Using adaptive management to improve learning

The role of adaptive management is often underplayed by social investors in terms of strengthening strategies, implementation and impact. Adaptive decisions are based on learning, data, reflection and analysis, and are responsive to changing contexts. Given that they focus more on “what works” instead of “what doesn’t”, they have a critical role to play in ensuring relevance and driving meaningful measurable change.

 Organisations in the social investment space need to adapt their strategies and learn continuously to proactively address community needs and deliver the best solutions. An important part of this process is for programme managers to step back and look at what they have learned, including analysing critical lessons in terms of what has been successful and what has failed. This kind of “adaptive” analysis allows organisations to improve their systems and implementation practices, as well as strengthen institutional memory. Armed with this type of data, they can then minimise mistakes, replicate and scale-up successful programme elements.

To ensure that adaptive management is successful, organisations must conduct four reality checks as part of the process. They must remain flexible; seek feedback; drive continuous review and share learnings.

Remaining flexible allows programme partners to apply funding received in the most effective way to drive results and change a component (or components) of the programme during implementation if there is evidence that it is not working.

Seeking feedback regularly from partners, beneficiaries and other stakeholders ensures that decision-makers keep track of what is happening on the ground and have access to the most up-to-date information.

Continuous programme review means monitoring data and conducting regular check-ins with field workers, programme and M&E managers to support learning during programme implementation.

Finally, sharing learnings requires using various platforms – internally and/or externally – to ensure that the “right” people have access to relevant and useful information. Internal platforms might include the intranet, notice boards and quarterly knowledge-sharing sessions, while external platforms could include conferences, workshops, communities of practice, meetings and publications.

In our own context, adaptive management has shaped how Tshikululu has packaged and provided social investment solutions for both clients and beneficiaries over the past 20 years. It is a methodology that we continue making use of. Internally, “lessons learned sessions” are conducted quarterly, allowing the team to re-examine social investment decisions, test our knowledge and explore new strategies. Team members learn from programme failures and take corrective action to continuously improve measurable impact. Externally, site visits, process and end-term evaluations are used to learn from programme partners working on the ground.

With approximately 1 000 social investments made on an annual basis, Tshikululu works with numerous partners in a wide variety of sectors in every corner of South Africa. We have used adaptive management as a tool to ensure these social investments remain relevant and effective, and deliver the best impact possible.