Author: Allana , Amir
Year: 2014
Full Citation: Allana, A. (2014). Navigating complexity: Adaptive management at the Northern Karamoja Growth, Health, and Governance Program. Toronto, Canada: Engineers Without Borders. Retrieved from
Overview: Traditional project management practices work for ordered, albeit complicated, activities such as food distribution and the construction of infrastructure, where executing a predictable set of tasks will likely lead to a successful outcome. They fall woefully short in activities that aim to create systemic change, where programs must experiment, learn, and adapt. This paper captures some lessons and examples from building a culture of learning and adaptation at Mercy Corps Uganda’s Northern Karamoja Growth, Health, and Governance Program (GHG).
Findings: Some salient findings include:
  • Office culture is fundamental. A learning culture hinges on the behaviors and beliefs of the people on the team – management and employees. Examples of such behaviors are curiosity, deep levels of engagement with work, admitting failure openly, and hotly debating strategy. This culture transcends rules, processes, and structures. It is highly informal, and takes time and effort to build.
  • The importance of consistent messaging from management. Senior management must send regular and clear signals encouraging desired behaviors, and what the priorities are. These signals must be consistent. Mixed signals are particularly dangerous because they result in a loss of trust and create anxiety, which in turn prevents open sharing and learning.
  • Tools and processes support learning behavior, they do not create it. Staff do not learn and adapt because a process forces them to; rather, they do it because of the way their roles are defined, because of coaching and mentorship from management, and because of their underlying beliefs about their roles. Tools and processes reinforce behaviors once they’ve been formed.

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