Old Wine in New Bottles? 6 ways to tell if a programme is really ‘doing development differently’

Guest post from some of the top exponents of adaptive management/doing development differently

These days it seems that everyone in the aid sector is doing development differently – presenting themselves as politically smart, locally led, flexible and adaptive. But is it true?  How much of this is “old wine in new bottles” – the language changing but the practice remaining much the same? And, if this is happening, what does a genuinely innovative and adaptive programme look like?

A small group of us – Angela Christie, Helen Derbyshire, Annette Fisher, Steve Fraser, and Wilf Mwamba – have been having a conversation about this – triggered by a recent conference in Brighton. We asked ourselves what tells us that a programme is genuinely adaptive – and on the other hand what rings alarm bells.

Here’s what we came up with.

A programme is adaptive if there is …..


The programme donor, implementers and local partners have a shared understanding of what problem an adaptive approach will help them to solve and how being adaptive will lead to better results. Adaptive approaches generally apply to work in complex contexts, on complex issues with messy politics. Pathways to change are unpredictable, and more conventional blueprint approaches have had limited effectiveness.

Alarm bells ring for us when proposals, conversations and reports are littered with doing development differently buzzwords – but there’s no apparent understanding of why such an approach might be important in the programme context.

  1. A shared understanding of and commitment to ADAPTIVE PROGRAMMING IN PRACTICE.

Being adaptive, politically smart and locally led usually involves devolving significant operational and strategic decision-making to front-line staff and local partners.  This means establishing systems, support structures and quality control mechanisms to enable frontline staff and local partners to watch and analyse their changing context, identify opportunities and momentum for change towards their strategic goals, learn from experience and adapt their interventions accordingly.

What adaptive programming is not is a programme without goals, or with continuously shifting goalposts. It is not a flexible fund built into a programme that otherwise continues with business as usual. PEA reports should be influencing thinking and action, not sitting on shelves – and in most cases, the team in the capital city shouldn’t be dominating decision making. It rings alarm bells for us when programme actions and approaches remain the same even as the context changes, and when programmes repeat actions which have not been successful hoping for a different result. And they ring particularly loudly when, through the life of the programme and despite changing contexts and opportunities for learning, the programme Log Frame and Theory of Change remain unchanged.


Programme-related roadblocks – such as insisting on delivery against pre-set top-down results, fixed budgets, and contractually rigid technical or financial inputs – stand in the way of adaptation. In an adaptive programme, donors, implementers and local partners are working together from the outset to create as much flexibility as possible – to work with any partners and stakeholders, to respond to shifts in momentum and opportunity, to shift resources rapidly to where they are needed, and to provide necessary technical support. This means building flexibility into management and contracting processes, and buffering front line staff and local partners from top-down requirements that might otherwise govern and constrain their decision-making.

Alarm bells ring for us when the management team – donors and implementers – are not open about and actively and collectively trying to manage the contradictions and constraints to adaptive programming posed by commercial and contractual requirements.


Working adaptively is more of an art than a science.  At the front line, it involves being a ‘dancer’ and ‘dancing with

A ‘searchframe’ – the Building State Capability alternative to the logframe

the system’. It’s almost an approach to life. Adaptive programmes are re-orienting recruitment and appraisal systems, balancing technical expertise with softer skills, investing in people and nurturing potential. Important soft skills include a personal commitment to change; the ability to build trust and relationships; a willingness to listen, observe and understand; the courage to take opportunities without knowing where they will necessarily lead; and to make mistakes and learn from them. At the management level, technical skills are needed to find ways of adapting donor and supplier management systems to accommodate adaptive ways of wor


Alarm bells ring for us when teams experienced in conventional programming are delivering an adaptive programme with no changes in recruitment and appraisal processes, no systematic support to enable and empower staff to work in different ways often outside their comfort zone, and no change in management style.


An organizational culture of learning includes systems and structures to enable front line staff and local partners to stand back from their day to day work, consider the bigger picture, reflect honestly on their actions, and learn from what is not working as well as what is. In programme management and donor teams, strategic reflection is needed on the overall programme approach, extending to “back room” processes that might otherwise constrain adaptive working.

Alarm bells ring when programme management information systems are focused primarily on performance management, and don’t provide front line staff and partners with information they can use for action learning and for adapting as they go. Another concern is when the focus of internal reporting is all on success, and there is no acknowledgement of or learning from what is not working.


