Aug. 1, 2016

A purposeful muddling through: Is everyone struggling with adaptive management like my team?

Karri Byrne introduces a new report on a neglected topic: the incentives and constraints to adaptive programming across the donor-implementer relationship.

Recently, I was part of a team from MarketShare Associates that looked at adaptive management and why it was so challenging for donors and implementers alike. It's one of those things, isn’t it? Something that makes sense when you read about, but seems so hard to apply to your own team. Tim Sparkman and I had both managed big, complex market programmes, and knew very well the pitfalls and opportunities of those programmes – we spent a lot of time talking about them over beers and burgers – and wishing that it was easier to explain to donors or our own colleagues why adaptive management is so important.

Important… and HARD. Sometimes really hard. We both felt relatively successful at navigating the murky waters of adaptation in market systems programmes, and had learned so much. 'Other people need to know this!' 'We need more programmes like this!' we would say to each other.

So we were delighted when BEAM Exchange gave us an opportunity to explore it more. We talked to over 60 implementers and donors from a variety of contexts and types of market programmes – I thought it was really important that we made sure to talk to those who were not sold on the idea of adaptive management, or didn’t understand it. After all, it is easy to get confirmation of your idea when everyone already thinks just like you.

The report The road to adaptive management: knowledge, leadership, culture and rules, is the result of those interviews – and what fascinating people you are! We could have written an entire comedy sketch just from the quotes we got from all of you about your triumphs and failures (sometimes epic) and tenacious desire to keep learning.

For those who don’t have time to read the full report I’ll give you some of the headlines:

In answer to the question above – yes. Everyone is struggling just like you. Donors. Implementers. Programme staff. Compliance staff. MEL staff. Everyone. But there are some really good examples out there, and the report provides a few suggestions on where to focus your attention first within your team.

We found that there are four 'baskets' of issues: Knowledge (do we really know the rules?); Culture (broken into sub-categories of office culture, national culture, organisational culture); Leadership (if the boss doesn’t support it, who is really going to stick their neck out?); and procurement and contracts (because most operational support systems weren’t really built for flexibility). The report explores the challenges in each of these baskets, and provides examples of how other organisations are managing them. 

It’s clear that many practitioners want and need adaptive management – we learned that there are many creative ways that people are sneaking it into their offices and projects, even when the environment is not conducive.

For me there were two really big eye-openers: First, there is no donor-implementer divide here. Donors are as frustrated with the lack of flexibility as implementers are, and each wishes the other would 'get with the programme', or heaps praise on those individuals who 'get it'. I love hearing this because it gives me hope that it may not be that hard to address these challenges as it initially seems.

The second eye-opener is a head-slap, 'well, duh' kind of eye opener. It’s that the Culture basket is far more important than we initially realised. This colours the other issues of knowledge, leadership, and operational support. Whether people feel comfortable and confident raising issues and making changes is absolutely a function of the incentives or constraints they experience in their immediate team environment.

There are lots of other good points in the research: how adaptability is personal, the issues around staff turnover, 'numbers for the minster' and how they drive the attention of a programme, how teams develop work-arounds when the rules are too strict, inflexibility of budgets or M&E systems.

Yes, there is something for everyone there. And that’s what I think it is going to take to make our projects more adaptive…it’s going to take a little bit from everyone. 

Read the report 

Karri Goeldner Byrne is an independent consultant working on adaptive management in market systems, resilience, and economic recovery after crisis.


  • Culture clash

    What an excellent piece of work - congratulations to Karri, Ben and Tim!

    I would like to add my own thoughts on one of your points... Team, organisational and national cultures can all present issues. But the underlying cultural problem that I have come across time and again is more fundamental. It is the culture clash between the essentially bureaucratic approach of funders (which inevitably is adopted by most implementers) and the adaptive growth/survival strategies demanded by the messy uncertainty of the world in which our private sector partners and beneficiaries live.

    Your report recommendations all point to this problem, so I don't think I am saying anything surprising here. But we do have to acknowledge that we are operating at the interface of two very different and valid, but competing realities: public accountability and private enterprise.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with bureaucracy per se, it is an essential part of development programme administration and accountability. The problems arise when we apply the same principles to our private sector engagement strategy.

    It is like speaking in a foreign language and expecting the other party to understand what we mean... some have resorted to shouting louder or gesticulating wildly in order to try to be understood - neither of which are winning strategies!

