Smart thinking from USAID on putting adaptive management into practice

I recommend USAID’s recent paper ‘What difference does CLA (Collaborate; Learn; Adapt) make to development: Key findings from a recent literature review’, which provides further evidence that USAID for all its problems with the Administration, continues to do some really interesting work. The 12 key findings are neatly summarized in this graphic:

USAID Learning Lab Graphic from Literature Review

The paper’s only 5 pages, but for those that can’t even manage that, I’ll pick on the four findings that struck me as the most interesting;

Finding: Individuals who are curious, have “growth mindsets,” and are able to empathize with their colleagues are generally better able to adapt to changing circumstances. Ultimately, it is individuals who take on the work of collaborating, learning and adapting within organizations and across partner organizations. Individual personality traits, habits and competencies can affect who is more likely to take on these behaviors. The literature reviewed found the ability to be flexible and adaptive is highly related to individual personalities, which in turn drive office culture and institutional appetite for change. Across sectors, the literature found that hiring those with “adaptive mindsets” (inquisitive by nature, able to ask the right questions, flexible skillsets) and those that show sensitivity to the feelings and needs of their colleagues had a direct impact on a team’s ability to learn and adapt to effect change.

Implication for USAID Staff: In hiring for key positions, place value on adaptive mindset, soft skills and change management experience. Habits and competencies that make an individual more likely to learn and adapt need to be considered and intentionally nurtured through coaching and training in order to incentivize behavior change. As with any change effort, intentionally seeking out CLA champions with a high propensity to promote and model learning behavior will be critical for CLA uptake. If these behaviors are desirable, then clear signals need to be given to indicate that (praise in meetings for changes based on new information, leadership encouragement of trying new things, etc.)

Finding: Leaders are essential to creating a learning culture, the foundation of learning organizations. The literature discusses how organizations that encourage honest discourse and debate and provide an open and safe space for communication tend to perform better and be more innovative. Leaders are central to defining culture and “learning leaders” are generally those who encourage non-hierarchical organizations where ideas can flow freely.

Implication for USAID Staff: Mission and implementing partner leadership must model strategic collaboration, continuous learning and adaptive management. As we know from experience and confirmed by the literature, leaders are essential in creating an “enabling environment that encourages the design of more flexible programs, promotes intentional learning, minimizes the obstacles to modifying programs and creates incentives for learning and managing adaptively” (ADS 201 guidance, page 11). But achieving this enabling environment begins with leaders who truly lead by example and create the space for staff to collaborate, learn and adapt more effectively. Leadership training and coaching can help leaders at all levels within the organization improve their skills and create a culture that supports CLA.

Finding: Continuous learning is linked with job satisfaction, empowerment, employee engagement and, ultimately, improved performance and outcomes. A growing body of evidence from both private and public sector organizations recognizes that having a strong organizational learning culture increases psychological empowerment and sense of autonomy, which drives a collaborative team culture, high levels of commitment and employee retention. In the USAID context specifically, CLA is strongly related to staff empowerment, engagement and job satisfaction.

Implication for USAID Staff: Leaders should model CLA. In addition to missions using CLA approaches to improve strategy, project, and activity design and implementation, CLA can also be seen as a leadership tool for creating more effective organizations where employees are more satisfied, engaged and empowered. We are already seeing CLA being used to improve staff engagement in USAID missions, including Uganda and Senegal, as well as in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.

Finding: Teams that have high levels of trust and are considered safe for interpersonal risk-taking tend to be better at learning and adapting. Managing adaptively requires a level of group tolerance for risk-taking, which by extension is contingent on teams having trusting relationships. The literature reviewed found that high trusting teams generally tend to be high-performing. Why are high trusting teams higher performing? Because they also tend to have high levels of “psychological safety,” which is the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. This means they are more likely to participate in risk-taking learning behavior, and by extension proactive learning-oriented action, which positively impacts results.

Implication for USAID Staff: Create space and time for team members to develop trusting interpersonal relationships. Activities that build mutual understanding and shared trust—such as group reflection moments, team problem-solving and equal conversational turn-taking—aid collaboration and evidence-based decision-making and should be prioritized. Informal opportunities for information sharing and practicing social sensitivity are also important for building team trust and psychological safety. This is especially important in the context of partnerships with local actors


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13 Responses to “Smart thinking from USAID on putting adaptive management into practice”
  1. Varja

    I like CLA too – though my beef is that when asked for detailed materials (e.g. cards that can be used to guide a discussion in a team about how well it does / does not do CLA, and plan for improvements), the good folks over at Usaid say it’s all proprietary. Pity! … and can this be changed?

  2. Looking at the 12 points in the graphic I am asking myself and others: Would anyone have disagreed with these points 10,20,30 years ago?
    Probably not.
    So what else is missing if we think these are still in need?

    • Marta Arranz

      Agree. Something that might be missing is the acknowledgement of the political nature of the adaptation. As an evaluator I’d like to think evidence and learning play a strong role in signalling a “better” direction for interventions to adapt towards, but I see examples where adaptation happens but not necessarily influenced be a reliable evidence base, but by other (often political) factors. This is not negative in itself, but just to be clear, interventions don’t always evolve towards an improved version of themselves.

