How do you incentivise good adaptive management?

Adaptive management doesn’t sound very hard.

I first heard the term in a workshop in 2014, and felt frustrated at the slow pace of the conversation. I understood that development programmes need to plan carefully, measure accurately, learn from our measurement, and adapt programme delivery. I knew that it is important to test new ideas and learn what works. I just didn’t understand why everyone was making such a big deal about it.

It’s true that the development community has learned a lot about the technical processes required for adaptive management. My work focuses on programmes that have adopted the market systems development approach, which commonly use the DCED Standard for Results Measurement. The DCED Standard is designed to help programmes experiment with new approaches, learn about the intervention and the context, and flexibly change implementation as a result. In order to do so, it recognises that monitoring needs to be viewed as a core responsibility of programme staff, rather than the duty of a separate department or organisation. It requires programmes to develop systems for ongoing learning and adaptation, for example running quarterly reviews based on a theory of change. It also promotes small sample sizes, regular monitoring and short questionnaires as the best way to get timely, useful data.

But as I’ve gained more experience, it’s become painfully clear that good adaptive management is about more than technical processes. It’s about incentives, leadership, and institutions. Imagine a typical programme manager: ambitious and passionate, working on an unsuccessful intervention. It can be tough for them to admit that it is going nowhere. Bureaucratic incentives favour measurable results, rather than worthy yet unsuccessful risk-taking. It’s even harder for senior managers explaining to their donor that a programme has achieved very little (yet). Or the donor trying to convey the same message back to their Parliament.

Consequently, we need to find a way to incentivise good management processes. If organisational incentives focus entirely on results, then we lose sight of how these results are achieved, and how sustainable they are. Organisations should place more emphasis on developing and reviewing processes that incentivise adaptive management.

The DCED Standard does this through an audit process. Good results measurement systems face a similar problem to adaptive management; the technical solutions are (partially) clear, but they struggle in the face of organisational incentives to report optimistic ‘success stories’. In response, the DCED ‘audits’ an organisation’s results measurement systems, checking documentation to ensure that the processes meet the quality requirements of the DCED Standard. This gives managers a clear incentive to improve results measurement, as they are judged on the quality of their measurement processes, rather than just on the results that they achieve.

This is a process audit, reviewing paperwork and interviewing managers to ensure that all interventions have a theory of change, indicators and quality measurement against each indicator. The audits have a strong focus on the technical team, ensuring that results measurement is not a separate function, but really embedded throughout the organisation. This includes specific questions to assess whether results are used for programme management. A requirement to pass an audit encourages managers to run a credible, effective results measurement system — overcoming the normal incentive to just report the biggest numbers possible.

The GLAM initiative’s concept of adaptive rigour invokes ‘a documented, transparent trail of intentions, decisions and actions.’ We think this kind of document trail could be audited. This would enable independent assessment of whether a programme is genuinely adaptive — or merely presents old wine in new bottles. It would not resolve all the negative incentives to adaptive management in the aid system. But recognising and certifying programmes that achieve a high standard of adaptive management would be a valuable start.

Author: Adam Kessler is a Managing Partner at DevLearn and also works part-time for the DCED Secretariat.


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