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LearnAdapt: lessons from three years of adaptive management

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal, Ed Laws, Jamie Pett, Emma Proud

Image credit:Foreign & Commonwealth Office Image license:CC BY 2.0

Development is not linear but complex and uncertain. But working in ways that take such complexity into account is considerably more challenging. Instead of relying on blueprints and predefined solutions, this calls for a more open-minded approach to how change happens that is tailored to contextual realities on the ground and anchored in deliberate testing, experimentation, adaptation and learning.

LearnAdapt was a three-year (2017-2020) collaboration between the UK Department for International Development (DFID)/Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Better Delivery and Emerging Policy, Innovation, Capability (EPIC) Departments, ODI, Brink, Feedback Labs and, more recently, the Centre for Public Impact, to help create a firm foundation for adaptive programming within DFID/FCDO.

The LearnAdapt programme, led by ODI, worked closely with DFID, and, with the merger with the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), FCDO, both at HQ and in country offices, to nurture an environment and create systems and processes that enable adaptive programming for greater development effectiveness.

To do this, LearnAdapt produced research on a range of topics, shared case studies and lessons on adaptive DFID/FCDO programmes, and developed comprehensive guidance notes on designing, managing and delivering adaptive programmes. These were based on specific challenges reported by DFID staff at the time and implementing partners.

LearnAdapt convened a series of workshops with stakeholders including donors, implementers and NGOs. And the programme also helped to build an internal community of practice within DFID/FCDO around adaptive culture, action and policy.

During its three years, LearnAdapt yielded important insights about how DFID/FCDO has sought to support adaptive ways of working and what these efforts require to give them real traction on the ground.

Our newly launched LearnAdapt synthesis draws out key lessons that have emerged from the LearnAdapt collaboration on how to support adaptive programming in the development sector more effectively. This multi-contribution blog showcases a few highlights.

Alina Rocha Menocal: core lessons from LearnAdapt

Building trust

A fundamental lesson that cuts across all of our work in LearnAdapt is that building relationships based on trust is a critical to working adaptively. Trust is essential to provide partners with the space, autonomy and authority they need to make decisions and test, reflect, and create feedback loops at the frontline of implementation, as well as to give donors the confidence that decisions are based on evidence and learning to improve effectiveness.

A shift from reporting to learning

How to nurture such trust is a crucial question – and another important insight from LearnAdapt is that creating enabling environments for collective learning is vital in enabling that trust-building process. This requires a shift away from management systems, mindsets and relationships reliant on tight central control and upward reporting towards a focus on learning.

An important implication from this is that donor organisations urgently need to rethink how processes around accountability requirements, results frameworks, value for money considerations, procurement and contracting mechanisms are understood and applied, so that these are better aligned with adaptive management.

Among other things, modalities of engagement based on payment by results and rigid, predetermined targets tend to generate incentives and pressures to focus almost exclusively on upward accountability at the expense of searching, testing, and learning – especially from what does not work.

The use of process rather than simply output-based targets and more narrative forms of accountability to assess a programme or project’s contribution to systemic change (such as outcome harvesting) can help with this. Other modalities such as core funding and accountable grants are also better suited for adaptive management because they enable adjusting in light of what is learned, while donors can hold partners accountable for how learning feeds into effective programming.

Leadership for adaptive management

A defining lesson from LearnAdapt is that institutional leadership and champions are essential to foster a supportive management culture that encourages adaptive ways of working. DFID/FCDO staff leading adaptive programmes have played an indispensable role in enabling collective learning and building trust as the foundation to improve outcomes. This is an important reminder that adaptive management is resource-intensive. Building relationships that are based on trust takes time, skill and patience – and this is part of a commitment to learning.

While the current environment in the UK seems particularly challenging and is likely to entail sharp cuts to the aid budget, these lessons remain as relevant and vital as ever. Our hope is that the UK Government continues to capitalise on the significant investment by the FCDO in LearnAdapt and other such initiatives to remain a global leader in promoting more effective development through adaptive ways of working.

Emma Proud: ‘building coalitions of the brave’

Learning and adapting is an important way to spark meaningful change. And while it sounds obvious (and even simple), doing it in practice is hard!

It’s easy to succumb to the pressure of deadlines and the need to deliver results rather than slowing down, learning and adapting.

Using novel approaches can be lonely. And the more alone we feel, the less likely we are to put our neck out. So, surrounding yourself with other like-minded people working in similar ways makes a big difference. People grappling with similar challenges can support and encourage one another.

LearnAdapt was therefore intentional in building ‘coalitions of the brave’ at several levels.

