The Long and Short of It: Responding to immediate needs while pursuing long-term goals

Jamie Pett
Sep 7, 2020 · 6 min read
The banner for the recent LearnAdapt workshop

A lot has changed in the world in the past few months and development programmes have been quick to respond. How can we balance our need to respond to a crisis with our long-term goals for systemic change?

2020 is a year of constant urgency and crisis. As the aid sector simultaneously responds to Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, the merger of DFID and the FCO and more, teams have had to be responsive and flexible to reach hard to access groups and ensure immediate needs are met.

Over the summer there was a (relative) slowing down, giving us some space to ask important questions. How does everything we’re doing fit into the bigger picture of long-term change? How can we make sure adaptive management is about purposeful adaptation, that contributes to wider objectives and commitments to constituents, rather than short-term reaction? How can we hold ourselves and others accountable for this?

While these questions are particularly pertinent now, these tensions are always there in adaptive management.

In our latest LearnAdapt workshop, we asked participants to share stories with each other in trios about how they and colleagues have tried to be relevant and responsive without losing focus on long-term goals. You can see notes on these stories in these slides. We then looked for patterns and lessons in these stories and had an open discussion about some of these.

Three lessons stood out about what’s important:

1. Creating and maintaining space, rhythms and roles for reflection

2. Encouraging mindsets of trust within boundaries

3. Being accountable for the right things

1. Creating and maintaining space, rhythms and roles for reflection

Participants spoke about needing to see both ‘the trees and the forest’ — that is, immediate needs and opportunities as well as progress on longer term change. Seeing the forest requires creating space to take a step back, reflect and question assumptions about whether the current approach is the right one.

One approach to this is strategy testing, as developed by the Asia Foundation. In strategy testing, the programme team reflects on the programme’s theory of change and logframe and reflects on where there is progress, what’s changing in the environment, and what’s working or not. Questioning and perhaps revising the assumptions on which the theory of change rests, gives solid ground for making decisions, which are integrated into an updated theory of change and logframe. Teams should document any changes or decisions made carefully. It can help to have a critical friend join this process to probe and critique.

In the rush of a crisis, participants noted that it is difficult to gather colleagues together for reflective exercises like this. Building in structured reflection up front in projects — putting workshops in the diary and developing a habit — can mitigate this risk. We heard anecdotal evidence that where it’s already common practice to reflect, programmes have found it easier to respond to crisis.

In a fast-changing context, it is likely that rolling adaptation becomes essential. Reflection, learning and adaptation is likely to occur at multiple levels and cadences — from daily operational tweaks to quarterly learning reviews and strategic shifts.

As well as the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of reflection, we should consider the ‘who’. Who owns adaptation, who is listened to and whose expertise is valued? Workshop participants advised us to involve a wide range of stakeholders when reflecting on the short- and long-term. It helps that more people can share and access spaces online. Some teams have found it helpful to draw on people who wouldn’t normally work together, such as emergency response personnel and longer-term programmers who can question each other’s assumptions. Where the distance between ‘the ground’ and management is greater, it becomes more important to involve those actually running and using the programme.

Having people in the same space is not enough if they cannot participate. Learning sessions can become more inclusive by visualising data — one participant mentioned cutting up swimming pool floats for bar charts!

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

2. Encouraging mindsets of trust within boundaries

We’ve noticed a common theme in this workshop series. When people come back from breakout groups and we ask for themes and patterns about what enables adaptive management, we often hear about mindsets, ways of working and trust.

As workshop participant Nikki Wood puts it:

“Good adaptation is simply this… It is about being willing to let go of things that aren’t working. It is about trusting your team, communicating effectively, and thinking creatively. It’s about being comfortable with uncertainty.”

When crisis hits and plans are thrown up in the air, trust becomes an even more valuable currency. Trust arises from personal relationships and leaders who hold space for their colleagues to thrive, even if they sometimes make mistakes. One participant noted that this is easier in a reasonably small organisation where people work closely together.

Parallel to this, in adaptive programmes the role of ‘HQ’ becomes a ‘facilitator’ and nominally-vertical partnerships are less about command and control. The best examples of adapting to the reality of COVID-19 occurred where there was knowledge, transparency and trust between partners at each level: e.g. local and INGO, INGO and donor. This extends to continuing to listen to constituents and not diminish local capacity.

However, this trust — and the flexibility that accompanies it — is not unconditional. It is extended within boundaries of programme mandates, expertise and long-term goals.

During times of crisis, it is tempting for those with power to take a more controlling approach to make sure activities happen. In the current context, when donors are having to cut some programmes, participants noted a lack of information and poor communication is eroding trust in some cases.

3. Accountability for the right things

In a rapidly changing environment, pre-set milestone targets might become irrelevant to the broader goals of a programme. On the other hand, working on the basis of trust alone is not feasible for government departments who need to give an account of how they are spending taxpayers’ money. So, in uncertain times, how can funders hold implementers accountable in the short-term without creating a false sense of progress or perverse incentives for the long-term?

Fran Martin of DFID’s Better Delivery team shared four ‘performance areas’ that are being used to assess progress in annual reviews for some adaptive programmes.

The areas are:

1. Delivery: Some outputs can be sensibly pre-determined and the programme is held account for delivering these in a timely fashion.

2. Active learning: A successful adaptive programme will generate learning that can guide future action within the programme. This might include learning indicators in a logframe and checking in on the integration of learning into future working, for example through sprint reports (if teams are using iterative sprint cycles).

3. Contribution to meaningful change: A successful adaptive programme will use learning to contribute to meaningful development outcomes. It is important to have a clear vision and keep an eye on that throughout. By defining what you’re trying to achieve, you can respond to what comes along. Tools like sentinel indicators and outcome harvesting are useful for generating evidence here.

4. Fitness for purpose: Given what we know, do we still believe that this approach is still the best use of resources? Or is there a better way? Strategy testing is helpful here.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Conclusion

There is not a single answer for how to pursue long-term goals while also responding to immediate needs. Some programme teams facing a high level of volatility question whether their long-term goals are still valid. Others are able to go back to their strategy and vision and look at those in the current context. The overall outcomes haven’t changed but the framing of the problems and how they respond to them might. There may also be cases of strategic opportunism where disruption can create an entry point to long-term change priorities.

We know that adaptive programming is an approach that enables us to work on longer-term change with the flexibility to change track in the light of evidence. Adaptive programming is about purposeful adaptation, that contributes to wider objectives. It requires us to be deliberate in how we work; coherence doesn’t happen by accident.

How can we make sure to keep the long and short-term in mind? By creating space for reflection, thinking about rhythms and responsibilities for learning, getting a diverse range of people involved, extending trust within reasonable boundaries and holding teams accountable for the right things.

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