By switching to dark mode you can reduce the energy consumption of our digital service.

Bringing adaptive management to life: Insights from practice

The paper sets out a framework for an adaptive programme, including a set of essential core principles, to assist in integrating climate change adaptation into development planning.
Clavine Keiza


An adaptive programme management approach is well suited to address the complex and interconnected impacts of climate change facing developing countries. The pathway to adapting to climate change is unknown, and there are many deep-rooted institutional, political, economic and social barriers. Adaptive programmes can provide the flexibility to allow those delivering technical assistance to support governments to experiment with different entry-points for adaptation, and learn and adapt from successes and failures.

The Action on Climate Today (ACT) programme has been engaged with national and sub-national governments across South Asia over the last four years, to assist in integrating climate change adaptation into development planning and delivery. As the programme draws to a close, this learning brief reflects on some of the major lessons learned on the challenges and opportunities of using an adaptive programme management approach to support governments to adapt to climate change. It sets out a framework for an adaptive programme, including a set of essential core principles:

  1. An evolving Theory of Change;
  2. Locally-led and politically savvy delivery approach;
  3. Experimentation and learning; and
  4. Stakeholder alignment.

It also includes two sets of essential resources required: Management flexibility and the availability of adequate finances. The framework is illustrated with examples of the challenges ACT faced in operationalising this framework, and how the programme overcame them.

As the programme draws to a close, this Learning Paper* reflects on some of the major lessons learnt on the challenges and opportunities of using an adaptive programme management approach to support governments to adapt to climate change.

*Download the full paper from the right-hand column and follow the links below for more information.

An adaptive programme management framework

Based on learning from the programme, and the latest literature, ACT has developed a framework for defining the core principles of adaptive programme management, and the resources required (figure 1).

The core principles of adaptive programme management are as follows:

1. Evolving theory of change:

  • Adaptive management considers a theory of change to be something that can evolve.
  • Its validity, and the assumptions on which it is based, are constantly being tested through interaction with the real world.
  • Thus, monitoring the theory of change becomes an essential part of adaptive programme management.
  • The continuous measurement, assessment and interpretation of an intervention form the foundation of course correction in adaptive management.

2. Stakeholder alignment:

  • Adaptive management demands strong alignment with and cooperation between stakeholders, particularly the primary intended beneficiaries.
  • For example, if a programme suddenly changes the design of an intervention or continues with an intervention despite unfavourable circumstances, this will likely lead to friction with the local stakeholders, unless there is prior understanding and trusted relationships between the programme team and relevant stakeholders.

3. Experimentation and learning:

  • Adaptive management recognises that, while the overall objective of a complex intervention may be clear, often the route to achieving it is shrouded in mystery.
  • Therefore, it allows a programme the flexibility to experiment to discover the right solution as opposed to remaining fixated on a potentially wrong or untimely one.
  • Learning mechanisms need to be embedded across the length and breadth of the programme cycle, to facilitate contextual and timely decision-making.

​4. Locally led and politically savvy:

  • Adaptive management follows a collaborative approach whereby decision-making authority is delegated to the field level.
  • This means the management team does not perceive team members working daily with government partners and others as merely implementers of prescribed solutions but as active decision-makers.
  • They have a bigger say in the design of interventions and resource allocation.
  • This ensures programmes integrate local considerations and a strong understanding of the context into their decision-making process; utilise opportunities as and when they emerge; and avoid pitfalls.

5. Resource availability

  • Adaptive management is a resource-intensive exercise.
  • It requires the availability of adequate finance and time to carry out experiments, conduct analysis and make course corrections.
  • A programme needs to examine at the outset the availability and appetite for these functions through its duration.
  • In particular, there must be sufficient resources to cover the close and regular engagement and interaction by the core delivery team with government partners and other stakeholders.
  • There is a risk that the funder will see this as an overhead, whereas actually this time is critical to ensure the effectiveness of the programme and its frontline activities.

6. Management flexibility:

  • Adaptive management requires stakeholder commitment and understanding of its value proposition.
  • The management structure of the programme, stakeholder relationships, institutional design and decision-making processes must all be aligned and flexible enough to accommodate an adaptive management approach.
  • The management needs to assess the appetite for adaptive management from donors, key stakeholders, staff/teams and all those with oversight responsibility before embarking on this approach.

Challenges for adaptive management

An increasing number of programmes now attempt to follow the practice of adaptive management. However, there is limited evidence on how faithfully its principles have been adhered to, and what success they have yielded.

From the literature, as well as ACT’s experience, there are four main challenges to effectively using an adaptive programme management approach.

1. Economic and resource restraints:

  • Even when there is a strong and clear need, reasons of economic viability mean it can be difficult to implement adaptive management.
  • The management team of a programme must recognise the value of adaptive management and accept that time and resources will be foregone in search of insights and learnings.
  • Another challenge is to ensure the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.
    • For example, ACT commits resources to bringing together all location teams every quarter, to share learning, take stock of progress and collectively agree any change in approach.
    • This is essential to ensure the programme adapts from learning in real time, but it is difficult to quantify this benefit.

