Adaptive rigour: bridging the art and science of adaptive management

May 7, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Ben Ramalingam and Leni Wild share the thinking behind a new initiative to support adaptive management in aid.

Adaptive management seems to be everywhere these days – and is one of the most popular topics on this blog. More and more, it is becoming seen as the best way to deal with a wide range of development and humanitarian problems, from addressing conflict to achieving political reforms to supporting better learning outcomes in schools.

Some bureaucracies are showing greater tolerance for experimentation and creating internal processes and systems to accommodate this – Yuen Yuen Ang’s work  documents how experimentation has been central to China’s progress in poverty reduction, while in the UK, parts of local government and some organisations have begun embracing the need for change. In aid, donors, funders and implementers have been signing up to such approaches – the Global Learning for Adaptive Management (GLAM) initiative, which we direct, is one of the most significant investments in this area. Funded (just under £4 million) by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), it aims to build greater uptake and stronger use of evidence in such approaches.

David Bowie memorial
GLAM rocks. Sorry.
Photo credit: CC license

Making space for experimentation and adaptation within the realities of bureaucratic constraints means finding a way of bridging two worlds – the creative dynamism that characterises adaptive management and the considered, systematic approaches that can be documented, shared and improved – the art and the science.

It means showing adaptive management can demonstrate forms of accountability and rigour for the use of quality evidence. But it also means understanding rigour differently – accountability cannot be geared to pre-defined results and processes, and needs to enable experimentation rather than inhibit it. These core aspects of effective adaptive management need to be clear, intuitive and easy to grasp, to convince others of their merit. This is what we call adaptive rigour in a recently released GLAM briefing paper, which highlights three factors:

1: Embed monitoring, learning and evaluation throughout delivery – not just at the start and end

Taking an adaptive approach at its core means ensuring evaluative thinking is not just undertaken at the design and the ex-post assessment stages, but is embedded throughout. That means recognising that measurement indicators and methods may need to change as something is being delivered – a country may experience major political change or a natural disaster leading to changing conditions for reform; evidence may highlight that the initial set of activities are not leading to intended outcomes and need to adapt; or you may learn more about who really needs to be engaged in a change process, and shift networks and key relationships accordingly. While this might appear to be less ‘rigorous’ to some, undertaking these changes and documenting them is much more rigorous than insisting that an intervention be implemented in a uniform way across sites, over time and with the original design.


2: Ensure quality in how evidence for adaptations is gathered, assessed and used

Done well, adaptive approaches should demonstrate better use of evidence than more traditional top-down delivery models – but again, this needs to be practiced differently. There are three principles for this:

  • Usefulness: How to ensure that evidence is actually used and informs decision making on an ongoing basis, for instance through regular strategy review and forecasting?
  • Practicality:  How to ensure that the types of evidence used are diverse, involving different perspectives and reflecting tacit knowledge and processes that are often undervalued but can be key to success?
  • Timeliness: How to ensure that evidence is produced and used at the right time to inform ongoing decision making, rather than coming too late or not in a form that actually supports programme leaders to make better decisions?

3: Strengthen the enabling environment

While our first two points can help counter criticisms of ‘making things up without a plan’, change won’t really happen without more fundamental shifts in mindsets, behaviours and power balances, within government bureaucracies and aid organisations.

Ultimately, funders need to recognise that they are not playing conventional ‘commissioner’ roles (i.e. buying a particular service, output or reform). Rather, that they need to act as ‘system enablers’, providing the right conditions for others to solve problems, work collectively and achieve ambitious outcomes. Organisations at different levels (funders, implementers) need to foster the right internal capacities and incentives to create space for change. We suggest a set of questions to identify the ‘institutional readiness’ of organisations:

  • Do senior leaders and managers foster an enabling working environment and shared mindsets around adaptive change? Are there safe spaces to recognise uncertainty, identify early failures and ensure action is taken to address them?
  • Are staff capacities of curiosity and creativity, critical thinking, comfort with uncertainty valued, and reflected in key recruitment, rewards, training and promotion systems?
  • Are reporting and accountability mechanisms, including contracting, supportive of the need for adaptations through the implementation process?

The ideas presented in our paper provide an initial inventory (which can be downloaded separately here), and a set of ideas that can hopefully provide a platform for shared learning. We are already finding the approach to be of genuine value in our own work advising new and existing ‘adaptive management’ programmes and portfolios. But this is definitely just a preliminary attempt – and we warmly invite feedback, comments, and critique in the spirit of collaborative improvement.

Key considerations

In closing, from our perspective, strengthening monitoring, learning and evaluation systems is not a ‘nice to have’ or simply a technical endeavour. Building better and more rigorous feedback and learning systems lies at the very heart of the effective and adaptive endeavours that are needed ever more urgently around the world. We believe that better and more creative experimentation can help remake humanitarian and development organisations, ensuring our efforts better reflect and respond to realities on the ground. This means working hard to improve methods, mechanisms and modes of development – but also being aware that ultimately, this must result in changed mindsets. Ultimately, the effort to  ‘do development differently’ begins with ourselves.

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May 7, 2019
Duncan Green