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#AdaptDev workshop: organisational culture for learning and adaptation

Time (GMT +01) 16:00 17:30
Hero image description: What have we learned, and where next? ODI, 2017. Image credit:What have we learned, and where next? ODI, 2017. Image license:Creative Commons



Craig Valters @craigvalters - Research Fellow, ODI

Jamie Pett @JamiePett - Adaptive development consultant 


Emma Proud @EmmaProud - Director of Organizational Agility, Mercy Corp

Abigail Freeman @abigailfrmn - Founding Partner, Brink 


Through facilitated discussion, workshop participants considered possible ways to tackle the challenge of changing organisational culture to enable more adaptive ways of working. The workshop was broken into three sections: problem setting and definition; problem deconstruction; and action planning.


Problem setting and definition


Why is organisational culture important for learning and adaptation?

Organisational and team culture can help or hinder learning and adaptation. Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, expectations and practices that characterises an organisation. Informally, it’s ‘how we do things around here.’ Culture exists at multiple levels, from a single team to a whole sector.

Without changing organisational culture, working adaptively will always mean swimming against the current. Working adaptively in a complex and changing context requires a different kind of enabling environment compared to executing a known plan in a static context. Teams must work together to learn and adapt as they go along, using their own judgement, alongside emerging evidence. This requires a high level of trust, and arguably a climate of ‘psychological safety’, in which people feel free to express themselves without fear of being penalised. The way an organisation sets up its incentives influences culture – whether it rewards outputs that are specified in advance and easily counted, or whether it values local knowledge and encourages adaptation from the ground up.

Mercy Corps’ Journey

The workshop heard from Emma Proud, Director for Organisational Agility at Mercy Corps, on the organisation’s search for a systemic way to incorporate adaptive management into people’s behaviour. Mercy Corps have been successful in getting interest in case studies and research. However, the key question for the organisation was how to turn these lessons from PR into practice. To address this, Emma and her team have identified managers as a key leverage point in achieving adaptive teams. They are now applying insights from behavioural economics and neuroscience to a holistic programme for managers and their teams, to incorporate adaptive management across the organisation. In particular, they are fostering four practices for managers: promote well-being, have candid conversations, delegate effectively and make time to reflect and adapt.

Problem deconstruction

Four groups discussed four different barriers to changing organisational culture:

  1. From tools to practice: Artefacts on adaptive culture and leadership look great on paper, but people do not refer to them day-to-day.
  2. Initiative overload: There are so many priorities and initiatives in an organisation, it is impossible to maintain momentum and focus long enough to change behaviour.
  3. Leadership: Senior leaders buy into the idea in theory, but are not committed to take the time to participate, or to role model good behaviour.
  4. PR vs behaviour change: Being adaptive makes sense, and people appreciate case studies - but that doesn't translate into changed practice.

Using fishbone diagrams, the groups identified the following cross-cutting root causes:

  • Incentives for implementers: Using the language of learning and adaptation doesn't always help implementing organisations win contracts: ‘You can win a bid if you just have a really competent technical lead’. Organisations are rewarded because they know ‘what works’ – there is therefore an incentive to show achievements and results in terms of deliverables rather than a process of learning.
  • Competencies, characteristics and careers: It can be difficult to be adaptive when you are earlier in your career: it is harder to push back. However, while leaders have more freedom at the end of their career – being seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, they may not be experienced in working adaptively and have more traditional skills and mindsets.
  • Initiative overload can be a symptom of different interests jockeying for position. The results agenda has a natural constituency in the economics and evaluation professions. Who is this constituency for adaptation and learning? Unfortunately, people become cynical about new initiatives when they see them come and go without changing very much.
  • There is a tendency for donors to specify too much up front, limiting room for flexibility and adaptation. Why might this be? Firstly, overspecificity may be used to bolter a sense of accountability to the public. Secondly, it is difficult to change embedded cultural practices, even when new templates and tools are provided and traditional tools such as logframes are no longer compulsory. Finally, there could be a sense of ‘intellectual arrogance’; we like to think we know the answers more than we actually do. This means we could be suspicious of giving too much space to others to change plans down the line.

Action planning

What can we learn from innovative organisations beyond development?

Abigail Freeman from Brink, an innovation practice and partner on DFID’s LearnAdapt programme, provided reflections on how commercial organisations have managed to challenge traditional organisational cultural barriers, and create a culture of innovation. Whilst the challenge set in private sector is different and the context from development is often more complex, there are key principles that apply across all learning organisations:

  • Thinking in terms of a 70:20:10 ratio: As a rule of thumb, 70% of an organisation’s time and budget should go towards its core business, 20% to developing in areas adjacent to the core, with the remaining 10% being used for innovation in new areas. Each of these requires different sorts of resources, expectations and mindsets.

  • SkyScanner stands out as an organisation that has built itself to innovate and learn: They hire for curiosity. Perhaps surprisingly, they don’t have ‘innovator’ job roles. They recognise and reward adaptive working and experimenters because innovation is everyone’s job.
  • Giving license to experiment: Adobe’s ‘Kickbox Kit’ with $1,000 on a credit card removes bureaucratic and financial barriers to running experiments.
  • Ideas from everywhere: Sourcing ideas from outside your team, your department, your organisation, your sector.
  • Space for cynics as a constructive reality check: Google uses ‘canaries’ – a group of early adopters who are the first to test new products and initiatives. They will be able to spot problems early on before a product is released to the wider public.

Key takeaways

Participants went back into their groups and given 15 minutes to come up with solutions to the challenges that they had previously deconstructed.

  • Making adaptive working an imperative instead of a ‘nice to have’. Organisations and individuals need to be persuaded that adaptive programming will get better results and will be recognised. Incentives are also required from donors, who could choose teams who are able to learn and adapt rather than a safe pair of hands. However, adaptive working has to be embedded at all levels of the team - not just management and leaders.
  • Using dual operating models within organisations (c.f. the 70:20:10 rule) could create enabling environments for adaptive working. If 10% of resources are seen as available for innovation, there could be more incentive to use it in that way.
  • Human resources for adaptation. As one participant noted, “Tools don't drive practice, good people drive good practice”. This could come from finding the right people through a recruitment process that not only has a suitable job specification but enables observation of how candidates work together, for example through group exercises. It also comes from crediting people for working in adaptive ways and rewarding humble leadership rather than those who are best at managing up.
  • Have a role for critical friends within the organisation to challenge new initiatives, while building psychological safety.

This workshop is part of a broader project on adaptive development practice.Visit the #AdaptDev project page for more information.