Adaptive Management @ DECI-AM: Responding to broader partner needs

DECI-4 Blog

Adaptive Management @ DECI-AM: Responding to broader partner needs

By: Charles Dhewa; with Wendy Quarry, Dal Brodhead & Ricardo Ramírez, DECI-AM.

What is meant by adaptive management?

Designing Evaluation and Communication for Impact & Adaptive Management (DECI-AM) is an action research project that mentors IDRC-funded projects in evaluation and communication. As project needs evolve so have the DECI-AM support service which are increasingly supporting mentees as they adjust strategy and management to adapt to largely unpredictable research to policy efforts. According to Rogers and Macfarland (2020:3)1: Adaptive management can go beyond changing the details of how activities are implemented, to include changes to the types of activities, the strategies and even the intended outcomes and how the theory of change is understood”. These authors emphasize that adaptive management is appropriate in contexts with high levels of uncertainty and ongoing, unpredictable change.

What is adaptive management in DECI-AM?

DECI-AM provides evaluation and communication capacity development for partner organizations funded by IDRC. It is an action-research project designed to enhance the DECI team’s ability to learn and document how its mentoring process might assist partners’ adaptive capacities. The DECI experience has shown that adaptive management requires some form of coaching or mentoring to challenge the implementation team. By helping the projects to make decisions about evaluation and communication tasks, they have the opportunity to challenge their current strategies and adjust them if needed.   As partners’ needs evolve, the DECI-AM team has responded by broadening its support services.

Adaptive management and organizational learning

Adaptive Management is relevant in the current rapidly changing context where organizational learning, evaluation and communication capacity building are increasing in importance. “Organizational learning occurs when individuals within an organization experience a problematic situation and inquire into it on the organization’s behalf. They experience a surprising mismatch between expected and actual results of action and respond to that mismatch through a process of thought and further action that leads them to modify their images of organization or their understandings of organizational phenomena and to re-structure their activities so as to bring outcomes and expectations into line, thereby changing organizational theory-in-use. In order to become organizational, the learning that results from organizational inquiry must become embedded in the images of organization held in its members’ minds and/or in the epistemological artifacts (the maps, memories, and programs) embedded in the organizational environment.” (Argyris and Schön, 1996: 16)2

 Enabling conditions and factors – Readiness

Our emphasis in DECI-AM on readiness stems from the fact that adaptive management needs enabling conditions, including senior management buy-in to a learning process, staff committed to gaining new skills, and funding partners that invite adaptation in lieu of sticking to initial project designs that so often require updating. DECI-AM works under the assumption that good performance and effective organizational strategy leads to impact. DECI-AM is committed to helping partners make this happen. Our experience shows that evaluation design and communication planning enhance adaptive capacities. Adaptive capacities encourage reflection, monitoring, and learning processes which are at the core of adaptive management.

Tools & process

DECI-AM bases its work on Utilization-Focused Evaluation, a decision-making framework that emphasizes collaboration in design. Where DECI-AM differs from other approaches is that it replaces the role of external evaluators with one of embedded mentoring partners. This mentoring role enables the projects to assume ownership of the design of their evaluations and communication strategies.  It is through the mentoring process that partners learn by doing, and thereby become reflexive in their practice.  Hence, the DECI-AM emphasis on evaluation capacity development. In line with evaluation capacity development, the DECI Team prepares Memoranda of Understanding with each partner to formalize a space where it can determine readiness, continually ask questions, and challenge the partners to update their strategies. Based on the experience of DECI-4, partners are asked to do a self-administered competency assessment in evaluation and communication; early on as a baseline, and a second one towards the end of the mentoring process. In summary, DECI-AM provides a learning space; the mentoring process creates a structured mechanism to encourage projects to pause, reflect, question assumptions, fine tune systems and structures, and adjust strategy.


One of the challenges faced by DECI-AM is staff turnover within the projects being mentored as well as too much busy-ness on the part of the staff with other priorities.  An enduring question for DECI-AM remains: How do we move from mentoring individuals to connecting with the whole organization so that knowledge is retained when people leave the organization? In response, the DECI-AM Team is exploring ways to encourage the partner teams to institutionalize the learning within their organization.

DECI-AM has observed another challenge unique to projects operating as an extension of a university. In one instance, a change in leadership led to the positioning of the project from a small new unit to one increasingly recognized within the University. This change increased the pressure on the project Director to take on additional university work/roles.  Another challenge faced by many, is the need to chase funding. Some organizations divide their attention between being mentored and responding to calls for proposals from funders with diverse expectations. These organizations often take on too much work as their survival instincts force them to chase funding in order to continue existing.

Results, changes

DECI-AM continues to function as a learning lab for an international team of action-research practitioners. The Team has completed mentoring agreements with 25 projects and networks globally; it has produced case studies; it has made conference presentations; published journal articles, book chapters, and three primers. Its materials are available under a Creative Commons licence with primers produced in three languages.

As DECI-AM mentoring helps organizations build their adaptive capacity, the DECI-AM Team has been requested to consider several new/different roles: one included helping define and design an external evaluation and its TORs; in addition, the DECI-AM Team was asked to provide advice on developing a fund-raising strategy to engage the private sector in supporting a project. Other projects have asked that we advise them on their overall organizational strategy. In the spirit of adaptive management, the DECI-AM team is adjusting to the new demands and, as an action-research project, the Team is broadening its learning agenda.


[1] Rogers, P. and Macfarlan, A. (2020). What is adaptive management and how does it work? Monitoring and Evaluation for Adaptive Management Working Paper Series, Number 2, September.  Retrieved 21 Oct. 2021 from series

[2] Argyris, C., & Schön, D.A. (1996). Organizational learning II: Theory, method, and practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.