Mentoring organizations: a Trojan horse for adaptive management

DECI-4 Blog

Mentoring organizations: a Trojan horse for adaptive management

By Ricardo Ramirez and Dal Brodhead, DECI-4.

Among the outcomes at the organizational level demonstrated by DECI partners there was an increase in adaptive capacity.  Adaptation is evidence of applied learning.  Organizational learning is “…knowledge that guides and misguides decision-making, and knowledge that informs and misinforms organizations…” (Levin-Rozalis & Rosenstein, 2005: 86).  In the DECI case, with partners working on action-research in new areas, the relevance of the research findings are emergent, as are the possible audiences that may  be interested in them. The process is ever changing and the capacity to adapt becomes very important.

“The issue of organizational learning draws a great deal of interest both in academia and in practice. Organizations that do not learn cannot progress because they continue to behave the same way as before, practicing behaviours that are no longer adequate to meet new challenges. In order to learn and adapt to new situations, organizations must focus on information, knowledge, and knowledge processing in real time and, where possible, in advance of events.” (Levin-Rozalis & Rosenstein, 2005: 83-84)

“Adaptive management will be appropriate in circumstances of uncertainty and ongoing unpredictable change.” (Rogers & Macfalan, 2020: 3).  These authors suggest that what distinguishes adaptive management from every day adaptations is the use of model-informed adaptation that includes changes in the types of activities, the strategies, even the intended outcomes and how a theory of change is understood.

Rogers and Mcfarlan (2020) point to key elements of adaptive management:

  • “The importance of design and experimentation,
  • The crucial role of learning from policy 
  • The iterative link between knowledge and action,
  • The integration and legitimacy of knowledge from various sources, and
  • The need for responsive institutions.” (p.4)

The types of questions that are posed during the mentoring in evaluation and communication create a space for reflection, course correction and adaptation. We see evaluation and communication as a Trojan horse for adaptive management; both have a concrete role and purpose at the start that gives us the entry point for organizational learning beyond these two topics.

Rogers and Mcfarlan (2020) suggest three different types of adaptive management:

  • Changing intended causal pathways (and hence actions) but not goals
  • Changing both intended causal pathways and goals
  • Changing intended causal pathways, goals and the understanding of the problem

Rogers and Macflan (2020) emphasize how explicit theories of change are an effective means of bringing stakeholders together. The debates and collective design of a theory of change is a foundation for adaptive management. The authors also emphasize the enabling factors for such behaviours using the COM-B model (Mitchie et al., 2012) that points at capacity (human capital, skills, knowledge, social and organizational capital); motivation (incentives and disincentives); and opportunity (recognizing barriers and removing them).

The COM-B model has also been flagged by evaluators interested behavoiur change ToC models (Mayne, 2019): The COM-B ToC model has proven very useful for building robust nested ToCs and for undertaking contribution analysis, because it is quite intuitive and is based on a synthesis of empirical evidence on behaviour change. It is especially helpful in explaining how behaviour changes were brought about.” (p.179) Since so much of our communication mentoring focuses on the research to policy linkage, this point confirms our experience where evaluation and communication have multiple interconnections.

Adaptive management is evidence of organizational learning. This process includes visible changes in processes, as well as structures, and assumptions held within organizations. It also means changes in connections among staff (Levin-Rozalis & Rosenstein, 2005).  The process of mentoring in evaluation and communication creates a space for pause and reflection. In doing so, it allows organizations to challenge strategy and creates the opportunity for course correction and adaptation. This is the reason why we see evaluation and communication as a Trojan horse for adaptive management.


Levin-Rozalis, M. & Rosenstein, B. (2005). The changing role of the evaluator in the process of organizational learning.  The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation 20(1): 81-104.

Mayne, J. (2019). Revisiting contribution analysis. The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation 34(2): 171-191.

Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science, 6(1), 42.

Rogers, P. & Macfarlan, A. (2020). What is adaptive management and how does it work? Monitoring and Evaluation for Adaptive Management Working Paper Series No.2. Australian Government, Australian Aid, & Better Evaluation. Retrieved from: series