How do you do ‘Adaptive Programming’? Two examples of Practical Experience help with some of the answers

September 13, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

helen-bwHelen Derbyshire (left) of SAVI and Elbereth Donovan (right) of LASER share some thoughts elbereth-donovan-headshot-crop-100215on what all the fuss is about.

At a glance the two DFID programmes we work on are very different. SAVI (and its successor programme ECP) is a large scale, long-term initiative which focuses on citizens’ engagement in governance in Nigeria. LASER is a modest, shorter-term investment climate reform programme operating in eight countries. But, despite our differences, learning by doing and working in an adaptive manner are central to how we both work and we’ve been sharing approaches and lessons between ourselves for some time.

Recently we’ve experienced a spike in interest from others in our experience of adaptive programming. Programme staff, donor representatives and suppliers are asking us what it is that we actually do to deliver programmes that aim to react to learning, changes in context and evolving partner needs. Our responses have often been met with either noticeable scepticism that adaptive programming is just the latest development fad, or, alternatively, the rhetorical question “but isn’t that what we have always done?’.

bullshit-bingoBoth of these reactions are of course completely reasonable. Yes, good development practitioners have always championed some of what adaptive programming is advocating – such as local partners taking ownership of and shaping activities. And yes, there is a serious risk that adaptive programming could become just the latest development buzzword.

But our experience is that adaptive programming involves considerable innovation and swimming against the tide of conventional practice. There are fundamental differences in how we do things that differentiate adaptive approach from more conventional approaches – and we believe this makes a significant difference to the impact we can, and have, achieved.

Town hall meeting, Enugu State, Nigeria. Photograph: George Osodi/SAVI

Town hall meeting, Enugu State, Nigeria. Photograph: George Osodi/SAVI

So what do we do differently? For us, adaptive programming has been about explicitly embedding learning in all elements and at all levels of our work, and devolving power to where strategic and delivery decisions are made. It has been about a significant change in mindset at both technical and operational levels. Technically, we are shaped by contextual analysis and processes of learning by doing. Operationally we view programme management as a function which enables and supports, rather than drives, programme delivery.

It is well documented that adaptive programming is about working in ways that put learning at the centre, and that are politically smart and locally led. Our experience is that the key challenge in achieving this is finding ways of enabling this kind of adaptation whilst at the same time meeting donor accountability requirements. All too easily the requirements of donors and their implementing organizations (‘suppliers’) dominate and drive implementation and close down the space for learning and adaptation. Meeting this challenge requires ingenuity and persistence – and is in itself a continuous exercise in problem driven iterative adaptation!

For us, some of the key lessons to date are:

  1. Build in flexibility from the outset. Design, procurement and contracting processes need to enable the
    Launch of the judiciary Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) pilot, Kenya. Photograph: LASER

    Launch of the judiciary Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) pilot, Kenya. Photograph: LASER

    programme to be adaptive from the outset. This means programme design setting the direction of the programme and its level of ambition, rather than using design as an opportunity to nail down results, resources, activities and spend. It also means having procurement processes which promote and incentivise adaptation. Donors should be looking to suppliers for evidence of adaptive approaches rather than solutions. Suppliers need to find ways of aligning commercial interests and incentives with adaptive planning, enabling flexible access to relevant skills rather than locking in inputs.

  1. Integrate technical leadership and operations management. In a conventional programme, where plans, targets, budgets and personnel inputs are planned and agreed up front, the programme management is responsible for ensuring effective delivery – on time, within budget and according to agreed milestones. This operations management task drives the programme forward. In an adaptive programme, technical leadership in throughout the programme is critical – to champion, support and ensure the quality of adaptive work. Technical leadership is much more than sector-specific expertise. Technical leadership is needed to train, support and empower front line staff to think and work politically, learn by doing, and be adaptive. Technical leadership is also needed to shape the enabling environment within the programme for learning and adaptation can take place.  Systems for monitoring, financial management, staff management, and delivering value for money all need to need to support and enable adaptive programme delivery, rather than control and drive it. To this end, technical leadership and operations management need to be integrated and mutually compatible from the start of the programme, with the former shaping the latter.
  1. savi_logoGet the right people. Adaptive programming is less about technical expertise than about facilitation, team work, humility and mutual problem solving. This requires “soft skills” from staff which are generally not reflected in technical CVs (or prioritised in recruitment). From a supplier perspective this can mean significant change in the profiles of staff recruited, and from a donor perspective putting in place a procurement process that includes assessing teams for their ability to work in adaptive ways.
  1. Aim for transparency and accountability in financial management – but not necessarily complete predictability. Financial forecasting and management processes need to facilitate adaptive planning, allowing financial resources to be moved around and deployed where necessary – whilst still meeting donor requirements for predictable financial flows and value for money. Regular budget review and continuous re-forecasting are essential.
  1. Invest in time, space, skills and systems for staff and partners to learn and adapt. Adaptive management logo-laserapproaches, capacities and relationships take time to evolve and can be undermined by pressure for quick wins. Front line staff (and partners) need to be actively involved in analysing their changing context, and monitoring the effectiveness of their activities. They need to be supported to think and work politically, and plan, reflect and learn in short planning cycles. Internal systems need to empower front line staff, but also exercise effective scrutiny on adaptive decision making. Monitoring systems need to facilitate this internal learning, as well as serving accountability purposes.
  1. Develop a very good working relationship with your donor! Adaptive programming is uncertain and risky for all concerned. Good communications, close collaboration and quick turn around on decision making between the donor, supplier and programme staff are all essential.

That, at least, is some of what adaptive programming means for us. If you are interested in learning more, we have written a paper “Adaptive programming in practice: shared lessons from the DFID funded LASER and SAVI programmes”.  Further details of how we work and the tools we use are also available on our websites here and here. Our practice is constantly evolving as we learn, and new challenges arise. We are interested in learning from your experience and hearing your reflections of what we do.