Adaptive Management: Nice Idea, How Do You Do It?

Recent Evidence from the Field

Students in KenyaMany practitioners struggle with program design and management of education projects in places where the threat of conflict is ever-present, where militias, gangs, and even just bullies are right around the corner. Recent reports from the field provide insight and tools on adaptive management and feedback loops, the core of USAID’s Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) approach.

The Asia Foundation: Strategic Testing

For several decades, The Asia Foundation has led the field in developing programs that emphasize experimentation, building strong relationships and deep knowledge, and maintaining tight feedback loops between learning and action.  Their recent paper, Strategic Testing: An Innovative Approach to Monitoring Highly Flexible Aid Programs, describes the application of a system to track theories of change (ToC) that address complex development problems through a highly iterative, adaptive approach. The strategic testing (ST) approach involves the following:

  1. The program team and stakeholders articulate their collective understanding of the problem the program aims to address, the key factors perpetuating the problem, the binding constraints to change, and the team’s best supposition about the most likely path to change. They recognize that the ToC is likely incomplete and will evolve over time as they build relationships, gather information, experiment, and most importantly, reflect on what is working and what is not.
  2. Approximately 4 months after developing the initial ToC, the team conducts its first ST exercise, which is repeated approximately every 3 or 4 months. This exercise involves the following steps:
    1. Review what has happened since the start of the program, key changes affecting outcomes, and what they have learned;
    2. Critically assess this information to determine what they need to do to strengthen their ToC and adjust the program (this process is guided by “ST Review Guiding Questions”);
    3. Refine or adjust, as necessary, both the program outcomes as well as the strategies and activities to achieve these, dropping those activities that have proven ineffective and adding new strategies to address dimensions not well understood;
    4. Document how and why the ToC has been revised, identifying related programmatic, operational, or budgetary implications (using an “Adjustment to the Theory of Change” form).

The Asia Foundation has completed four cycles of ST as of August 2015; the approach is used by 16 programs across 10 countries working on development problems that range from reforming energy policy in Bangladesh to improving urban services in Phnom Penh.  It is proving to be an effective system for program teams to embrace a flexible program approach and make strategic adjustments that increase the likelihood of program impact.

Liberia: Realtime M&E for Adaptive Youth Employment Programming

Our Youth, Livelihoods and Feedback Loops blog published in January reported on Mercy Corps’ innovative PROSPECTS Youth Livelihoods project in Liberia, where M&E seeks not only to prove project effectiveness, but to improve ongoing strategies and activities.  Rather than waiting until the program is complete before doing an impact evaluation, PROSPECTS captures early outcomes using a dashboard to track impacts.  Based on the analysis of that feedback, project staff incorporate the insights of front-line workers and form action plans on what needs to be done differently going forward, including setting new targets. Prospects Practice Paper No.2 describes this system in detail, including the tools and formats used for gathering, presenting, analyzing and utilizing the feedback. Stay tuned as PROSPECTS continues to both innovate and evaluate for better outcomes in the complex, changing environment of youth livelihoods in Liberia.

You are invited to share your stories, experience, and grounded research related to adaptive management and the CLA approach for education in crisis and conflict-affected contexts in the comment section below.

Posted in Design, Implement, Research and Evaluate for Better EiCC Programs, Theories of Change
2 comments on “Adaptive Management: Nice Idea, How Do You Do It?
  1. Profile photo of Ash Hartwell Ash Hartwell says:

    Thanks for this comment and suggestion Monalisa – we have found the Learning Lab’s CLA site, materials and initiatives inspiring and this has helped to guide the development of our two field workshops: see

    http://eccnetwork.net/category/eccn-field-workshops/

    We hope to identify and support members of the USAID-ECCN Community of Practice, so as to highlight evidence of the application and effectiveness of a CLA approach in programs of education in crisis and conflict-affected contexts.

    And we expect to use this approach in forthcoming workshop/training designs, and look forward to further collaboration with PPL/CLA.

  2. Thanks for referencing USAID’s Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA). It is no doubt very much in line with your Strategic Testing approach. We have a portion of the CLA framework focused on Learning, and under that we focus on Theories of Change, which includes articulating, testing and exploring, and updating theories of change so it’s great to see a practical approach to get this done (for a bit more on how we think about learning, you can see this blog

    All of the findings you have in your report about what it takes to implement the strategic testing approach align with what we’ve found in our internal assessments at USAID and with implementing partners. I’m wondering if you have done or plan to do a study on what difference taking this approach has made on your programming? Do you have cases or examples of where strategic testing has led to improvements in how you function as an organization or to your programming? This is an area of work we are currently trying to explore. I encourage you to submit a CLA case competition entry this year about your work. Sounds very interesting!

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