Adaptive Management: In the Loop

Is your education project in places where the threat of conflict is ever-present, where militias, gangs, or just bullies are around the corner, and where one runs away from rather than toward security forces for help? These situations, in the words of Ben Ramalingam, present “wicked problems”, where:

  • Goals are difficult to define, often with powerful stakeholders diverging on personal, political and institutional interests;
  • Change requires shifts in culturally conditioned relationships and behavior;
  • Changes in relationships and behavior emerge through multiple interacting occasions; they are recursive and unpredictable;
  • Changes are spread across multiple actors, sectors, and contexts: governance, economics, health, education; in homes, communities, and in organizations;
  • Social change is difficult to measure, as it involves dynamic relationships, the exercise of power, organizational reforms and individuals’ behavior.

Are you being smart in the design of education programs and projects in these contexts? Are you ‘in the loop’ with adaptive management? In the provocative paper Development Entrepreneurship, Jaime Fustino and David Booth argue that the evidence is clear: i) institutions shape development outcomes, and ii) institutional reform involves power and politics. It is not just technical interventions – such as a new accelerated learning program (ALP), or a training program for teachers on a conflict-sensitive curriculum – that assures sustained access, safety and learning. Rather, we should learn from the private sector, where sustained social reforms are nurtured by starting small, and learning with smart feedback loops. It looks like this:

Achieving outcomes under uncertainty:
Feedback Loops

In the loop imageThere is a rich and growing literature about the importance of managing [education] development in conflict-affected environments using adaptive programming and feedback loops.   Faustino and Booth, drawing from research in the field, summarize what smart managers do when faced with these contexts:

  1. Use the logic that allows goals to emerge from the varied imagination and diverse aspirations of local committed leaders and the people you work with;
  2. Use monitoring for iterative learning: choosing “measures that matter.” These measures tell you, and your stakeholders and partners, how well you are moving towards meaningful outcomes.
  3. Learn by doing: start small, evolve from ‘educated guesses’ about what will work well based on feedback from measures that matter; use ‘failed attempts’ as opportunities to learn and improve;
  4. Evolve your theory of change based on this feedback. Drop what isn’t working; seek creative ways forward: “Successful interventions develop a series of time and context specific theories of change”.

Does this look like what you are able to accomplish with your Education in Crisis and Conflict program or project? If YES, share your experience, if NO, what are the barriers?

Posted in Design, Implement, Research and Evaluate for Better EiCC Programs, Theories of Change
One comment on “Adaptive Management: In the Loop
  1. Profile photo of Ash Hartwell Ash Hartwell says:

    A question on Adaptive Programming received from Christopher Maclay and Mercy Corps:

    I do have a question that has been bugging me recently. If we take the hypothesis that M&E to ‘improve’ programming is preferable to M&E just to ‘prove’ what we are doing, I would ask if we run into any challenges when combining it with other things which we see as preferable; namely, scale and localization. While the whole of the sector is under pressure to achieve impact at scale, and laudable efforts are being made to enhance localization, do these things make some of the pillars Mercy Corps outlined in its guidance on adaptive management (Culture, People, Tools, and Enabling Environment) harder to achieve?

    I saw a great presentation a few months back about scalability. Specifically, it was saying that to be scalable, something had to be boiled right down to the simplest constituent elements and only pushing those best bits. I don’t think I fully agree with it as a whole point (and I definitely disagree with the implications that the best bits can be predetermined and that a simplified and limited piece of the puzzle is good enough, but that’s another argument entirely) but I do find the broader point somewhat compelling, that things need to be simple to be scalable.

    I have been working on my current program – a youth employment initiative in Liberia – for 2+ years, and am only for the first time getting to a point where I’m happy with the work we’re doing. I am happy primarily because we’ve developed not just the M&E systems to allow for consistent improvement (rather than just proving what happened), but more importantly have developed a culture and cultivated the right people at the right levels. So while things are going well, they’re not ‘simple’. The individual pieces are simple enough, but the whole is not. Notably, the development of a culture does not come ‘simply’.

    As the Mercy Corps guideline explains, creating an adaptive management-friendly culture can involve everything from role modeling adaptive behaviors, to physical cues like a collaborative open plan office. These all come well beyond the ‘simple’ constituent elements of our youth employment model. Do you see a challenge between feedback loops/ adaptive management and simplicity? At a smaller scale and project-type focus, adaptive management still seems simple enough, but as things start building together (be it different projects as part of a program, or different field offices, etc) things do get much more complicated.

    Do you see a trade-off between simplicity and adaptive management? Is this a challenge for scalability and localization?

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