Welcome to LearnAdapt’s blog!

Sharing and learning lessons on how to do adaptive management in practice

What is LearnAdapt?

LearnAdapt is a collaboration between DFID, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Brink, to explore how to manage adaptive development programmes better. It draws on approaches from the development and tech sector including adaptive management, agile ways of working and lean startup. This is a sister project to Global Learning for Adaptive Management (GLAM).

For over a year, we’ve been working with DFID at the centre and in country offices to help build flexible systems, processes and tools which can support them to contribute to change in diverse and complex contexts.

As with many development challenges, there is no one answer to ‘how to do adaptive management?’. We’ve been learning from DFID staff and their partners on what works best in practice, the barriers they’ve faced and how they’ve worked around them.

Why do DFID and their partners need to be adaptive?

Some of DFID and their partners’ development priorities can be addressed by rolling out tried and tested solutions that we can be confident will work. Implementation is about following the plan, while keeping flexibility to respond to unforeseen changes.

However, many priority areas require tackling difficult challenges, involving complex systems of human interactions and incentives, and processes of political or social change. For example, in fragile or conflict-affected states, where much of DFID’s work takes place, barriers to progress are often fundamentally political rather than financial or technical. DFID is increasingly working with uncertainty.

In these cases, programming that requires making a plan and rigidly sticking to it will rarely offer the best value for money. Instead, programmes need to be managed in a way that encourages continuous learning and adjustment to the reality on the ground.

How do we understand adaptive management in DFID?

Most DFID programmes require flexibility. Flexible programmes expect change, monitor the local context carefully, and react and respond to changes that have a significant effect on the programme’s effectiveness. This requires the ability to adjust resources and activities.

Adaptive management goes further than this. It acknowledges from the start that while teams may know what outcomes they want to achieve, they do not know what will work. Programme design then builds in deliberate processes of testing, learning and experimentation. Putting learning at the centre of programmes means testing interventions iteratively or in parallel, then to carefully scale up those which are working. More programmes need to do this.

At the portfolio level, adaptive management means having a shared understanding of the change a country office is trying to achieve with its partners. These results may be quantifiable increases in well-being over the short-term, or major systemic or institutional changes. Testing, learning and experimentation then needs to focus on a country office’s contribution to these processes, based upon agreed theories of change.

Programmes and portfolios working in this way will demonstrate commitment to the broader principles of Doing Development Differently: by being problem-driven, locally-led and politically smart. The ability to be adaptive is a necessary condition for programmes to think and work politically.

What has DFID done so far?

Since the End to End review and adoption of the Smart Rules, DFID staff have worked to make the organisation fit for adaptive management. There are diverse examples of DFID programmes that have worked in this way, across sectoral work on governance, conflict, gender, private sector development and basic service delivery.

However, there remains work to be done to get the right authorising environment, skills and tools for DFID to be a world leader on this agenda. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) regularly flags the need for DFID to improve. In our our work, we’ve identified major challenges for programme design, procurement and contracting, management, and monitoring, evaluation and learning.

What should you expect from this blog?

While this project has been in place for over a year, it builds on years of shared thinking and practice between us. More recently, we’ve been focused on internal reforms, although we are increasingly working with many others in this space, such as through our workshop series.

In this blog, we will be sharing lessons from LearnAdapt from different perspectives within our team, including DFID staff, researchers and innovation specialists.

We hope you will join us by sharing lessons from your own efforts!

Disclaimer: This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.