Results are not simply about numbers and delivery – but about behaviour change, set-backs, learning and progress on a journey of reform.  In reporting results, adaptive programmes are telling their story – communicating a learning journey, positioning results in their context, and giving a realistic assessment of the programme’s contribution to

change relative to other factors. Their communications enable an appreciation of how the programme is working and why, and contribute to wider debates about programme approaches.

Alarm bells ring for us when programme communications take a conventional approach – focused on churning out good news stories and self-promotion of the programme’s achievements.

These are our initial thoughts. We’d all be really interested to hear yours.

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14 Responses to “Old Wine in New Bottles? 6 ways to tell if a programme is really ‘doing development differently’”
  1. Really interesting article, and thanks folks for putting your heads together on this. I would add a few specific suggestions, based on my experience managing adaptive programmes, and encourage you to move away from generalizable principles (“shared understanding”, “working with the right people”) which are too easy to fudge and obfuscate. Here are my specific suggestions for making programmes adaptive for real:
    1. Ensure a good balance of delivery personnel engaged on part-time and/or short-term contracts.
    2. Ensure a large portion of the budget is kept flexible for hiring delivery personnel flexibly.
    3. Build strong networks that can be deployed flexibly – that means knowing the range of specialists, experts and influencers (individuals and organisations) that you might deploy, but not committing to using them at the outset of the project. Beware large consortia with multiple local and international organisations – because you know the management team are going to spend their whole time focused internally on partnership management rather than externally on the change environment and opportunities.
    4. Use short project timeframes – that force management to stop, re-evaluate and re-plan. Beware programmes with long (anything over 6 months) workplans.
    5. Develop and use an explicit methodology for good problem solving and ideation – being willing and flexible to adapt a load of bad ideas (or worse, no ideas at all) isn’t going to get you very much development impact.
    6. Use a portfolio approach to programme management – one of the easiest ways to ensure an adaptive approach is to think like a venture capitalist – placing a lot of small bets that narrow down, some scale up, new opportunities emerge. However too many programmes are still focused on making every component and workstream and activity a success, rather than looking at their portfolio of interventions.
    7. Read weak signals – this is critical for good politically smart programming – constantly scanning, interpreting and discussing what’s going on and what’s changing – and not relying on long, prosaic papers written by ‘political economy analysis experts’.,
    8. Consciously apply systems and complexity thinking – Systems thinking requires constant efforts to understand and intervene at multiple entry points around a specific development challenge, rather than rely on one intervention approach, which would be naïve to think could solve such challenges when everything these days is so interconnected. We develop interventions that work on business model innovation, policy reform, technical and technology solutions, political context, and citizen engagement targeting different constraints around the same big issue.
    9. Go Lean – I can’t stress enough, people should read Eric Ries’ book on how start-ups can develop and test hypotheses to transform into market dominating companies and unicorns. What a wonderful analogy for the development project that, with a relatively small budget, sets out to transform the world with billon-dollar saving miraculous outcomes. They key is to be ambitious, be explicit about hypotheses that will deliver that ambition, and consciously test and pivot around those hypotheses.
    10. Be problem driven, but solution oriented – Too many projects take too much time to analyse every problem with the justification that they are being problem driven. The key to the I and the A of PDIA is to develop solution hypotheses early, and learn through testing, iteration and adaptation – with real data . . . and avoid analysis-paralysis.

  2. This seems like a very insular set of criteria. It underplays the importance of working with communities, partners, other stakeholders. And the mention of “devolving decision making” would be better framed as sharing decision making (and even power). In a similar vein, the personnel point (#5) misses the need for deep knowledge of the system you’re dancing with—i.e. local expertise. Overall I worry this set of criteria feels like an understanding of adaptive action that focuses on the program team as the adaptive actor, the one making the changes and steering the ship and who the power. That feels more like the old way of doing things.

    • To some extent I agree, Dave, although I rather feel we have moved on from debates about local ownership, partnership and expertise – which most people surely take as a given by now . . . ? How can you even take one foot forward without genuine local partnership, expertise and shared decision making? I think development practice has to get much more finely tuned or we will never achieve anything re-hashing these same discourses for the last decade and more. Or maybe you are right and I am assuming too much of this readership….?

      • Maybe this blog’s readership is doing fine, but I’d argue the sector as a whole hasn’t taken principles of local ownership to heart. Same goes with some of the other factors Duncan lists – many have been discussed for years, but most organizations still struggle with them.

