Planning for compasses, not maps: The potential of adaptive management for international development
By Celina Kareiva, Communications Associate, BID Initiative
Feb 23, 2018
This is the first blog in a two-part series about adaptive management, including lessons from the BID Initiative.
International development has historically followed a top-down process that implements a static set of interventions guided by standardized practices, even as programs fail and circumstances change. But progress isn’t always linear. It’s often two steps forward and one step back – and sometimes it moves sideways.
Adaptive management recognizes the complexity of development challenges, and provides a framework to revisit and refine development strategies. It embraces flexibility and the unknown, and develops timelines and structured decision-making cycles that allow program implementers to deviate from the original plan. Adaptive management recognizes, for instance, that the first version of a mobile app to register home births may not meet all health worker needs, or that a tumultuous political landscape may render programs impossible to implement in their original form.
Adaptive management is not a new approach for global development, but it has only recently been embraced by the field more intentionally and systematically. If traditional management is analogous to a map, adaptive management is a compass. It offers direction and a path forward in the face of uncertainty about how the future will unfold.
Real-time data and digital tools can be a powerful instrument to advance these efforts. Digital platforms make it easy to assess progress and to revisit decisions along the way, instead of waiting for quarterly reports or midline assessments. Digital tools also democratize learning and decision-making, so that stakeholders at all levels of the health system can make meaningful use of data.
Changing the paradigm: Real-time data for adaptive management
Though many development agencies and programs pay lip service to adaptive management, few implement it at every phase of the project lifecycle, and even fewer iterate in a systematic manner. In the health sectors, adaptive management has taken root – largely out of necessity – in humanitarian and crisis settings. For example, during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the rapid spread of the disease necessitated an agile response. Programs that employed adaptive management and structured decision-making had a limited understanding of transmission methods early on, but provided guidance to limit the spread of the outbreak, then used their evolving understanding of the epidemic to change tactics in order to better meet the realities on the ground.
The benefits of adaptive management are not limited to humanitarian crises and disease outbreaks. Research suggests that agencies are most successful when they are able to operate flexibly and manage adaptively. Routine immunization programs, climate change experts, and clinical trials may also save money and lives by embracing a more nimble approach to implementation.
Re-tooling the field
Of course, these approaches come with risks. While it’s critical to stay nimble, ever-evolving strategies can become moving targets, making it difficult to know when a program has achieved success. Certain technologies and health areas may also limit the applicability of adaptive management. A mass drug administration campaign for neglected tropical diseases, for instance, may be less agile because it relies on strict distribution schedules that take into account work schedules, religious festivities and holidays to ensure high coverage.
Fortunately, the field is keen to innovate. New tools, participatory design processes, and frameworks for adaptive management allow for its practical application. USAID, for instance, has launched a learning network – Collaborating Learning and Adapting (CLA) – focused on building the evidence base for adaptive management in international development. The initiative includes the development of a CLA framework and maturity matrix created through an iterative, user-driven process. Mercy Corps, Oxfam International and the International Rescue Committee, among others, are also contributing to the evidence base. While there is need for additional research on the impacts of adaptive management on global development, the literature indicates that organizations and projects are much more likely to be successful if they increase their agility.
The BID Initiative is one such example of adaptive management at work. BID uses real-time data to advance principles of adaptive management both within the project and within national immunization programs. As a result, health workers at all levels are able to make better, faster, and more responsive decisions.
Read the second installment in this two-part series the week of March 5, to learn more about how the BID Initiative has applied principles of adaptive management throughout its project lifecycle.