to evaluation) delivery of aid.’

The templates and worksheets build on what’s already out there: the Harvard Kennedy School’s Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, the Coalitions for Change Development Entrepreneurship approach, the Asia Foundation’s work on Strategy Testing, and the DLP’s approach to Everyday Political Economy Analysis. The authors also draw on their own work at Abt, in the DFAT-Asia Foundation Partnership, the PNG-Australia Transition to Health (PATH) program, and the KOMPAK and INOVASI programs in Indonesia.

Two examples to give you a flavour. From Note 10 on ‘Adapting’, here’s their suggested ‘adjustments worksheet’ for programme managers to record their shifts in direction as they go

Second, here’s a quick guide to assessing AM performance across the 4 areas.

So, will these guidance notes sharpen up the work of people genuinely committed to managing adaptively, or make it easier for charlatans to adaptive wash their work? Both, I fear. The people who ‘get it’ will find lots here that they can draw on in their day to day efforts, and the charlatans can borrow all the documents and terminology without actually thinking very hard about what they are doing. However, maybe it will have some subliminal effect, even on them.

Either way, this ‘toolkitization’ seems to be the only way the aid sector can scale up new approaches, so let’s hope it gets lots of pick up. I’d be really interested in hearing from anyone who is using these about their strengths and weaknesses (as I’m sure would the authors).

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5 Responses to “How to do Adaptive Management in 15 easy steps – from a top new toolkit”
  1. Allan Moolman

    I think this is a very NGO response to a the ‘wicked problem’ of changing behaviours and attitudes. Tools that are applied rigidly are counter to the notion of adaptation. If we want to develop adaptive practice then we should focus on that – practice. Do things, learn from them and adapt, write up/video record/ make a voice note of your experience and share it. Even the most loose of frameworks – if applied by a person with a rigid outlook who is intent on finding an answer in a paper and using it for – becomes tyranny. We need to focus on the people (how they are trained and how they gain experience) not the tools.

      • How does this toolkit compare with the PDIA toolkit of Harvard? It looks like there are quite some parallels? The PDIA toolkit on the other hand seems more radical in its bottom up approach and the recognition the problems are systemic and need systemic answers, not project approaches. Perhaps the way NGOs/donors are organised is the issue?

        • Duncan Green

          Abt draws a lot on existing toolkits, including PDIA. The big difference for me is that PDIA is an insider process – you have to be invited in to fix something by the president or other senior figure. Adaptive Management is a broader concept, including more outsider/hybrid approaches by aid agencies, NGOs and others.

  2. Anne LaFond

    The challenge seems to be garnering enough evidence of the value and feasibility of adaptive approaches through applying it, testing it and measuring it so that they can be ‘normalized’. Integrating the mindsets, capacities and behaviors that drive adaptive approaches (and getting them supported by government and non-profit institutions (nevermind funders) is no easy feat and toolkits may be one way to drive change. They wont be sufficient, but they encourage us to unpack how this change might emerge on the ground.