This is Adaptive Management in Practice. Or Is It?

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 26. May 2019

Admittedly, I’ve struggled to understand what adaptive management is and isn’t. There were times that I thought adaptive management was “making things up as projects go along”. I guess I wasn’t the only one; some development organisations and donors alike saw adaptive management with “either noticeable scepticism [as being] just the latest development fad, or, alternatively, the rhetorical question ‘but isn’t that what we have always done?’”

While I still don’t have a good grasp, the management retreat in Macedonia last week by HELVETAS’ Southeast and East Europe Unit helped me identify few ways of making sense of adaptive management. The contexts in the region – complex, interconnected, dynamic and unpredictable – require projects to identify patterns, understand power and influence, and learn and change course when things don’t work. As Byron Williams and Eleanor Brown urged us all, it’s time to move from “more talk to real action” of adaptive management.

Below I’ve identified four main points from the one-week discussions in Macedonia among 20 projects managers.        

Practice 1: Promoting deliberate & iterative learning 

The starting point for an effective culture of adaptive management is readiness/skills of staff to embrace learning. Staying in our comfort zone isn’t an option, or in line with the age-old cliché to “think outside the box”. Such learning, for example, includes being better equipped to respond to new information which is actionable. Recruiting the right people and skills therefore is essential – for learning and reflection, with an appetite to take appropriate risks and make course-corrections.

The above is easier said than done without systematically investing in human resource development, argues Matthias Herr, Regional Director of Southeast and East Europe Unit. In other words, adaptive management remains an abstract and marginal add-on, not the most important part of the work we do.

Most project managers have increasingly recognised that learning is a strategic asset and competitive advantage. Stefan Joss and Edlira Muedini, Project Managers of RisiAlbania, stressed that a learning culture that is tailored to reality “contributes to efficiency by reducing the time invested in re-inventing wheels or trying to find critical information.” If properly and consciously promoted, it leads to inquisitive and collaborative behaviours of staff and partners at all levels.

In the end, what matters is improved performance of projects delivering long-term and large-scale results. And this’s what resonates with Sven Dominkovic, Manager of Moja Budućnost in Bosnia and Herzegovina: “what’s critical is having staff and additional support mechanism capable of jointly reflecting on how to generate ideas and design initiatives by identifying key constraints, developing solutions and spreading successes.” This goes beyond using tools and processes to support learning behaviour.

Practice 2: Consistently navigating complexity

Simply put, this means the ability to change strategies, plans and activities quickly in response to new information or signal to become more effective. Linear, largely pre-planned initiatives are poorly suited to complex problems and contexts.

I don’t want to dismiss the relevance and application of direct and linear approach for relatively simple problems and reasonably predictable contexts. Yet project management happens in increasingly complex, dynamic and unpredictable contexts, making linear approach less effective for addressing decision-making in the face of uncertainties.

Ertan Munoglu manages the Decentralisation and Municipal Support (DEMOS) project in Kosovo. The major trust of the project, among others, is to support Kosovan institutions through a Performance-Based Grant Scheme (PBGS) which is complemented with demand-based technical assistance interventions. In a complex context like Kosovo, Ertan has recently been questioning if financial mechanisms are enough to stimulate the political interests of authorities and be a significant driver of change of behaviour. This nicely fits to navigating complexity based on experience and actual changes.

Practice 3: Flexibly designing & implementing projects

Understanding, managing and connecting complex, dynamic and unpredictable development initiatives can be enormously challenging even for the most experienced project managers. The reason is adaptive management involves ongoing planning and design rather than fixing things upfront. Of course, things don’t happen randomly but are based on evidence-informed decision-making process. This’s where right-sized and functional monitoring and results measurement (MRM) systems become critical.

However, for projects that apply systemic approach, the challenge is addressing the “tension” between short-term and long-term results. Donors want to see concrete changes/results now whereas projects seek to facilitate long-term results. Dan Nippard and Željko Karanović, Project Managers of MarketMakers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, suggest using three ways of addressing the challenge.

First, projects will need to proactively and consistently communicate in a simpler and more appealing way.  In measuring changes, projects should work with donors and other stakeholders (including team members) to manage expectations and tell the narrative on how they expect changes to happen over time. Second, projects will also need to design a cluster of interventions, focusing not just on long-term ones but also on incremental or “quick wins”. This way, it’s possible to come up with different types of indicators appropriate for the different stages. Third, logframes, which serve as contracts between funders and implementers, will need to be clear for all. Often terms like employment are differently or vaguely understood.

Practice 4: Creating enablers for supporting adaptive project management

Tim Sparkman, Project Director of EYE in Kosovo, wrote in a piece (together with Karri Byrne and Ben Fowler) that understanding and using adaptive management is highly influenced by “culture – organisational, office, and national – on the extent to which an organisation is successful in using adaptive management approaches”. Complexity creates uncertainty. Sometimes, organisations tend to be intolerant of experimentation and risk taking. They come up with procedures and processes to ensure things are done properly.

Yet many project managers feel that additional organisational requirements make implementation slower and more difficult. As the USAID collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) initiative has found out, adaptive management works when it has “leadership support, public support and an adequate investment of time.” Jens Engeli, Regional Director of the Southeast and East Europe Unit, shares the concerns of project managers, but he also cautions that “some of the requirements are a must”.

According to the International Centre for Complex Project Management, projects are becoming complex not because of size, cost and duration, or the challenge of integrating advances in technology. It’s mainly because the systems in which development work takes place are complex adaptive systems. This means that designing, implementing and monitoring/measuring development isn’t about following checklists or formulae. Translating adaptive management to creativity and innovation will require an inclusive culture and collaborative environment, adequate investment, and human capital development strategy for creative minds and passion of people with a purpose.

Resistance to change has never worked….

Additional sources


Cover picture: Pixabay

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies