Seven Rules of Thumb for Adaptive Management – what do you think?

Adaptive Management (aka Doing Development Differently, Thinking and Working Politically) seems to be flavour of the month, at least in my weird bubble of a world, so the next week is going to feature a series of posts on different aspects of what looks like a pretty important ‘movement’

First up, at one of the sessions at the Bologna workshop that I wrote about recently, we tried to identify some ‘rules of thumb’ for those wishing to make adaptive management approaches a core part of their organization. The fact that the workshop mainly involved people involved in the nitty gritty of monitoring, evaluation and learning in a range of INGOs and aid donors gave this a particularly practical angle. We tried to avoid ending up with a load of questions (the usual end point of these conversations). We consciously pursued ‘rules of thumb’ (which some of the group called ‘principles’, while the pointy-headed might prefer ‘heuristics’) because the last thing we wanted to come up with was a new prescriptive toolkit/future logframe.

Here’s what we came up with – not sure we’re there yet, so feel free to add/comment/critique etc.

RoT 1. Create ‘Enabling Conditions’ for AM in your organization. How?

Build an institutional ‘culture of curiosity’ in your organization, which rewards and resources reflection and learning

Agree clear upfront parameters for levels of decision making – who decides what?

Find the right people for the initial core team

RoT 2. From ex ante Planning to ‘Sense Making Directed Improvisation’ (ref Yuen Yuen Ang). How?

Directed: Seek sufficient analysis to understand relevant parts of the system, starting with a hypothesis that sets your direction and gives you the questions to inform your reflection and adaptation

Improvisation: Engage and empower field staff and partners to develop and act on both tacit and explicit knowledge

Create spaces for sense-making at the nexus of strategy and implementation

Constantly revisit and refine your theory of change and your theory of action, and the links between them. (Theory of Change = how the system changes; Theory of Action = how we intend to change the system)

RoT 3. Just Enough/Good Enough AM. How?

  • ‘Enough’ means adequate for decision making and action to remain agile for adaptation and proportionate to institutional/donor needs. For example:
  • Good enough AM to match the complexity of system (some systems are simple/complicated and don’t need AM)
  • Just enough Standardization to enable local adaptation
  • Just Enough planning detail for the level of management, and the stage of the programme
  • Just Enough staff at each stage – build as you go, to get the right people for the evolving plan
  • Just Enough information and documentation for the level of decision making and the evolution of the programme

RoT 4. Communication is Crucial. How?

Use fast feedback loops that gather and make sense of adaptive implementation on the ground and strategically direct improvisation

Consciously design communication for diverse audiences (both internal – organization, project team, and external – partners, donors) to secure buy-in

RoT 5. Think about role of (and impact on) Partners/Coalitions. How?

Select partners considering their capacity/scope/appetite for AM

Start the conversation about AM as early as possible: establish it’s in the project before it starts

Resource the burden of participation (money, time, skills) for co-creation/AM

Don’t overstretch the AM capacity of partners

Enable and Encourage partners to learn and adapt along with you

Create safe spaces for feedback, learning and testing solutions

RoT 6. Work with Donors. How?

Find AM allies within donors and keep them involved: relationships, relationships, relationships

Continuous and diverse communication messages for different parts of donors, including showcasing AM successes

Negotiate $ for learning, burden of participation and greater flexibility

Think and Work Politically with donors – understand and link to their needs and framing, help them mitigate risk

RoT 7. Redesign MEL Systems for Accountability and Learning. How?

Adaptive MEL systems match the learning agenda and the capacity to collect and use data, employ mixed methods and ensure participation

Develop outcome indicators for learning and adaptation; accountability does not stop at outcomes

Reward well-managed failure, not poorly managed success

Make room for a mix of indicators: ‘Bedrock’ indicators can be agreed as essential from the outset, then add new or adapted indicators as AM progresses

What do you think?

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3 Responses to “Seven Rules of Thumb for Adaptive Management – what do you think?”
  1. Heather Marquette

    One thing that stood out for me was the idea that some implementers may be trying to use adaptive management to ‘game’ the system. I’ve heard similar things anecdotally. I’ve been thinking about how ‘the donor authorising environment’ is used like a throwaway line now, almost like ‘political will’, but there seems to be little tacit recognition that one of the main reasons why the authorising environment is tough is because of bad practice in the past. In the tension between accountability and flexibility, accountability is very likely to reign supreme until trust is (re) built. Making the case on its own for lowering standards on accountability isn’t likely to build that trust, and bad practice certainly isn’t. It could be good if bad practice were called out by the wider adaptive management community rather than letting it be swept under the carpet.

    I also think a point that DFAT’s Saku Akmeemana made at the ANU Australasian Aid Conference earlier in the year on feedback loops was fantastic. PDIA is based on work on national governments where there are ‘natural’ feedback loops such as political parties, trade unions, civil society etc. Those don’t exist for external programmes and so we try to build feedback loops, but without recognising that it’s probably not the feedback loop bit that’s the most important…it’s the ‘natural’ bit. It’s like the interest in Yuen Yuen’s book on China; great book but you can’t just translate how things work for the Chinese government into how things will work for an external organisation. For me it was a standout observation in a great panel (

    Thinking about aid and accountability, Lant Pritchett’s blog from earlier in the month is very good ( Reviewing Dan Konig’s book, Lant sets out very clearly the difference between accountability and accounting. What many people who talk about the ‘authorising environment’ are actually talking about is accounting – the push to measure things, even if measuring things is less than useful, and Lant’s blog (and Dan’s book!) should be required reading. It would probably be politically astute to make this differentiation clearer in lobbying for doing things differently…

  2. Great food for thought, Duncan! However, I’d suggest that what is currently missing in this “rules of thumb” position is an anchoring in the practical reality of delivery.

    As practitioners of “lived” adaptive management and its enabler – adaptive MEL – we are clear at INASP that it is not the “instruments” or “tools” such as logframes or results frameworks that deter an understanding and application of adaptive management principles in our work. Rather, it is the rigid and often inflexible applications of these instruments and tools underpinned by “non-malleable” structures of the development sector that are the quintessential problem! Without a doubt logframes are useful tools, but they are meant to be “live” and open to change, clearly signposting, partially (through an examination of the evidence generated) the direction of travel.

    Why “partially”? We would agree with your emphasis on the importance of relationships. What allows flexibility in questioning the direction of travel in an adaptively managed project is the trust built within partnership relationships that gives its members permission to question and critique and disagree – while continuing to value and grow the relationship.

    A final reflection on engaging donors in a world defined by inflexible budgets mechanisms that seem contrary to the rhetoric around the “need” for adaptive management approaches: a fundamental of adaptive management is the ability to create the space for people and projects to take greater control of the thinking, the learning and the decision making around changes to activities and resource re-allocation in support of the evidence being generated.
    Adaptive management, where it is being applied and creating the opportunity for real change, is happening in spite of the dislocate between rhetoric and reality and between theoretical discourse and practical implementation. It is happening because of overwhelming people commitment to seeing a real difference in project outcomes following decades of development.