Following the road blindly can mean you end up in completely the wrong destination…

A version of this blog was originally written for a proposal, which due to a catastrophic email failure never made it to the intended recipient’s mailbox. In the spirit of adaptive management, therefore, it has been reused for a completely different purpose…

The puzzle of adaptive management is that it is so intuitively useful, yet so infrequently implemented. Take USAID’s definition of adaptive management: “an intentional approach to making decisions and adjustments in response to new information and changes in context.”[1]

Who could disagree with this approach? Few practitioners argue for making decisions without information, or not adjusting projects as they proceed. Adaptive management is not really a new development; the use of the term dates back decades.[2] Given the intuitive, academic, and political backing for adaptive management, why do organisations find it so challenging to implement?

The first, and most important reason is organisational culture, capacity and systems. Admitting mistakes is often penalised within an organisation, and ‘failing’ projects are stigmatised. Building a culture where failure is accepted and can be learned from is a major challenge. Staff need different skills and capacities to accept a lack of knowledge, actively search for evidence, and put this evidence into practice in an organisation. Moreover, the common assumption that information will necessarily be used is false. Organisations need practical systems to enable staff to analyse information and use this analysis in their decision making. 

The second reason is donor and organisational incentives. Donors across the Western world are increasingly insisting on accountability for the money they spend. While this is not necessarily incompatible with adaptive management,[4] in practice it often leads to a focus on short-term outputs and rigid implementation plans. Requirements from donors can be transferred down the chain of implementation through primary contract holders to small local NGOs, who are held accountable for potentially inappropriate interventions and results.

Finally, the adaptive management world sometimes relies on an academic, somewhat incomprehensible vocabulary, drawing on the worlds of complexity theory and systems thinking. References to academic concepts (such as agent-based modelling; co-evolution; fitness landscapes; non-linear coupling; power laws; sandpile thinking, etc) can be difficult to understand and discourage people from taking up the approach, especially field staff for whom these do not seem relevant.

[1] https://www.usaid.gov/ads/policy/200/201

[2] See, for example, Rondinell, D. A. (1993) Development Projects as Policy Experiments: an adaptive approach to development administration, 2nd ed, Routledge, London and New York

[3] Booth, D., Balfe, K., Gallagher, R., Kilcullen, G., O’Boyle, S., & Tiernan, A. (2018). Learning to make a difference: Christian Aid Ireland’s adaptive programme management.

[4] For example, ‘payment by results’ is an attempt to reconcile the demands of accountability and adaptive management. See https://www.scribd.com/document/237900942/12-Principles-for-Payment-by-Results