Learning by Doing: Developing a Theory of Change for an Adaptive Project

One of the issues that I’m struggling to wrap my head around is meeting donor requirements while trying to implement an adaptive project. One the one hand, everyone from the donor to the government is on board with the approach, although the government is still a bit wary about the amount of risk they will need to take on in order to see this approach through to the end. On the other hand, donor templates and guidance are still very prescriptive, and examples are entirely linear in their approach. Moreover, examples used in guidance are very concrete (vaccination interventions seem to be a favourite), unlike the less-defined, system-level intervention my colleagues and I are working on.

Learning by Doing: Adaptive Planning and Monitoring

With so much theory around adaptive management available, it can be daunting to try to put it into practice in a holistic way. Much of what I know about adaptive management relates to the actual implementation of a program or project itself. Who knew that the planning process would end up being complex and adaptive in its own right? 

The 'Lock' Frame

I recall the first time I had to develop a logframe. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I couldn’t see how the boxes all linked together, I felt that the information it contained was repetitive, I had no idea what my colleagues were talking about when they carried on about ‘assumptions.’ I wanted to cry. I wanted to quit. I was pretty sure this was something I never wanted to have to work on again. 15 years later, I have a far different view of logframes. Once I had understood them – once someone had decoded them for me – I understood their utility. They are a project organizational tool; they are an accountability tool; and they are basically the (over)simplification of projects aiming to address complex issues. However, while I appreciate their utility in some respects, I am also aware of just where they fall short.

Striking a Balance: Payment by Results and Adaptive Management

A few months ago, my colleagues and I invested significant amount of time to design a project that championed local ownership, accountability to beneficiaries and adaptive management. We were explicit about our methodologies and about how the results would be defined by the beneficiaries during the inception phase of the project: our philosophy was that success would be more likely to be achieved if the beneficiaries could decide what success looked like – for them. Beyond the jargon, the proposal was good. Good enough to be approved by the donor and for us to get excited about a project with a truly adaptive management approach. But when it came time to sign the contract, the dreaded ‘payment by results’ phrase magically appeared. Out of nowhere, we were told we needed to have ‘pre-defined results’ before the project could move ahead.

One Step Behind, Yet Again

It’s amazing how I feel completely inundated with blog posts and academic papers and policy briefs on moving M&E in a direction that accommodates complexity and systems thinking; embracing adaptive management and political economy analysis (PEA). Only a year ago, what felt like a handful of knowledgeable people testing the waters with some (much needed) discussion on how M&E in development programming needs to change now feels like a bit of a tidal wave. Or maybe it’s only me, because I’m actively looking for information and have gone down a bit of a rabbit hole on adaptive management in development.

New Book: Making M&E Work in Development Programmes

Back with some exciting news!  'Making M&E Work in Development Programme: A Practitioner's Handbook' is a product of more than 15 years in development, and 10 years in M&E. It's purpose is many: as an introduction to M&E in development programming to people new to the field; as a training handbook; and as go-to guide for established development practitioners that understand M&E but struggle with operationalizing the M&E framework for their project or programme.  The book is available through Amazon and other online websites. You can purchase it here:

Now Available: Learning in Development: Reflections from an Insider on the Outside

You can now purchase my new book on Amazon Kindle edition here Paperback edition here Happy reading!