Adaptive Bureaucracies: lessons from the UK’s Department for International Development to the world

Lea Simpson
Feb 17 · 6 min read

How many times have you worked on something that you know is failing, or just isn’t going as well as we’d all have hoped, but haven’t had the chance or permission to say so? Or gotten to the end of something and thought: I’d do this differently if i could start again?

That’s what adaptivity is all about. Setting our work up so that we can refine our approach as we learn, making good use of those insights when they happen, following the insight, not the plan.

Over the past three years, I’ve been part of a team called LearnAdapt inside The Department for International Development. Our job? Explore and codify the ways teams in the department might embrace approaches for adaptivity.

Much of DFID work involves working on complex issues — generally means that linear, multi-year planning is unlikely to work except where we clearly know what to do (e.g. building a bridge). Adaptive programming is important when we need to consider giving ourselves the room to work through options, test ideas and deepen our understanding of the situation as we go.

These are the top tips for adaptation based on three years of learning from the brilliant staff and advisors across DFID’s 27 countries of operation and they were shared with a global audience who dialed into an Apolitical event on 12th February 2020.


The realities of government are that you’ll need to set out a five year business plan to set work up, but there are ways to design these plans to make room for adaptation. Instead of a mid-term report, annual report and final evaluation, break your five year goal into chunks of work with stop/start/continues along the way. Clearly mark the signals you’d be getting of success along the way.

  • Reframe risk: Our natural instinct might be that these new approaches are risky. In an uncertain context, it’s more risky to just pursue one strategy that might not be right, than it is to experiment with a few options to see what works first.
  • Make space: Sometimes you have to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony. Pre-plan timeouts and review points to stop, take a step back and reflect on the action from a distance.
  • Don’t adapt if you don’t need to, or without purpose, if you know what you need to do to get the job done, an adaptive approach will prove to be too onerous and costly.


If you’re not clear on the best route to achieve your goal, take a portfolio view. A portfolio is useful because it says we don’t know how to achieve the goal yet and allows us to test a few ways. By definition it means stopping things that aren’t fruitful too.

  • This is not an invitation to be random. Portfolios demand a different kind of accountability. A clear goal, theses, measures of success… a portfolio without these isn’t adaptation or innovation, it’s gambling.
  • Structure your portfolio against a golden ratio of 70/20/10, which is broadly shared in the world of innovation. Give routes most likely to deliver impact 70% of your time and financial resources, adjacent ideas 20% and the side bets 10%.
  • Use reflection points or gates within your plan to stop doing things that aren’t working and reinvest that effort in things that are.
  • In ‘How China Escaped the Poverty Trap’ Yuen Yuen Ang puts ‘directed improvisation’ at the centre of the story. Chinese leaders used deliberately vague policy to encourage bounded experimentation.

Remember, just because you can set out a plan that feels linear and predictable does not mean the world will fall into place for that plan.


A lot of measures of success in government there to monitor and evaluate: “has this worked, or done the job”. Adaptive ways of working needs data to inform: “what do we know now that we didn’t know before?”

  • Adaptive work changes, so you need dynamic measurement methodologies. A theory of change that is updated and reflects what the team have learnt, not one that sits on the shelf in between annual reviews.
  • There’s been a shift at DFID to ensure that adaptive programmes in DFID have Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Adaptation (MELA) systems which can enable adaptive decisions to be made based on high-quality evidence and decision-making frameworks.
  • Value learning as an outcome: Make learning an outcome and optimise all your processes in line with that.
  • Beware the vanity metrics: forget measures that focus on hard numbers that tell us nothing. Knowing that x thousand people were reached tells us little. Is that a lot, or most of the people, or a small fraction? Meaningful measures, by comparison, tell a story, like rate of production, adoption as opposed to people reached. This will help us to make better decisions and course correct where needed


Managing adaptive teams demands that we undo the old orthodoxies of leadership. Adaptivity isn’t about command and control, fostering a supportive and conducive environment to experimentation and learning, including providing incentives to work adaptively and embrace uncertainty.

  • Hack discomfort with uncertainty by organising what you know, guess and don’t know is a simple way to cultivate comfort with uncertainty. When you know something, act on it. When you guess something, run experiments to test whether you’re onto something and when you don’t know, explore possibilities through research.
  • Give yourself more time and resources to do this, adaptive programmes take more time and greater collaboration. For new pieces of work, successful DFID teams have been seen to set out a longer inception period to set the team up for success and ensure alignment.
  • Language can create bigger divisions so take time to make sure you all mean the same thing.
  • Centre for Public Impact calls this an ‘enablement mindset’ and believes ‘governments can achieve more by letting go’.
  • Using novel approaches can be lonely, so find friends and other like minded people who are working in similar ways. Support and encourage one another, at DFID, they have set up an Adaptive Network for colleagues to support, work with and learn from one another.

Remember it takes a while for people in a team to come round to a new way of doing things. It will take time for teams to trust that they have permission and space to work in this way.


Remember, context changes behaviour and the context you create in a contract will change your partner’s behaviour. A lot of the way a partnership is framed will be linked to the procurement/contractual arrangement in place. Check, double triple check incentives to make sure your call for adaptivity isn’t just lipservce.

  • Perverse incentives: fixed milestone delivery payments fly in the face of adaptive working.
  • At DFID a big part of this conversation is Payment by Results. Linking payment to outcomes can allow flexibility to the implementing team to figure out how best to meet the goal. Although PBR metrics still need to be designed with care, and used in circumstances where there are clear metrics of success and a clear enough line of site between the work of the implementers and achieving these outcomes.
  • An alternative to a focus on outcomes is to shift the way we look at measuring how partners are delivering on the ground. The kinds of things we’d be looking for include: conduct tests, uses evidence, generates good evidence and applied learning… without preempting what the tests or evidence will be.
  • Hold teams to account by asking: what did you think was going to happen, what did happen, why was there a difference and what will you do differently next time? It’s their answer to this question that matters most.

Remember, even when you get all of this right, partners will be naturally nervous to tell you when things aren’t going to plan — and this isn’t just likely but a guaranteed part of adaptive work. Become a partner, sit on the same side of the table.


The world is changing. Learn. Adapt. Thrive.

Lea Simpson

Written by

Founder of Brink, Team Leader of the Frontier Technologies Hub. Tech optimist and lifelong nerd.


The world is changing. Learn. Adapt. Thrive.

Lea Simpson

Written by

Founder of Brink, Team Leader of the Frontier Technologies Hub. Tech optimist and lifelong nerd.


The world is changing. Learn. Adapt. Thrive.

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