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Adaptive Management: What it Looks Like in Three International Development Projects

The international development community is abuzz with the idea of adaptive management, which I’ll define here as using evidence-based learning to inform adjustments throughout project implementation. Both donors and practitioners have long realized that projects need to learn and adapt within the project period. RTI fully embraces the usefulness and importance of adaptive management and has been implementing this approach for many years. We’re actively seeking new ways to understand and improve our approaches, and study and elevate the promising practices of our projects to advance the tools and approaches for learning, experimentation and evidence-based decision making.

This forces us to consider: how do projects put these concepts into practice? RTI recently studied a selection of project experiences in detail to ground-truth what adaptive management looks and feels like in practice, and the effect it has on project results.

RTI’s Recent Research

Following up on our 2018 publication Adapting to Learn and Learning to Adapt: Practical Insights from International Development Projects, a core team of RTI researchers conducted case study research to understand and improve our internal adaptive management systems and approaches. The cases covered three U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) projects implemented by RTI: Senegal Governance for Local Development (GOLD), Haiti Local Enterprise and Value Chain Enhancement (LEVE), and Uganda Governance, Accountability, Participation, and Performance (GAPP). Each case analyzed a project team’s understanding and implementation of adaptive management, including the process to operationalize the key features, the anticipated and actual results of adaptations, key enablers and inhibitors of adaptive management, and lessons for future projects.

Findings on Adaptive Management Implementation

The projects implemented adaptive management in different sectors, countries and points in the cycle of implementation. In comparing the approaches of three projects, several key themes emerged:

Adaptive management is a philosophy or a framework for how you manage your project’s implementation, activities and budget. The specific steps to manage adaptively will vary by project, as will the motivations for adaptations, which could be requested by the donor or client, necessitated by the context, or driven by organizational culture and leadership style.

Fundamentally, adaptive management is about collecting and using data to make decisions. For example, Senegal GOLD compiles data from the project’s monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) activities; experiences and reflections of project staff; and applied political economy analysis (PEA). For the projects studied, adaptive management included adjustments that were small-scale, iterative and short-term, and those that were big-picture, strategic and long-term.

Integrating data collection use into project implementation and management brings learning and adaptation into focus and makes these processes accessible to project teams. We’ve seen that this process of getting and using data is most successful when projects frame their entire operation and implementation while considering the results of their actions and resources and, when needed, how to redirect efforts and resources to have greater effect. Team members are best able to use data when it’s not believed to be an extra step, but an inherent element of their “normal” job. Uganda GAPP ensures that technical, financial and operations teams are all involved as adaptive decisions are made. And, to this end, responsibility for gathering and using data does not fall only to the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) staff, but requires contributions from technical, M&E, and operational staff along with the guidance and commitment from project leadership. Haiti LEVE prioritized creating a culture among all staff of learning, collaboration, flexibility and creativity. Project leadership facilitated the staff’s ability to approach mistakes and failures as opportunities for learning, helping ensure that all activities, whether successful or not, were considered valuable efforts. 

For these projects, data didn’t just sit on a shelf—they used it! These three projects hold regular learning events and collaborate among staff and partners to implement adaptations based on learning. Both Uganda GAPP and Senegal GOLD hold large reflection sessions on lessons learned and areas for adaptation as the kickoff to the annual work planning process. Following their frequent team meetings that reviewed data and discussed adding new activities and dropping activities that were not performing well, Haiti LEVE regularly met with USAID to communicate adjustments in activities.   

Three Lessons Learned to Apply Adaptive Management

The findings of these case studies offer three key lessons learned for projects seeking to implement an adaptive management approach:

  1. Bring stakeholders, project teams and partners into the learning and adaptation mindset. Infuse a culture of learning, openness and flexibility into the project. Empower everyone on the team to gather information, learn from data, share learnings with the team, try, fail and adjust.
  2. Gather data from multiple sources inside and outside of the project’s MEL Plan and devote time for the team to review data and reflect to draw out key learnings. Draw on quantitative and qualitative data from M&E data collection and contextual assessments, such as a political economy analysis or gender analysis and research studies, as well as staff perceptions and opinions based on their day-to-day experiences.  
  3. Work in partnership with the donor. It’s important that expectations are clear for all parties, and the lane for adaptations is open. Build flexibility into the proposal, contract and workplan. Agree on the end goal, but consider multiple avenues for working toward that goal.

At RTI, we are committed to supporting an adaptive approach to our projects, bringing these lessons learned to our implementation approach, and piloting new adaptive management initiatives, such as a training we developed for Chiefs of Party on adaptive management. As researchers, development practitioners and donors continue to ponder the concept of adaptive management, let’s focus on learning from the real-world, lived experience of our project teams. Let’s hear from project leadership who are managing adaptively, and the staff bringing data and experiences to the conversation. As these projects’ experiences suggest, adaptive management gets results.   

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Sarah Miller Frazer (Associate Director, Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, Learning, and Adapting (MERLA)) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.