Case Study

Ethnography for Institutional Innovation

How turning the research lens on itself helped USAID innovate into the future.

map of uganda, indonesia, and zimbabwe

USAID’s Global Development Lab was created to leverage the promise of science, technology, innovation, and partnership within the Agency’s work to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. The Lab understands that USAID’s impact is contingent on its ability to practice “adaptive management;” that is, to refine programming in response to observed shifts in progress and impact. But USAID has a number of structural factors that inhibit the adaptiveness of its staff and partners. The Lab engaged Reboot to conduct an institutional ethnography to identify and offer strategic advice for overcoming these barriers, focusing especially on ways that data and digital technology might be better used to support adaptive management and increase impact. We conducted research with three innovative USAID missions, gathering data from more than 200 respondents and providing strategic advisory across the Agency. We examined pioneering programs that were creating exceptional impact (despite facing the same institutional barriers) to create a rich, nuanced portrait of the factors that help or hinder adaptive management and innovation at USAID—and that have implications for the larger development field. Our recommendations and facilitated discussions with executives across the Agency are now informing significant organizational design initiatives at USAID.

A longstanding criticism of the international development field is its unrealistic desire for certainty and over-dependence on linear planning. In a complex and changing world, many of the institutional policies and systems that prioritize rigid forward planning, strict fiscal discipline, and routine quantitative evaluations end up hamstringing programs and undermining their impact. A new movement seeks to counter this pattern: “Adaptive management” is the practice of adapting and iterating programs continuously, throughout implementation, in response to observed shifts in progress. Especially in a new era of technology-supported, data-driven programming, adaptive management is more feasible than ever before.

That’s why the Global Development Lab at USAID is committed to increasing the practice of adaptive management throughout the Agency. The Lab was created with the mandate to harness the power of science, technology, innovation, and partnerships to accelerate development impact across the Agency’s work; it realized early on that USAID’s ability to innovate and exponentially increase its impact is largely influenced by its ability to practice adaptive management. However, it was clear that a number of institutional barriers prevented programs from working adaptively. And it was even less clear, in the complexity of USAID’s operations and contexts, which of these institutional barriers were the most impactful, and how USAID might best prioritize strategies for change. To find a way forward, the Lab engaged Reboot to analyze these barriers and advise on strategies for addressing them.

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