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Examining the incentives and constraints to adaptive programming across the donor-implementer relationship – and how the behaviour that results influences market systems programming.

There is some agreement that flexible and adaptive management, throughout the programme cycle and in the financial and operational management of implementation, is essential for programme effectiveness. Yet for a wide variety of reasons, most organisations have far to go to reach this adaptive ideal. This study provides a catalyst for an open discussion of the many challenges to adaptive management, points towards innovations in programme design and management that are useful, and provides examples of emerging good practices.

The research team used a mixed-method approach, which included a literature review and 60 key informant interviews to identify the opportunities and limitations confronting the widespread adoption of adaptive management in market systems development programmes. Four 'baskets' of issues emerged: knowledge, leadership, culture, and procurement and contract features.

One of the most important findings is the influence of culture – organisational, office, and national – on the extent to which an organisation is successful in using adaptive management approaches. As a result, staffing issues, particularly the selection of chiefs of party and programme managers, were issues upon which respondents were very vocal. 

Another finding concerned results measurement systems and inflexible budgets. These two functions – as they currently exist – pull resources away and often create negative incentives to managing adaptively.

A further finding of this study concerns the need for new programme design tools that are more explicitly experimental, in keeping with the need to explore solutions in complex environments. 

Finally, the wall between technical and support functions, across the donor/implementer spectrum, was also frequently cited as an impediment to adaptive programming.

Recommendations include:

  • Revise the definition of 'adaptive management' to involve purposeful experimentation, and pivots in strategy and tactics based on the results of detailed, planned experiments
  • Rethink the logframe and how it is used, where progress, not ‘burn rates’ or indicators, can drive programme adaptation
  • Satisfying the need to find a new way to express theories of change, donors and implementers should explore the use of hypothesis-based proposal designs and implementation plans
  • Donor and implementer organisations should seek multiple ways to incorporate operational staff at all stages of the project cycle
  • Wherever possible, focus on indicators that are at higher levels of market or systems change, not output level
  • Donors and implementers should re-think how annual reports are used, to ensure that they drive future learning, instead of being seen as a static look backward
  • Donors should consider where it is in their interest to reduce field staff responsibilities, allowing them to substantively engage with strategic/technical programme support
  • Donors to provide budget guidance so that implementer finance teams can be comfortable with a level of ambiguity in the budget that can then be used flexibly
  • Consider project designs where team leader is hired for management skills first and technical skills second.


Blog: A purposeful muddling through: Is everyone struggling with adaptive management like my team?
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BEAM webinar: The road to adaptive management