Four ways development practitioners can borrow from private sector adaptive approaches

Jamie Pett
Published in
6 min readSep 28, 2020


How do software developers, entrepreneurs, service designers and development practitioners embrace uncertainty, understand user needs, work things out as they go and move fast?

Adaptive approaches are used in several sectors. The origins of adaptive approaches tend to involve a shared recognition of failure to grapple with complexity and uncertainty and a rejection of linear planning and copying solutions from different contexts.

These are, in effect, processes to keep teams humble, counteracting misplaced certainty that we understand the context and that we know what the problem really is, and we know how to solve it. They give structure and rigour to experimenting, listening, reflecting and learning. And they encourage us to think differently about scale.

How can they be applied in international development? ‘Navigating adaptive approaches in international development: A Guide for the Uncertain gives an accessible introduction to six adaptive approaches, describes the differences between them and shows how elements of these approaches can be used throughout the programme cycle.

Beyond the ideas mentioned in this blog post, there are a wealth of ways to borrow from adaptive approaches throughout the programme cycle

To give a taster, here are four ways in which development practitioners might borrow from private sector approaches — agile, lean startup and human-centred design (HCD).

1. Working in iterative cycles to pause, reflect and change course

Adaptive approaches all reject linear planning and execution as the main form of delivery. In their place, they promote working incrementally on smaller chunks through iterative cycles of experimentation, testing and reflection; working in loops instead of a straight line.

For instance, Agile — an iterative approach to software delivery — offers structured processes for testing and learning, working in short production cycles known as sprints. Sprints are time-boxed iterations during which specific work has to be completed — these might last about two weeks. Teams aim to deliver high-value work first.

Photo by Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash

In the ‘scrum’ variety of agile, there are regular face-to-face meetings to keep everyone in sync including a ‘daily standup’ for progress updates and facilitated ‘retrospectives’ at the end of a sprint where the team reflects on what went well and what can be improved and plans for the next sprint. These rhythms create space to intentionally pause and reflect. There are specific roles for ‘scrum masters’ who ensure the process is taken seriously. Increasingly, those who facilitate retrospectives are learning to create psychologically-safe spaces for vulnerability and empathy, to create fertile ground for admitting what has not worked and changing course.

2. Learn through experiments that test assumptions

For a startup, learning is highly intentional. The job of a startup is to discover the right products to build to provide value to customers, and to develop a business model that works as quickly as possible in order to avoid failure.

Using ideas from ‘Lean Startup’, startups create ‘minimum viable products’ which are built solely for the purposes of testing their hypotheses about what customers will be willing to pay for (the value hypothesis) and whether there is a viable route to growth (the growth hypothesis). For example, a company might launch a crowdfunding campaign, sign-up sheet or a video explainer for a product they have not yet created to test demand. Importantly, the assumptions tested first should be the riskiest ones — those that would break the business model if they turned out to be false.

Lean impact adds an impact hypothesis to the mix, suggesting we pick the riskiest link in a theory of change and proactively test it. This would probably involve breaking an assumption down into multiple parts, maybe in conjunction with strategy testing.

For example, in the FCDO’s Frontier Technology Hub programme, a team was testing the viability of electric motos in Rwanda. They ran experiments to test whether the motos could get up and down the hills in Kigali and discover what range they would need each day to convince drivers to use them.

3. Seek out and act upon feedback and reactions from those closest to the problem

Adaptive approaches emphasise ‘getting out there’ to meet customers, clients and constituents to find ideas and get feedback. Development practitioners don’t typically look to the private sector for advice on listening, but the fact that businesses need customers to buy their products means that they need to pay attention.

Photo by Gautam Lakum on Unsplash

Human-centred design is all about putting users at the centre and thinking of them as whole people. This includes interviews and observation while exploring and defining the problem and testing prototypes with users later on. For instance, Google Ventures uses ‘design sprints’ — a five-day process to answer business questions through mapping problems, quickly sketching solutions, developing a prototype and testing it with users to see if their live reactions confirm what was expected.

The premise of paying most attention to those closest to the problem extends to decision-making. For instance, autonomous, small, cross-functional agile teams have the authority to make decisions about a product or service rather than deferring to a senior manager.

For more on this, look out for a forthcoming LearnAdapt paper on effectively linking constituent engagement and adaptive management.

4. Adapt with the end in mind

Ann Mei Chang, the creator of the Lean Impact approach, suggests we can learn from the tech sector’s tendency to have big ambitions but start out small. The advantage of staying small at the beginning is that it speeds up experimentation and learning — helping a startup to ‘nail it’ before they ‘scale it’.

Thinking big in a development context means considering what it would take to genuinely address a problem and the potential pathways to this goal. Teams can formulate and test ‘growth hypotheses’ to understand whether there is a route to scale. If not, they might put their resources elsewhere. Google X uses an analogy of trying to teach a monkey how to recite Shakespeare while on a pedestal. While some teams would rush to first build a pedestal in order to show progress, it is better to start by training the monkey. If extensive efforts on this challenge lead to no progress, you know there’s no need to invest in a pedestal. Development practitioners can use this thinking when considering what it would take to make a dent in the sustainable development goals.

However, the ‘hockey stick’ route to scale of selling more products doesn’t always translate well to social change. Sometimes, scale doesn’t happen through the diffusion of a product or service but through political processes of contention and collective action. Nonetheless, we might consider how to cultivate the conditions for growth.

A team might use systems mapping to continually look for leverage points in systems and strategy testing to examine their assumptions. They might look at different routes to scale, rather than a single intervention being replicated, solutions might be adopted by others or made open source, amongst other ‘endgames’. These might lead to an alternative form of growth hypothesis — what would it take for the government to roll-out an intervention or for it to be commercially viable?

Adaptive approaches from the private sector can be an answer — if you’re asking the right questions: How might we give structure to reflection, learning and planning? How might we maximise learning through intentional experimentation? How might we keep users at the forefront of our mind?

Want to know more?

You can read the whole paper, which outlines the origins of the approaches, finds some common principles and also looks at how they can help us understand a problem and its context, measure to learn and adapt and continually reflect on power and politics.

Even better, join us for an interactive event on Tuesday, October 6th to explore examples of how these approaches have been applied in development and the realities of making them work in development and humanitarian organisations.

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Jamie Pett

Facilitation, complexity, learning and network weaving. Board Co-chair @ RESULTS UK. Founder @ LondonLIDN. Associate @ Curiosity Society. he/his/him