Bridging Adaptive Management Theory and Practice
For international development programs to be effective, maximize performance, and be better stewards of resources, they must be able to successfully adapt in response to changes and new information. The ability to do so requires accepting that programmatic change does not usually follow linear and predictable paths, giving way to an environment that promotes learning and to a project design that is flexible. This flexibility minimizes the obstacles to program modifications and creates the space for adaptive management.
For some time, adaptive management has been the word on the street in global health and development. The global health community has come to embrace adaptation in its many forms: adaptive learning, course-correction, iteration, feedback loops, complexity-aware design, and CLA—but when it comes to program implementation, the processes and practices that are applied may be insufficient to promote and monitor change. As a result, organizations often miss the mark when it comes to when to change, what to change, why to change, and its result.
As a Knowledge Management (KM) practitioner, I recognize the importance of learning. I feel comfortable working in multidisciplinary spaces with cross-disciplinary teams—so people often come to me with questions about adaptive management (and CLA).
What does KM have to do with adaptive management? KM, at its core, aims to develop, strengthen, and institutionalize practices that improve performance to make work more efficient and effective and contribute to project and global learning. Often this is done by adapting and iterating.
This is not to say that adaptive management and KM are one and the same. KM, perhaps, is broader and has a greater variety of internal and external target audiences. At Management Sciences for Health (MSH), we’ve started using the term adaptive practice to describe the set of principles and approaches meant to foster the environment that is conducive to critical reflection, flexibility, and change where, ultimately, adaptation can happen.
Adaptive management contributes to good KM, and KM approaches can contribute to adaptive management. So it is critical that we understand adaptive management, and adapt to the new ways that stakeholders and donors are talking about efficiency, learning, and performance improvement, while improving the way that we monitor and evaluate our contributions. While we should improve the way we talk about adaptive management, we also have to prepare teams to actually practice it.
That is why I am excited that adaptive practice is now one of the new sections of the Global Health Knowledge Collaborative (GHKC) KM Indicator Library, developed in collaboration by MSH, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs (CCP), and other GHKC member organizations. The adaptive practice indicators, which were developed by MSH and Pathfinder, will help programs plan and monitor for adaptive management and are integrated across a logic model for KM in global health programs. The indicators are not just for outcomes in learning and action—but also for the key inputs, processes, and outputs that are needed to strengthen a culture of adaptive management.
This means that those of us working on KM have to think differently about some of our work. For instance, by reflecting on and monitoring the inputs and outputs of pausing and reflecting, communities of practice, technical documentation, and so forth.
I’ve tried to integrate adaptive practice into my KM support to various projects, programs, and initiatives by doing the following:
- Making the task of adaptive practice less daunting by focusing on what can be changed right now.
- Creating an environment where adaptation and course correction is small and frequent, so that change is seen as incremental rather than radical and amidst crisis.
- Remembering that “getting it kind of wrong” is an inherent quality of in innovation and learning.
- Supporting adaptation that is both intentional/systematic and organic/spontaneous.
I invite you, whether you're working in KM, global health, or other sectors, to take a look at the KM Indicator Library and the indicators for adaptive practice. What do you think?
The KM Indicator Library will be presented at “Tools to Build Better Programs: A Practical Workshop,” hosted by the K4Health project on Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Washington, D.C.