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Three New Year’s resolutions for programme management

With the new year, come the new year’s resolutions. Whilst some are short lived (cue the diet plans), others give us the steel to change our habits.

Late last year USAID’s Global Development Lab gathered a host of influential people working in the international development and humanitarian sector together at Nesta  - from think tanks, donors, NGOs and academia - to discuss how to change their ways when it comes to programme management. There was complete agreement on the need to be more adaptive, more responsive to local conditions and to new forms of ‘real-time’ data when it comes to designing and delivering programmes. But as with any resolution, the shared challenge was how to make it happen in practice.

So what exactly is adaptive management?

As Ben Ramalingam, the workshop’s facilitator and leader of the Digital & Technology Cluster at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), stated, adaptive management is about interaction and change - things always change and we need to learn how to adapt and respond to them when implementing development programmes and policies. Unlike traditional management, which tends to be very structured and have a clear set of desired outcomes, adaptive management requires constant learning by doing, to develop interventions that remain relevant to an ever-changing context. 

What methods and tools can be used for adaptive management?

Different approaches, which exist to generate different forms of knowledge, information and data for adaptive programming, were discussed:

  • Behavioural approaches and insights help us to understand what motivates people and to continuously improve policy and programme interventions in order to reflect behavioural changes. This can also be applied to the methods below in order to make them more behaviour-centred.
  • Real-time data enabled by various digital tools allows us to understand what is happening at more regular intervals, and thus enable adjustments to be made throughout the implementation of a programme in a more responsive, contextual and participatory manner.
  • Participatory methods can be used to understand more about the local context of a programme and about the motivations and aspirations of affected people.
  • Theories of change can be used to map out a process of change; first you need to determine the desired long-term outcome, and then work backwards to identify the conditions, activities and interventions which need to be in place to achieve this.
  • Political Economy Analysis allows us to better understand the behaviours of, and relationships between, political and economic institutions and actors. This enables programmes to be more adaptive and responsive to power relations within a society. 
  • Complexity science and systems thinking in international development recognises that the economy and society is made up of numerous interlocking complex systems, composed of agents who are constantly interacting and co-evolving. Understanding and documenting these networks and dynamics is crucial for adaptive planning.

What does this mean in practice?

Given the volatile environments that international development organisations work in, those working in this field need to be able to innovate and adapt rapidly and effectively. Organisations should test out multiple experiments, monitor their progress and then adjust these depending on how successful they are - a process of trial and error.

Among two days of interesting discussion, three issues stood out for me which need to be addressed if organisations and programmes are to become more adaptive:

  1. The capacity to be adaptive can’t be a luxury restricted to the innovation team – it needs to be woven throughout organisations - a representative from The Institute for Government suggested that people often see innovators as being given a “free-pass” to be adaptive, in that they are protected by a safe bubble where they are allowed to experiment. However, innovation cannot and should not be separated into its own discipline. It needs to be woven through international development organisations and their institutional structures if they want to create adaptive programming. This emphasises both the cross-disciplinary nature of adaptive management, as well as the need for change in organisational environments.
  2. Organisations need to give people space to experiment and fail safely, and the right tools to cost-effectively, but rigorously understand what’s working - to become truly adaptive, providing room for manoeuvre for people to experiment with various approaches in order to find the best programmes is essential, otherwise we run the risk of “doing the wrong thing righter”. Individuals should be given the flexibility and safety to admit when something has failed and change tack, as this is essential for fostering innovation. Creating an environment of learning by doing is crucial as opposed to post-hoc evaluation of what went wrong when it is too late to do anything about it.
  3. Adaptive management requires people to be able to regularly challenge their own thinking and practice - Robert Chambers from the IDS emphasised that we need both organisational and personal change for effective adaptive management. Organisations need to be able to embrace and learn from failure, but so too do the individuals working within them. Reflexivity is a crucial factor for learning and innovation. We need to be able and willing to challenge our initial assumptions and data in a reflexive manner. 

So why haven’t we done this already?

Donor accountability, funding restrictions and increasing public scrutiny of how aid money is being spent has meant that development programmes and policies have become more structured and target-driven. Alongside this, the bureaucracy and centralised management which are instilled throughout many development organisations make it difficult for those working on the ground to take risks or to challenge decisions which have come from the top. There is also the issue of needing dedicated time, resources and money to collect sufficient meaningful data and information, but also the capacity to analyse it in order to allow decisions to be made in real-time. These barriers need to be taken into account and further explored when talking about adaptive management. 

So take note, if you have resolved to be more adaptive in your programme management, here are a few places to start implementing your resolution:

This event was part of a growing programme of work at Nesta on innovation in international development. To find out more get in touch with [email protected]


Photo Credit: TexasEagle via Flickr (Creative Commons)



Irina Ulcica

Irina Ulcica

Irina Ulcica

Research Intern

Irina was an intern in the International Innovation team, working on innovation in international development.

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