      • Charlotte Ornemark

        Sachin, I like your comment. The problem is: when we move on from debates about local ownership, partnership and the importance of local expertise — we often tend to move backward, to top-down or more introspective approaches (corporate ‘agility’ included). Maybe adaptive programming (and some guiding principles to double-check them) is indicative of a changing aid sector overall. But most probably not. To me, it’s more interesting to look at indications of a more adaptive aid sector overall; not just exogenous ‘programming’. An adaptive program implementation team interacting with a benevolent donor is interesting, but not revolutionary in terms of doing development differently. New forms of risk sharing, trust-building, forming power-equalizing partnerships (actually embodying the principle of ‘mutuality’), and ensuring ownership where it belongs (i.e. among the rights-holders themselves) would be.

    • I might not call the principles insular, but I do think that discussions of what qualifies as an adaptive program – helpful as I think these principles are – risk missing an important distinction, as Dave’s comment about who the adaptive actor is suggests.

      One way in which programming can be adaptive is when it involves funders and implementing organizations adapting their approaches in response to emerging challenges and opportunities, and modifying their operating procedures so that they can be flexible. A second way in which programming can be adaptive is when it supports learning and adaptation by the local actors who make the decisions, and drive the action, that is needed to address complex, political and context-dependent challenges.

      The first aspect of adaptive programming is important and can support the second. The second is key, and is something that those of us who are in places like London and Washington should not forget, if we really want to support and leverage the power of local actors to shift the dynamics of complex political systems and reshape the landscape of incentives. Otherwise, lots of talk about learning and adaptation will deliver little more than better managed programs that have little purchase on the political dynamics and incentives that lie behind complex governance and development challenges.

      A longer version of this can be found here: Whose learning and adaptation counts? https://www.globalintegrity.org/2017/12/learning-and-power-or-whose-learning-and-adaptation-counts/

      And this, from Results for Development, in September, is relatedly well worth a read. https://www.r4d.org/blog/what-are-the-right-roles-for-international-ngos/

      Maybe the Care International conversation about Doing Development Differently, planned for Nairobi on 4th December, will have important insights to offer? Looking forward to seeing what comes out of that!

      • Maria Poli & Flor Guerzovich

        Thanks for opening this conversation. Many lessons from our experience working with civil society groups and opening doors to introduce adaptive principles resonate with Sachin & Alan’s comments. Implementing adaptive principles in practice often calls for working with the grain of systems in which stakeholders – donors and local partners alike- do not have a culture of adaptive learning and course-correction.
        A few days ago, we met with the CSOs supported through grants from the Global Partnership for Social Accountability. We have been supporting the gradual introduction of adaptive principles in programming from the donor’s side. We have aimed to support experimentation rather than telling local partners what “tools” they should be using to do one thing or another. Mid-term reviews and reports have been tools for course-correction. For most of our partners, this approach is not business as usual. Most of them work in contexts whereby one program/donor may promote adaptation, while other ongoing programs/donors do not. Does it mean that we only aim to change where we can create islands by “revolution”? Or does it point to the fact that embracing doing development differently through adaptive programing (which should be one of many strategies) requires multifaceted, non-prescriptive approaches, with different implications for the range of stakeholders involved? We feel it’s important to begin fine-tuning the “ways”, not least from the perspective of what they mean for those who are trying to embrace them from very different places,
        In our meeting, we asked local partners what was the most important value that the relationship with the GPSA had provided to their organizations. For us, some of the most rewarding insights of a frank conversation painted an experience that is not yet fully captured in the “ways” or general principles put forth in the blog. One civil society colleague reflected on the dilemma that her organization faced when the original plan did not make sense in the context. The GPSA supported the organization’s pivoting. It provided the tools to change plans, budgets, etc. but also the space the organization needed to rethink their theory of action, and as she put it, “our core role as a CSO doing social accountability.” Did they go through the challenge of changing strategy, partners, staff and budget (key points in Shachin’s list)? Or did the organization stick to the plan? In the end they took a thought-out leap of faith – the organization owned the decision to adapt, as hard as it may have been. Three years later the organization has learned that adaptiveness has paid off.
        Other CSOs shared similar experiences. We value this adaptation and share Alan’s concerns about whose adaptation’s counts.
        We’d say that it is part of our responsibility to encourage more conversations about what are the opportunities and limits, the risks and potentials attached to adaptation in different organizational and contextual circumstances. We wonder whether the quest for litmus tests and standardization may be in tension with these experiences and the demands of creating an ecosystem in which more organizations own the decision to adapt (or not). Or maybe the test is fine as long as we are clear that adaptive programming takes various forms depending on where each organization stands (mission, roles, responsibilities, etc.) After all, embracing adaptiveness isn’t an end, but a bet for pursuing pathways that seem better than alternatives towards finding solutions to development and governance challenges. If anything, learning to adapt by doing, in context, should be at the forefront, much more than “by design”
        Maria Poli & Florencia Guerzovich