  3. Steve Golub

    Excellent point by Rick Davies.

    In recent years I’ve undertaken consultancies for USAID and DFID in which adaptive management principles were preached but not practiced. There was, instead, an extremely short-term focus on demonstrating superficial results and an indifference to and in one case admitted ignorance of political economy analysis and related approaches. These are admittedly very limited data points and I’ll certainly grant that these agencies have some very good people doing good work. But until there is evidence to the contrary, I’m afraid that many development agencies remain bound by path dependence, to the near-exclusion of innovative, adaptive approaches. Sorry about my skepticism, and I’ll be glad to be proven wrong, but the development aid field is filled with these kinds of high-minded policy papers that are not implemented on the ground.

    • Duncan

      Rick is not being skeptical; he is just being real and honest. USAID is not serious. I have recent personal experienced working with USAID, and they are all talk and no significant action. It’s mostly politics, mostly about bureaucrats protecting their cushy jobs, mostly about consultants mining obscenely overpaid days, and not at all about actually helping the poor or innovating. USAID’s massive hypocrisy in the past means that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they are serious about adaptive management. As with Rick, I would love to be proven wrong. But until such time as there is a concrete and large scale display of behaviour, then I do not see any reason to expect change or adaptation in USAID.

      • Gershon Dulo

        am a strong believer in adaptive Management in all its facets and have had the opportunity to introduce the Program via training to Kenyan based organizations willing to embrace it.Managing adaptively is certainly the way to go especially for organizations wanting to manage differently i.e by integrating adaptive Management core principles ,best practices and the cycle of Programs ,But for that to happen,the organizations must go through a paradigm shift ,anything short of that is a recipe for failure.
        While appreciating the role so far played by USAID boldness in charting a new way of managing development, much more remains to be done by its partners and other collaborators in terms of embracing the new way of managing during Vuca times. The impact of adaptive Management will be felt on a big scale the moment there is a critical mass of adopters.New changes will always be resisted especially by the believers in the old paradigm.Change is in he air and those who feel it cant work should create room for those believe managing and leading adaptively is the only way to deliver better impact and realise better value for money,no need for value for more studies the moment you integrate adaptive Management in your Business model.
        Kudos to USAID for championing a new and better way to management of development Programmes differently.Currently i’m looking for organizations willing to embrace this revolutionary approach to managing and leading.We offer practical and impactful training to leadership teams of various sizes

  4. Stacey Young

    The CLA Maturity Tool (the cards you mentioned) is not proprietary, ​but the card deck version of the tool is available only to USAID staff due to the cost of printing​ ​​and shipping. We do​, however, have a ​​digital version of the maturity stages in the CLA framework that we can share. Please email and/or for a copy. More information ​about the tool is available here: , with some frequently asked questions here: .

  5. Any good management good will give you these points. The challenge is that when you confront complexity how do you put that into practise with your log frames, planning tools, monitoring systems and procurement rules

  6. I guess we westerners cannot avoid being westerners and seeing the world as westerners all the time. 🙂
    We keep seeing change as the result of the actions of individuals and leaders with specific traits and skills, instead of perceiving as key the relationships among them and the basic conditions that enable them to achieve things.
    Therefore the superabundance and hypercentrality of “leaders” we see… even when we perform a literature review!!
    Three out of the four “implications for staff” focus on leaders and key individuals. And the fourth, which is about teams, seems to treat them mostly as a collection of individuals, which “need space and time to develop trusting relationships”.

    But ask anybody in an “agile” software development team (which, arguably, face much less complex operating environments than development workers): they will confirm you that their delivery unit is the “team”, never the person. Teams that grow together through time. If a project relies in the heroicity and special characteristics of specific individuals… the project has a fundamental, risky issue that should be urgently addressed.

    This is not to say that leaders and individuals do not play a role. They do. But they are trees which matter as part of the forest. And adaptive management cannot become a serious thing as long as we remain unable to see the forest for the trees. Obvious things like “for adaptation teams matter, more than individuals”, or “you cannot get meaningful adaptation if people do not stay enough” need to be recognised. What is the value of selecting and contracting any incredibly good leader or key individual, if he/she will leave in two years, just in time to destroy the “trust” that was starting to emerge around him/her?
    If expecting that the core of a team stays together for 5 years to get an important job done is something unrealistic for the aid industry… well, then we are probably not trying hard enough when we talk about “adaptive management”, and we are just still “blah-blah-blah-ing”.

  7. Rinus van Klinken

    It is a very interesting and important post for us as practitioners. And with some interesting comments. If I can add my own:
    1. Literature review? Most of the citations refer to one specific article (is that cherry-picking?), with most of the articles behind a paywall and some of the links not working (e.g.: greater autonomy helps project adaptability).
    2. The pie summarising all this has six segments, with findings related to 5 of these segments. The one segment about ‘Resources’ does not have any findings attached to it. And yet, one of the biggest obstacles to adaptive management could be located there. As managers we can foster all the learning and collaboration, as advocated by the review, but if we are working for a donor (e.g. USAID) where compliance is more important than learning, little is going to shift. While behavioural change and skills development for project staff in implementing CLA is important, as important is the space provided by donor rules and regulations.
    Otherwise the ‘findings’ are indeed useful pointers.