Adaptive programming: It's not 'business as usual' for international development

Adaptive programming: It's not 'business as usual' for international development
May 7, 2019

A new school of thought is disrupting the development space, applying large scale management experiments to complex international programs.

Over the last 20 years, seismic changes in all areas of everyday life have led entrepreneurs to question familiar processes and assumptions. Business models and strategies have evolved: think crowdsourcing and YouTube, Uber, and Amazon. This shift has required new approaches and one—adaptive programming—is now starting to be adopted by the international development community.

Adapting to change

In the last few years, international donors, agencies, and organizations have been rethinking traditional approaches to development interventions. At the same time, there has been a debate about how to meet the UN sustainable development goals. This discussion has prompted reviews of how to manage development programs to generate lasting improvements in basic services and economic growth for the world’s most disadvantaged people.

In a volatile and complicated world, there is an overwhelming need for development approaches that ensure quick and flexible responses to global issues. Adaptive programming and management have emerged as a way to address and reframe the practice of development. They are innovative for international development and have the potential to deliver results in dynamic, complex environments where traditional programs have not succeeded.

What is adaptive management?

All life forms adapt to survive, and humans are no exception. The initial model of this approach stems from the work of ecologists C.S. Holling and C.J. Walters who were studying how uncertainty in human behavior affects predictions of fish stocks. They put forward the view that adaptive management could identify critical uncertainties in the dynamics governing natural resources. They then created suitable experiments to minimize the uncertainties.

At its heart, adaptive management is about learning and adapting by ‘doing’; it is a concept which uses a structured and systematic process that allows continual improvements in decisions, policies, and practices by testing what works and what does not, and learning what to change to improve the results.

Since Holling and Walters gained notoriety, disciplines such as engineering, software development, and natural resource management have seen the benefits of regular adaptation to respond to changing circumstances and requirements.

How has international development used this concept?

Adaptive programming takes on board some of the key principles of adaptive management and offers a chance to make a significant difference in combating some of the world’s most intractable problems. It acknowledges that it is not possible to predict or understand all the complexities of a project in advance. Moreover, once appointed to deliver a project, it is not always possible for development practitioners to know from the start how to bring about a specified outcome.

This is especially the case with projects operating in fluid contexts, e.g., because of changes in the political, economic, or security context. The approach emphasizes ‘learning by doing,’ where hypotheses are explicitly tested, and learning is embedded at the center of a program.

As a result, it provides scope to pilot an approach, see what works, scale-up, and leverage results. It also allows participants to amend or stop activities that clearly aren’t working. This ability to adapt and adjust promotes effectiveness and efficiency—bringing better value for money.

Adaptive programming recognizes that delivering change in complex environments is normally non-linear, often political, and frequently hard to predict. It requires a shift away from tightly conceived targets to allow the focus to be on delivery, without over-specifying processes. As such, it introduces a degree of pragmatism that traditional development programs cannot easily accommodate.

There is another salient factor adopted from software developers: the adaptation process requires strategic flexibility to avoid irreversible decisions. This consideration is vital as it enables changes to be included even at very late stages, e.g. if new information emerges or new opportunities arise. It also means that if something is not working, it is possible to reverse a previous decision.

Early days

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:

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.

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