  3. David Booth

    A stimulating contribution on an important issue, thanks to all. All the positive enabling conditions and negative warning signs you identify are well described. But in the end I feel enabling conditions and warning signs are not quite enough to answer the question posed: what is the litmus test that identifies a programme as adaptive? To get to that, I don’t think one can avoid looking at the relation between ends and means in the basic programme design. As you rightly say, adaptive programmes are not programmes without goals. But I would suggest they are distinguished by having particular kinds of goals — goals that do not have built into them a sacrosanct theory of change that in practice is never questioned, even if the implementation details get changed a lot. In other words, adaptive programmes are problem-driven. Solution-driven programme designs don’t qualify, even if they are managed and organised on the lines you rightly recommend.

  4. Susan Watkins

    But first, you need to know–not just assume– that the implementers and local partners genuinely care about adaptive programming or are they just along for the ride (e.g. per diems).

  5. Helen Derbyshire

    Great to see that our blog post has generated such an interesting and thought provoking discussion. We completely agree that learning and adaptation by local actors is what fundamentally counts – local actors shaping programmes interventions according to their knowledge of shifting momentum and opportunity, and on the basis of learning by doing. But, our experience is that the practices of funders and implementing organisations fundamentally affect their ability and incentives to work in this way. Arguably, local actors who are shaping development and change but who are not donor funded naturally work in an adaptive way. It is the donor and programme systems that change their incentives. As the GPSA post said “most of our partners work in contexts where one program/donor may promote adaptation, while other ongoing programmes/donors do not”. Adaptive programming also takes various forms – and this experimentation/adaptation to context is critical. Our concern is about programmes (and local partners) that practice adaptation in a half-hearted/lip service kind of way – the ones, as Susan says “who are along for the ride”, but then largely continue with business as usual – top down systems and processes that undermine the ability of programme staff and local actors to work adaptively. Is this a concern that others share?

  6. Jake Allen

    I’m surprised – and sorry if I missed it – that risk isn’t really mentioned. Risk avoidance is a huge factor in what stops real adaptive management, and in converse the acceptance and management of, and protection from risk is what can open up the space to really do what is best rather than what is mandated.

  7. Duncan Green

    This just in from Diana Cammack:
    ‘the real problem with the Millennium Village Project is ‘the construct of the project, its governing power structure’… I think it wasn’t Sachs being a Northerner, foreign or white that made the difference exactly, it was his power – conferred by the funds and legitimacy of the project that they brought.

    The first time I saw such happen was on a smaller scale on a Model-B Cooperative farm in Zimbabwe in 1983, a farm overseen by (Southerner, local, black) then-Speaker of the House Didymus Mutasa. The reluctant co-operators were a bunch of ex-farm labourers who’d been allowed to stay on an abandoned white man’s farm, and all they really wanted was to dig their own shambas and plant a bit of maize and be left alone. But their farm had become a showcase Cooperative w/foreign funding (and several expats) and they had to perform as Mugabe’s revolution dictated and the funding supported. The former required meetings several nights a week where the tired farmers sat in a dark smoky room and were harangued with patriotic slogans and raised fist salutes. The latter meant new systems being introduced (and v reluctantly adopted) that were meant to teach these mostly illiterate farmers to manage their own farm.

    What struck us at the time, and which is relevant here, is the vast power imbalance that was glossed over, but that undermined all that was being done in the name of ‘co-operativism’. If the farmers had contrary ideas to what the expat advisors suggested, they would be addressed by re-training. There was no attempt to build new institutions on what existed before; entirely new methods and systems were being introduced. Worse though, if the locals refused to follow expat (‘modern’ agricultural or management) instructions or were too slow on the uptake, or didn’t drop their own bad habits, the Big Man would drive down in his Mercedes from Harare and lecture them and threaten to throw them off the co-op and out of their homes if they did not mend their ways.

    In my 30 years working in aid, I have seen ‘governing power structures’ as stark – the staff of one NGO actually complained to me that the (African) woman who started/ran the NGO I was evaluating actually beat them – but this co-op experience from my first job in Africa hit me this morning as illustrative of the way money = power.

    And this is why donors are key actors (equal to govts?) in the (under)development business… ‘