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 challenge of employing adaptive management to date in the project I’m current advising is that the design of the project was very prescriptive and did not account for the work of other actors in the field (or if it did, the accounting was cursory). We began with a blueprint that provided us few pathways forward – and the planning process quickly became unwieldly, ad hoc and with few strategic entry points in a field already crowded with actors. Pressure points emerged when I was tasked with updating the theory of change and developing a performance framework for the project. I could not see the forest for the trees, and with the tools that were going to be required for the piece meal menu of activities, the whole would definitely not be the sum of its parts.

There’s nothing like recognizing that there is no solution to a problem to take you back to the drawing board. In the old days, we would have just plowed forward, eyes wide shut to what was going on around us, because we had a preset plan to follow that could really only change with force majeure (disaster or conflict or coup being pretty much the only contextual factors that would allow us to convince a donor that changes to a project were needed). These days, with the concept of adaptive management increasingly taking up residence in the development policies of both donors and development partners, making changes at the outset isn’t unthinkable. It’s certainly a challenge and has meant lots of incremental discussions on ‘what about this’ or ‘this approach might be more meaningful’ and honestly, it’s exhausting but rewarding. It’s not just business as usual, it’s business for meaningful change.

We’re starting with outcomes and some initial outputs and that’s it. We’ll look at some outcome level indicators and milestones around what’s possible but not necessary. Activities will be progressive – we’ll plan what comes next based on what we’re doing now and identify new outputs as we move towards our outcomes. It’s a tough sell with our partners. ‘How do you budget for this?’ ‘Who’s going to be accountable for activities we don’t even know about yet?’ We have to show them who carries the most risk (we do) and how we’ll mitigate it. We must show them how we’ll make decisions, and about the value of risk versus reward. But we’re able to simplify the performance framework (we don’t need to hire multiple people with PhDs in statistics and qualitative research methods) and take into account the system that we’re operating in, rather than trying to influence the system ourselves.

We’re not there yet – there’s still a long way to go in terms of building appreciation for our suggested approach, and a lot of uncertainty about how it will all pan out. But the biggest lesson here is that even when you design a project to be adaptive, you may need to redesign it before you even get started. It’s a true test of whether your organization and project partners are willing to walk the talk when it comes adaptive management or if lip service on the one hand and business as usual on the other will reign supreme.


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