A new school of thought is disrupting the development space, applying large scale management experiments to complex international programs.
In a development context, adaptive programming is in its infancy. There are few examples in progress and even fewer that have been completed.
However, these few projects are all working in dynamic and challenging environments for which this approach is considered the most applicable. At this stage, examples of recent adaptive programs in the development setting include:
- the Department for International Development's learning, evidencing and advocacy partnership, generally known as LEAP, which was a core component of Nigeria's ambitious partnership to engage, reform and learn public sector reform program;
- legal assistance for economic reform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and
- the Nepal urban resilience project.
Examples of critical ways in which adaptive programs such as these are forging alternatives to traditional approaches include:
- designing flexibility into the project from inception;
- placing learning at the very core of the program approaches;
- changing the role of the leadership to one that empowers team members and actively supports a willingness to experiment, yet also has a focus on results; and
- increasing collaboration between partners and agencies.
It is possible to draw out three particularly important areas that characterize adaptive programs and separate them from those set up using traditional frameworks:
- the nature of interventions;
- leadership, and
- ways to embed learning.
What are the challenges facing adaptive programming?
One of the biggest challenges is changing mindsets. This approach requires a different viewpoint for managers at technical and operational levels.
Learning by doing and analyzing what works needs a willingness to be guided by context and to accept a degree of insecurity by dropping pre-conceived ideas. It also demands honesty in acknowledging failure (when human nature wants only to see success), and this is difficult if there is a widespread culture of blame or if there is a ‘payment by results’ mechanism in place.
The negative pull of tradition and the status quo need to be overcome. Building teams requires the right people with the appropriate soft skills. Experience is important but so is the need to avoid hierarchies that observe only ‘business as usual.’
The adaptive programming approach requires the team to share responsibilities, operate transparently (particularly with finances and accountability), focus on problem-solving, and genuinely aim to work together to learn and instigate change.
The right approach for the right intervention
Recognizing that adaptive programming can offer benefits in dynamic settings does not mean an instant fix for every context. There will be occasions when a traditional approach to programming is preferable.
Adaptive programming is difficult and requires creativity and passion for finding the best way to identify improvements. It is not going to provide the right answers in every situation, so it is vital that each intervention is viewed on its own merit and within its own context. The approach will necessitate skill, insight, and new kinds of partnerships between donors and agencies to explore the best framework and processes for a particular intervention.
‘Business as usual’ is too slow to bring fundamental change in complicated operating contexts, including in fragile states. A disruptive and innovative approach to development work may be uncomfortable and challenging, but it offers a more responsive and promising way to deliver sustainable outcomes.