Here’s what we did, and what we learned

First, we supported an ‘Adaptive Management Network’ at DFID/FCDO:

  • This included a series of informal virtual events, a newsletter and social media activity which stoked the fire of adaptive champions across DFID/FCDO.
  • We learned that being adaptive can be seen as a luxurious extra that people don’t have time to engage in.
  • By creating a forum for people to share how they were being adaptive, the network built resolve and practical support.

We also supported a network of practitioners or ‘implementers’.

To signal that DFID/FCDO encouraged being adaptive, we facilitated a series of interactive virtual events on topics including:

From these events, we learned that:

  • Several years into being adaptive, implementers still struggle to make it real, with competing demands from both donors and internal systems.
  • By joining together to explore challenges and opportunities people were encouraged, shared ideas and galvanised action.
  • What worked best was an interactive format that gave people a chance to connect in small groups to share experiences and generate practical ideas.

Jamie Pett: linking adaptive management to other approaches and agendas

Adaptive management can and should be linked to other approaches and agendas, as it has a powerful complementary effect across a range of contexts.

The LearnAdapt programme brought together a number of teams working on adaptive management and innovation, both within DFID/FCDO and outside. When we first started, we occasionally talked about similar things with different languages. We used practices from lean startup, adaptive management, agile and design thinking, sometimes getting confused about how these sat together.

But at a conceptual level, we found that adaptive approaches often used in development and the private sector have a lot in common.

In conditions of uncertainty , practitioners can use adaptive approaches to better understand the full complexity of the problem they are addressing, then start small and use structured cycles of testing and learning. Adaptive approaches provide rigour, rhythms and processes for listening, learning, reflecting, making decisions and acting.

In one workshop, we heard how UNICEF Malawi used a human-centred design approach to develop its country programme document and how AfriLabs combines agile, lean startup and human-centred design to set out beliefs and test them to learn what works for a radio learning programme in northern Uganda.

Identifying how parts of different approaches can be used at different stages of an adaptive programme cycle provides a wider range of options for how to tackle wicked problems.

Adaptive approaches can create space for other agendas. We zoomed into the ‘seek and act upon feedback’ part of the programme cycle by speaking to practitioners about how they have combined adaptive management with constituent feedback.

We documented several cases where teams have created a virtuous cycle of engaging constituents in order to inform programme design and adaptation, making decisions with this in mind – which the flexibility and experimentation of adaptive programmes allowed. Teams built trust and accountability by letting constituents know what adaptations the programme team had made based on their input.

For this to work, it’s important that constituents have a meaningful role, there are clear points for reflection and action, staff are skilled and champion engagement and adaptation, and there are systems to enable the safe flow of information. At a time when the sector is grappling with how to shift power and hold space for local leadership, this combination of adaptive management and constituent feedback may be part of the answer.

Ed Laws: rethinking value for money for adaptive programmes

From 2010 onwards, value for money (VfM) became an increasingly important watchword for UK aid. At the same time, DFID made progress in integrating adaptive management to work more effectively on complex problems.

A number of prominent reports identified tensions between these two agendas, including a 2018 review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. The report found that controlling costs and holding implementers accountable for efficient delivery may be suitable as a way to ensure VFM for more straightforward projects. But it can be problematic in complex situations, where teams need to test and learn which combination of inputs and outputs produces the best results for the investment.

As with DFID, many objectives for the UK’s new merged FCDO will involve working adaptively on complex systems and institutional constraints.

How then should we manage and measure VfM for programmes that need to experiment, learn and adapt over time, and build or support networks and coalitions to produce the best results?

As part of our work on LearnAdapt, Craig Valters and I produced a paper that reframes standard value for money measures and management principles in ways that make them better suited for adaptive programmes.

We argue that FCDO doesn’t necessarily need to abandon the language and framing of the “4Es”. But it does need to re-think what they mean and how they are measured.

Drawing on case study analysis of adaptive programmes like the Economic Policy Incubator (EPI) in Nepal and MUVA in Mozambique, we argue that FCDO needs to redefine ‘efficiency’ for adaptive programmes around the pace and rigour of testing and learning, and ‘effectiveness’ around the plausible contribution that these programmes make to outcome-level change.

To do this kind of work properly, we need to see changes in how VfM is typically managed. If FCDO insists that VFM is key to programme reporting, it should draw on participant feedback and inform good decision-making, rather than just being a compliance exercise.

However, we believe there are major risks with making VfM a dominant lens by which any programme, let alone an adaptive one, is viewed. This is partly because the VfM approaches and measures most often used for demonstrating value to donors may not be suitable for measuring the value of a programme to participants. They may also be inadequate in guiding decisions on what actions contribute the most to outcome-level change, or for empowering teams to experiment, learn and improve their work.

Therefore, if VfM appraisal and reporting cannot be done appropriately for adaptive programmes, it should be avoided or minimised. There is a risk of diverting time and resources from more suitable tools and methods.