2. Institutional acceptance:

  • Lack of willingness of the funder and/or delivery partner to adopt adaptive management practices is arguably the most significant barrier to implementation of the approach.
  • Many organisations have a set of entrenched values and protocols that have brought desired outcomes in the past.
  • Adaptive management may therefore require an organisation to re-examine its operations and administrative management and systems, including financial management systems, the definition and measurement of milestones, targets and value for money, systems for delivering accountability, stakeholder relationships and others.
  • These may be difficult changes for an organisation to accept and implement.
  • Adaptive management may need to be applied not just to the programme being delivered but also to the organisation delivering it.

3. Knowledge and capacity constraints:

  • Adaptive management involves responding quickly to changes in the context and demand and new opportunities within a development programme.
  • It may mean that team members recruited to do a particular job are asked to adapt and deliver a different scope of work.
  • In adaptive management, team members are often pushed outside their comfort zone and asked to innovate.
  • This may lead to discomfort, disillusionment or loss of morale, although for others it provides the space to grow and develop new skills.
  • It can also sometimes be difficult to find the resources and individuals to fill any knowledge and skills gaps.
  • Personnel management is particularly important in this regard.
    • Senior management needs to be open and responsive to staff and stakeholder concerns.
    • A decentralised decision-making process also helps ensure staff have ownership over key decisions to adapt and change the scope of work.

4. Flexibility and accountability:

  • There is a risk that adaptive management will be used as an excuse to renege from commitments made to donors and dilute the accountability of the delivery partner to produce results.
  • Adaptive programmes need to put in place robust and transparent processes so they can be held accountable for decisions made.
  • After the initial year, ACT transitioned from monthly reports to DFID that provided progress status against outputs, to quarterly reports focusing more on progress against outcomes.
    • The monthly reporting and target-setting risked short-term thinking and missing out on new opportunities.
    • For the quarterly reports, ACT was able to set targets designed to focus on the outcome desired, rather than the output.
    • Innovative monitoring measures such as stories of change, documenting most significant failures, etc., also encouraged big picture thinking and team reflection.

Lessons learnt and recommendations (abridged)

The following set of recommendations for others designing and delivering adaptive programmes distil some of the cross-cutting lessons from ACT outlined in Sections 3 and 4 of the paper*:

Structure a programme around political decision-making structures:

  • Unlike programmes that are organised around themes (e.g. climate-resilient agriculture) or bureaucratic entities, ACT has focused clearly on supporting national and state governments as political entities to take action on climate change.
  • This means that a core consideration of the design and delivery of the programme has been the local political economy, which has been discussed and assessed regularly.

Allow enough time for planning:

  • ACT’s three month inception period was insufficient to translate the broad initial theory of change and logframe for the programme into a detailed set of programme and location strategies and specific workstreams.
  • The design of these strategies, and the intensive consultations that were required, took nearly a year more.
  • This time investment was essential as it meant the technical assistance was focused on the right entry points in each location and reflected the wider enabling environment.
  • However, ACT was able to justify the time it took only by carrying out limited pieces of technical and research support to the government in parallel.

Decentralised decision-making, as well as accountabilty for delivery:

  • ACT was always designed to be implemented through a local Team Leader in each location, to manage relationships with the government.
  • It became evident that the programme needed to empower these individuals with decision-making power and accountability.
  • The emphasis on accountability has grown over the course of the programme, with Team Leaders increasingly taking on a hands-on role of management of the work of experts and consultants in their location and ensuring high quality.

​Invest in the delivery team:

  • As an adaptive programme, ACT has made heavy demands on the local Team Leaders, and it was necessary to provide capacity support.
  • This meant providing additional local team members to support their work, but also offering training, mentoring from regional and international advisors and opportunities for the Team Leaders to learn from each other and others (such as through participation in global external events).
  • Decentralising responsibility to the local level did not always lessen the management burden of the regional team, and in fact it perhaps increased, as the management team had to provide intense support in some locations where progress was lacking.
  • At all levels, additional management capacity was brought in mid-way through the programme, which made an important difference to the efficiency and impact of ACT.
ACT’s results framework was focused on outcomes related to improving the resilience of vulnerable people, rather than outputs (image from page 23 of the report).

*For the full list of lessons learnt and reccommendations please see page 24 of the report.

ACT (Action on Climate Today) is an initiative funded with UK aid from the UK government and managed by Oxford Policy Management (OPM).

Since 2014 the Action on Climate Today (ACT) programme has been actively working in five South Asian countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan – to help national and sub-national governments plan for, and manage, the impacts of climate change in the water sector. The ACT programme has championed a Climate-Resilient Water Management (CRWM) approach as a way of increasing the resilience of water systems on which billions of people rely. The programme’s activities in this domain range from preparing urban flood management plans and adapting agriculture to increasing incidences to drought, to mainstreaming climate adaptation in water policies and estimating the future demand for water under different climate scenarios.

Find out more about the ACT programme in South Asia here:

Suggested citation

Arora, A., Gogoi, E., Joy, D., Kumar, P., Luthra, R., Pal, U., Pervaiz, A., Rumbaitis del Rio, C., 2019. Bringing adaptive management to life: Insights from practice. ACT.

Further reading

Add your project

Exchange your climate change adaptation projects and lessons learned with the global community.