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.