Megan CampbellApril 3, 2017

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The principles of responsive development go by many names: adaptive management; collaborating, learning and adapting; doing development differently. Whatever we call it, many of us recognize the need to be more responsive to our ultimate beneficiaries and the lessons we learn as we seek to serve them. But how do we operationalize responsiveness and adaptability?

That’s the question the Practical Adaptation Network (PAN) explored. PAN brought together champions of adaptive development who are committed to figuring out how to help their organizations be more adaptive in practice. PAN is structured around a process with baked-in feedback loops: champions from multiple agencies and institutions come together in teams for 100 day ‘Sprints.’ Each Sprint aims to produce a tangible, practical, useful deliverable that would help organizations be easily and efficiently operationalize adaptivity, in however small or large a way seemed feasible. Follow-up Sprints build on the work of previous Sprint Teams, creating up a ‘Sprint Relay.’ In the first PAN Sprint, participating Sprint teams embraced experimentation, failing fast, and rapid iterations. Their work has been impressive.

At the USAID Learning Lab’s Moving the Needle conference Duncan Green, who recently published How Change Happens, pointed out that the adaptive management movement “is messy and it goes by many names, but it is certainly a movement”. He observed that there is no core, but maybe that’s a good thing. It’s ok right now to have competing paradigms before one emerges; Green posits that we’re in the stage right now where paradigms are battling each other, and this is good because it strengthens each in turn.

PAN represents one of those competing paradigms – a focus on achieving adaptive management by focusing on the nitty-gritty operational details that inhibit, or encourage, adaptation. It represented the spirit of experimentation that can help strengthen the adaptive management movement. So what did PAN teach us?

  • Mentality matters. As Duncan said at the Moving the Needle conference, in much of the international development sphere it’s acceptable to fail in the old ways, but if you fail in new ways you’re in trouble. This mentality inhibits innovation. PAN Sprint Teams found that changing this mentality was just as important as changing processes. We need to find our way to a mentality that allows people to make new mistakes without derailing or discrediting the adaptive management movement.
  • Make it manageable. ‘Being responsive’ or ‘working adaptively’ can seem like a huge task, encompassing insurmountable challenges. PAN Sprint Teams found the 100 day period for the Sprint useful because it helped them focus on a manageable, feasible change. Incremental change is very much worth celebrating, and the Relay nature of the Sprints gives confidence that small changes can have a ratcheting effect in moving practice forward.
  • Coordination is key. PAN Sprint Teams were focused on making magic happen, and the Sprint Relay process was there to support them. The teams were running hard – the process provided the track to run on. Having that infrastructure is important – coordination doesn’t necessarily happen all on its own, we need to invest in supporting it.

So how do you support a movement without a core, one that goes by many names? The experiences of the Practical Adaptation Network suggest that it’s important to invest in mentality changes, breaking the challenge of adaptive management into manageable pieces, and coordination. What have you found to be the keys to making adaptation possible in practice?


This research is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of Feedback Labs and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.


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