What is it that makes adaptive management work?

DECI-3 Blog

What is it that makes adaptive management work?

By Ricardo Ramirez, DECI-3.

Oxfam From Poverty to Power Series released a February 2018 item by Graham Teskey entitled “What makes adaptive management actually work in practice?” , first appeared on the Governance Soapbox.   The following is an excerpt:

Thinking and working politically (a phrase that reflects the adaptive management theme) means four things:

  • Being much more thoughtful and analytical at the selection stage. This point refers to thinking about what is both technically appropriate and what is politically feasible; and as the research to policy literature underlines, it also means learning about the policy processes and relationship building [link to Blog 4].
  • Being more rigorous about our theories of change. This practice is about confirming the change that can happen within one’s area of influence, and ground-testing to verify what is feasible in the field.
  • Enhancing our ability to work flexibly. This capacity emphasizes the importance of responding to changing contexts and shifting priorities and adapting our implementation as we go. It requires an organizational culture that embraces changing course, speeding up or slowing down, adding or dropping inputs and activities, challenging assumptions, changing sequencing, or raising questions that have not be posed previously.); and,
  • Confirming willingness and positioning to actively intervene alongside social groups and coalitions that are involved in advocacy.

The blog focuses on the third bullet above and adds that adaptation in program delivery requires four functions to be delivered simultaneously:

  • Implementation: the day-to-day delivering activities – in other words the continued presence and agency of a project or organization.
  • Monitoring and tracking progress towards achieving outputs – a regular check that the process is following a plan, budget, and achieving a gradient of outcomes.
  • Learning as an internal and reflexive questioning of progress – this process is about verifying how inputs and activities are producing outputs and outcomes, and documenting unexpected changes and,
  • Adapting by revising implementation plans, responding to unforeseen activities or dropping others, changing the balance of inputs, and acknowledging a change of course as a benefit.

For institutions, Teskey suggests that taking this approach means breaking up monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) by allocating monitoring and learning responsibilities to implementation teams, rather than to the evaluation staff.  This means that organizational roles and internal structures need to be reviewed, and ideally modified.  In our experience, this change in role is closely associated with the notion of organizational readiness that should be addressed from the start of a project cycle. It sets the context for a learning process.

The author emphasized the need to provide resources for implementations teams with multiple skill sets and competencies.  In our work, we have confirmed that an effective way to build these skills and competencies is through mentoring.  We describe it as ‘just-in-time’ mentoring to underline that we work at the pace of the partner’s work plan, and provide our coaching during those moments when the partner is “ready” and most able to learn through action and reflection.  Action, monitoring and reflection are what makes adaptive management work.