(Re)making the case for adaptive management

June 9, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Following yesterday’s reflection on the MEL of working in complex systems, Tom Aston provides a great overview of what to read on adaptive management. It’s a long one, so I’ve split it into two – second installment tomorrow.

Christian Aid Ireland’s recent publication The Difference Learning Makes by Stephen Gray and Andy Carl made a bit of a splash. The study found that Christian Aid Ireland’s application of adaptive programming contributed to better development outcomes and supported more flexible delivery. The much vaunted MUVA programme in Mozambique is also coming to a close and presenting its results from using and adaptive approach.

So, it struck me that we might be at a critical juncture in the conversation on adaptive management. We’ve had the crashing to earth of inflated expectations in recent misanthropic reflections, [misanthropic, moi? – Duncan] alongside a fragile institutionalisation of adaptive management in donor agencies, NGOs, and private sector organisations. However, I’d argue that we’ve reached the point where adaptive management has passed the proof-of-concept stage.

Adaptive mindsets

In my view, adaptive management and thinking and working politically (TWP) have taken off to the degree that they have, not because of the evidence base to support it, but due to champions within donor agencies and implementing organisations who “get it” intuitively, who had the courage and risk appetite to experiment, and the reflexivity to learn.

Finding donor champions

In the case of DFID/FCDO, it’s relatively easy to identify and name some of these champions. They include: Pete VowelsRichard ButterworthChris Pycroft, and Sam Waldock (who are still on the inside), Graham TeskeyWilf MwambaTom WingfieldLaure-Hélène Piron, and Heather Marquette (now on the outside), and the late, great, Sue Unsworth. A relevant potted history of part of the story can be found in Is DFID Getting Real about Politics?

It’s also noteworthy that these “champions” wrote up quite a lot of what they thought. That is, they weren’t (and aren’t) just responding to an agenda but also setting one. I’ve linked some of their writing above, but you can see that they co-wrote guides on everyday political analysis, papers or briefs on addressing the political dimensions of development or politically smart and locally led development, blogs on adaptive programming and on the politics of why (some) governance programmes work, to name a few.

While change is obviously institutional, it’s also individual, and it’s hard to get round the vital role of individual champions inside organisations pushing for change and the importance of their status and standing inside those organisations.

The champions above are people who don’t need convincing (they probably never did), but they do need some institutional support. As one staff member from Christian Aid Ireland in Sierra Leone put it, “unless the right culture is there, none of our tools or approaches would work.” As Emma Proud reminded me, implementers also need the right kind of mechanisms (whether within a donor, implementer or consortium/project) to manage adaptively, such as that which Alina Rocha Menocal and I found in the (also much vaunted) Partnership to Engage, Learn and Reform (PERL) programme.

Donor champions further need some evidence to back up their case. It will likely be the same in other donor agencies where there might be innovators and/or early adopters who might have the right adaptive mindset, but can’t make the case on their own to their luddite peers.

Gartner hype cycle
Gartner hype cycle

As the donor environment for adaptive programming has worsened, there’s also been an increasing exodus of FCDO staff. My concern is that following the peak of inflated expectations, we might not have enough champions to muddle through the recent trough of disillusionment.

As many organisations cravenly follow the tides of donor preferences, if we are to sustain the case for adaptive management (of whatever form), this exodus may be a bigger challenge than many appreciate.

I take the peak of inflated expectations to be 2016, if you consider the volume of publications in ODI’s database:

Adaptive management cases by year
ODI, Cases, 2006–2022

Marshalling the evidence

A graph like the one above might seem dispiriting, and, as Kathy Bain emphasised to me, the battle has not yet been wonWe may “still be on the back foot,” given challenges in the wider political context (at least in the UK). Yet, there is at least some evidence for hope in the slow accumulation of the evidence base, which demonstrates that adaptive programming can be effective, and there is plenty of real-world usage.

We know that evidence alone can’t make a big difference to policy-making processes, but it can help to convince some people who believe in the value of evidence in the first place (assuming that they consider that evidence to be good quality and credible). Hernandez et al. (2019) argue in favour of four steps for strengthening evidence-informed adaptive management:

1) Establish the need for evidence in adaptive management (why, what and how);

2) Consider the appropriate types and levels of evidence;

3) Assess the robustness of that evidence, including whether and how it can be used for decision-making;

4) Ensure the basis of adaptive management decision-making is sound, transparent, and documented.

I generally agree with this, but we must be careful not to fall into the trap (which Gray and Carl’s report did) that because we can’t do a Randomised Control Trial — RCT, we can’t really know much about what works, how, and why. Not only is it basically impossible to conduct an RCT (or other experimental methods) on adaptive programming, it’s totally inappropriate to do so even if it were feasible, as I’ve discussed previously.

We further need to dispel the “best practice” myth that the same thing will work everywhere. Adaptive management isn’t supposed to solve all the world’s problems in the same way everywhere (quite the contrary, we’re talking about “best fit” programming).

In Christian Aid Ireland’s report, we found the following plea from a donor: “we need to hear the evidence to justify those investments.” So, what would you use to convince them that adaptive programming is worth the investment?

The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Learning Lab is one step ahead of me. If you check their Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) Toolkit landing page you’ll see the following on Making the Case for CLA (one key type of adaptive programming):

‘A growing body of evidence indicates that collaborating, learning, and adapting contribute to improved organisational and development outcomes:

Strategic collaboration improves organisational performance.

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is positively and significantly associated with achieving development outcomes.

Organisations that apply more adaptive leadership and data-driven practices perform better when compared with organisations that focus less on those practices.’

See their literature review and CLA case competition analysis for more information. There’s even a case competition map which shows that CLA is global, and there’s a whole set of guidance and tools on adaptive management, including on context-driven adaptation.

It certainly helps when donors’ own publications say this kind of thing, because champions can point to their own evidence to make the case to their peers. The same applies for implementing organisations.

Tomorrow: Tom Aston continues his tour of adaptive management, with a great annotated bibliography, some thoughts on what constitutes evidence, and ideas for gaps that still need filling

June 9, 2022
Duncan Green


  1. You’re right that people and the culture of the organization is a key factor. I found that too during research in 2018 on adaptive management in complex (/conflict-affected) environments. Here’s a walk through of what I presented at EES and AEA that year:
    I hope you find something helpful among these insights around needed culture shifts toward human connection, learning, and adapting.

  2. It’s welcome to see how culture is appearing in this discussion. My question is ‘When will adaptive management thinking and practice be decolonized?’

  3. Great stuff Duncan and to all the contributors on this thread. A reflection on this commentary and out of the work with Christian Aid Ireland, one year on. The factors of adaptive scope in that paper point to the range of competencies that enable adaptive programming to work well. They point to how people and processes of adaptive management are embedded or enmeshed within a network of factors that are collectively enabling and constraining to different degrees over time. Your points on mindsets are very good ones. And also to say that these mindsets shape and are reshaped by other factors – the quality of the methods/tools available, the approaches to partnership, the flexibility and innovation allowable in the program’s administrative regime, etc. The more the needle is shifted in the right direction with respect to these other competencies, the more that adaptive mindsets will get shaped or reinforced throughout the organisation/partnership network. And vice versa. I wonder how many champions with the adaptive mindset have left because their environment is too constraining and doesn’t make better use of their creativity. Anyway, great stuff Duncan!

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