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Helping International Development Programs Achieve Better Outcomes Through Adaptive Management

Matthew St. John

When development projects struggle, there are several typical weaknesses that may be at fault. For instance, the design of the project—which may have been successful elsewhere—may not be appropriate for the local context. Implementation could be too static in the face of changing and complex local environments. Lack of coordination between projects and duplication of efforts can lead to inefficiencies. Perhaps there is a lack of understanding of the political economy. Sometimes data and evidence that could improve implementation stays “up on the shelf” in project offices, leading to a weak evidence base with outdated or siloed monitoring and evaluation practices.

Adaptive Management Can Help

Given the challenges that projects face, my RTI colleagues and I have been thinking about how we can improve our program implementation excellence across projects from different sectors. Specifically, how can we deepen our projects’ adaptive management to achieve better development outcomes?

We implement several programs for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which asks us how we are innovating to achieve results in complex or constantly changing environments and how we can strengthen our collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) practices in these projects.

In recent years, donors and implementers have strived to enable projects to be grounded in the local context, be inclusive of local development partners, and allow technical adaptation during implementation. This trend is articulated via a multitude of terminology, including adaptive management, doing development differently, collaborating, learning and adaptating, local solutions, thinking and working politically, problem-driven iterative adaptation, applied political economy analysis, and many others.

Adaptive management seeks to achieve better project outcomes through the systematic, iterative and planned use of emergent or intentional knowledge, data and learning throughout the program lifecycle. It also involves reacting and responding quickly to changes in the political, social and economic operating environments, internal and external of a project.

But there are constraints to an adaptive management approach to projects: 

  • Procurement mechanisms are often restrictive
  • Internal project decision-making does not always make evidenced-based choices
  • There may be little flexibility for iteration despite changing operating environments, or a lack of knowledge and experience on adaptive management approaches.

Despite these challenges, adaptive management and all the related methodologies comprise a powerful set of tools for improving program outcomes in the face of changing contexts that organizations and donors should be looking toward more often.

Adaptive Management in Practice

As an international research institute and a leading implementer of development programs, RTI is uniquely capable of providing empirical evidence developed through applied research of projects to turn that knowledge into practice in our projects.

At RTI, I am leading a research initiative to look at how our projects across sectors are using different adaptive management approaches and are coming up with new and innovative tools to help our projects integrate their approaches to improve development outcomes. Through RTI’s GovLab, our team has been unpacking this confusing alphabet soup of development terminology, identifying and documenting RTI projects that apply these approaches, and designing and piloting tools to deepen our capabilities in these key areas.

One new approach we developed to integrate adaptive management approaches into projects from the start is a training on adaptive management for new chiefs of party (COPs). The training is in three sections broken up by “pause and reflect moments” utilizing adult learning techniques that review current global frameworks in adaptive management, then present specific cases as examples of how other RTI projects integrate adaptive management approaches. Finally, the training demonstrates tools and reviews how to build an adaptive management culture within projects.

As an introductory training meant for COPs who will lead projects across a wide array of sectors, the sessions can be tailored to swap out irrelevant project examples and substitute them for cases of projects in their same sectors. Using "plug and play" content in this way, we make the training more relevant for the new COP. We also adjust the training acknowledging the real-world challenges to using an adaptive management approach. For example, procurement challenges and dis-enabling environments, within which the project must operate, that restrict potentially new or innovative approaches based on changes in context. Why COPs? They are the most important and critical personnel on a project. They are responsible for creating a team and delivering the project results. They are the chief executive officer and the lead external collaborator with the donor and other stakeholders.

In March 2019, we formally rolled out the training to new COPs managing diverse programs, including an energy program in Africa, a health program in the Philippines and a governance program in Haiti. The training also coincided with the development and dissemination of new resources to help projects in their adaptive management approaches:

  • A tool to help document decision-making processes on tactical or strategic adaptations
  • A guide for more effective “pause and reflect” sessions
  • A guide to applying a political economy analysis lens to everyday work
  • Tips for helping project management form teams with an adaptive culture.

The trainings are designed to increase not only COP knowledge of this important topic, but also cross-project collaboration. Much of the training is spent reviewing and discussing with the COP best practices in adaptive management from other RTI-implemented projects. At the conclusion of the training, we spend time making sure the COP knows who they can contact for additional support and link them into RTI’s Community of Practice of project-based staff to continue the discussion as their knowledge evolves through project implementation.

Outcomes and Next Steps

The training has been well received by the COPs, who appreciate integrating new tools, especially during the important start-up phase of their projects. It will now be expanded to include current COPs, home office-based project managers, and other project-based staff such as deputy COPs and monitoring, evaluation and learning managers.

This is just one way we are integrating adaptive management for better project results. We are also developing a political economy analysis guide for different project contexts, conducting additional research and dissemination of what projects are doing in their respective contexts to implement problem-driven iterative adaptations, and unifying operations and technical activities and analysis.

Whether in the energy, health, governance, or other sectors, adaptive management is a proven approach to enabling COPs and other development professionals to apply lessons learned and achieve better development outcomes.

See also: Adapting to learn and learning to adapt: Practical insights from international development projects, a policy brief by RTI experts Derick Brinkerhoff, Sarah Frazer and Lisa McGregor

Editor's note: This article was written by Matthew St. John, a former RTI Senior Manager for Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Matthew St. John to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.