By Nigel Simister

Adaptive management is a broad approach designed to support development or humanitarian programmes in complex or uncertain environments. Complex programmes are by their nature unpredictable and are subject to many different influences.

This means that similar programmes operating in different environments can generate widely different results, even though the plans developed and actions taken were the same.

Adaptive management is often contrasted to traditional approaches to planning and implementation. In traditional approaches, programmes are designed and planned at the start, and implementation largely adheres to those plans throughout the programme lifetime.

A key assumption of adaptive management, on the other hand, is that programmes use a flexible and exploratory approach. Of course all programmes may change throughout their lifetime, but adaptive management explicitly acknowledges this and recognises that solutions are not known beforehand (BOND 2016).

NGOs practicing adaptive management therefore have to learn on an ongoing basis, and use that learning to constantly adapt and refine programmes. To do this, they need regular processes for collecting, analysing and using information.


Is it really new?

But while adaptive management may be a relatively new concept in some quarters, it is not new for staff embedded within the M&E teams of large NGOs based in both the North and the South. For many years they have been grappling with issues around how to use regular information to support decision-making at organisational level, whilst at the same time serving the accountability and communications needs of their organisations. Their knowledge and experience is relevant because NGOs operating large programmes spread across multiple geographical areas and sectors are by definition implementing highly complex programmes.

Unfortunately, much of this knowledge and experience is not in the public domain, possibly because the audience for papers and articles is smaller than for those aimed at the evaluation community. An important step is therefore to ensure that the knowledge and experience that exists within NGO M&E teams is recognised and placed in the public domain so that it can be combined with the knowledge coming out of the evaluation and research communities.


Interest is growing but what are the implications?

Interest is growing in adaptive management, and it may become mainstream thinking for many NGOs in the future. But this has many implications for how complex programmes are managed (see Giordano 2017, Rogers 2017, BOND 2016):

Ongoing design and planning

In traditional approaches, design and planning is carried out at the beginning of a programme, and plans are assumed to be relevant throughout that programme, allowing for minor course corrections.

Under adaptive management, flexible intervention plans are developed in the knowledge that they are likely to change. Design and planning therefore becomes more of an ongoing process, constantly reacting to emerging results and learning, as well as external changes and events.

Dealing with contested evidence

Adaptive management recognises the need to change programmes based on emerging evidence. But evidence in complex situations is often incomplete, contradictory or contested. Situations may look very different according to different stakeholder perspectives.

Organisations using adaptive management need to ensure that different views are sought before making management decisions. The risk otherwise is that the most powerful (or loudest) can manipulate the process.

Focus on higher-level outcomes

Because course corrections are the norm rather than the exception, there is little point in holding NGOs that are implementing complex programmes accountable for pre-defined activities or outputs.

Instead, accountability to donors or funders needs to focus on higher-level outcomes / impact (depending on the definition being used) or on how well a programme learns and adapts in pursuit of its goals.

Delegation for decision-making

If complex programmes are to change direction regularly and rapidly, responsibility for decision-making increasingly needs to be delegated to staff and/or beneficiaries who are closest to the programme work, and therefore have the best knowledge of how a programme is evolving.

Flexible budgets and results framework

Perhaps the most important implication for donors (including large International NGOs or multilateral agencies that work through partners) is the need for flexible budgets and results frameworks that allow complex programmes to be constantly reviewed and adapted. There is no point in spending time and resources learning that something needs to change if an NGO is then unable to implement that change because the wider system doesn’t allow it.


To make all this work, adaptive management requires rapid cycles of planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning to support continuous change. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) needs to be fully integrated with planning and learning for ongoing testing, experimentation, review and re-planning during the implementation of a complex programme. In theory this may sound quite easy, but in fact it is very difficult to do well. And it has profound implications for how M&E should be conducted within complex programmes, as I explore in my next blog.



O’Donnell, M. (2016). Adaptive management: What it means for CSOs. BOND, London, UK.

Giordano, N (2017). Monitoring, evaluation and learning: Adaptive management to achieve impact results. Care International.

Rogers, P (2017). Does evaluation need to be done differently to support adaptive management? Better Evaluation.