    So the question then becomes, can bureaucracies speak both languages, can they adapt and function in both environments? Can they meet their internal administrative needs and allow programmes to adopt adaptive strategies?

    At an individual level, there are undoubtedly plenty of people who "get it", but institutionally, it seems to me that the obstacles are formidable. I wouldn't give up all hope by any means, but neither would I underestimate the problem: we have all been seduced by spuriously reassuring linear planning and results measurement tools in development.

    The challenge is to embrace reality and carve out the cultural space for adaptive approaches - which involves acknowledging uncertainty, feeling the way forward, being aware of the changing environment and (just now and again) admitting mistakes - something that bureaucracies and individuals find quite difficult.

    Looking at a bookshelf of development programme reports, I can see plenty of "success" stories used to justify one approach or another. We are not good at writing "we somehow muddled through" stories. The danger is that "adaptive management" becomes just another fig leaf label for the same old bureaucratic methodologies and behaviours... Let's hope that your report and recommendations gain the attention they deserve.

    James Blewett (5 years, 11 months ago)
  • How will we know when we get there?

    Everyone seems to be keen on adaptive management, but I have not yet seen much written on how we can identify "adaptive management" and tell it apart form random change or maladaptive management. It is a fuzzy goal that everyone seems to be able to buy into, perhaps because its fuzziness is so accommodating. Is it something that will always only be identifiable in retrospect,after a project has officially runs its course and succeeded or failed in achieving something worthwhile. And if so, how dependent will this judgement be on who is actually making this judgement. I think it would be useful if some time could be spent of trying to define, in observable (if not measurable) terms, what adaptive management looks like.

    My other suggestion relates to the idea of search strategies. In the world of computer algorithms quite a lot of work has gone into thinking about the pros and cons of different search strategies, to be used when trying to find the solution to a complex problem. In some settings random search is a viable strategy, in others exhaustive search is appropriate. And there are many others that occupy the space between these two possibilities. All search algorithms have their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one requirement for an acceptable form of adaptive management is that has some form of explicit search strategy.

    For a good (popular science) read in this area see Christian and Griffiths (2016) Algorithms to Live By

    Rick Davies (5 years, 11 months ago)
  • James, I completely agree with you on the culture clash between bureaucracy and growth strategies! And agree even more that both perspectives are valid, therefore the challenge is to "speak both languages". It's a recognition of this need that brought us to recommend programme staff need to "invite in" the operational staff. It's not the answer to the points you raise, but hopefully it is the beginning of finding common ground. My personal experience is that Finance and Compliance staff were very helpful once we stopped thinking they were the problem, and started looking for their help in creating solutions. I know that some of the next activities for BEAM Exchange are to build this space (at least within/across donors). It's never a bad thing to engage with people, so I have I high hopes that it will, as you say, "carve out the cultural space". Thanks for your comments, glad you found the report read-worthy!

    Rick, you have a very valid point on identifying adaptive management. When I work with field teams, I say that it is a bit like defining "friendship" -- easy to know when it ISN'T there, but it will have different intensities and look different on different projects or teams. And that's ok. Yes, the measurement of it will be subjective... it's an issue that I am dealing with now on one project that is required in its agreement to use "adaptive management approaches" -- I'm trying to help them build it in, and also figure out how to "prove" that we did it. But we have some qualitative tools (and more are being developed) that I think will get us there.

    Thanks for your reading recommendations!... That may open a whole new door...


    Karri Byrne (5 years, 11 months ago)
  • Is it just another rhetoric?

    I was referred by Mark Thomas on this piece which quickly went through. I must admit the issues raised therein are true and applies to many M4P programs. Adaptive Management seem to growing in its influence. This article stimulates further debate on how programs can maintain considerable balance between the need to adapt as the interventions keep evolving versus the reporting needs of the donor which constantly requires adhering to certain set (sometimes inflexible) standards and formats

    Is Adaptive Management just another rhetoric which would influence the culture of learning and call for programmes to use a systemic approach to take an additional leap into embracing a purposefully experimental, hypothesis-based approach? This calls for a more thorough understanding of the relationship between donor and implementer to strike a balance.

    At the end of the day, adaptive management should be useful to the implementers and all the players in the market. Knoweledge of the rules and guidelines governing various markets, the approaches and observed results should be addressed by this Adaptive Management otherwise we may be moving in some obscured path.


    mayeso mphande (5 years, 11 months ago)
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