Mapping the Landscape of Adaptive Practice: An Interactive Workshop

What was this event? Why did we have it?

The ‘Complexity&Praxis’ Community of Practice held its first, interactive, community-building event on June 16, 2016 at FHI360’s conference center in Washington, DC. The event brought together over 30 participants representing many different organizations working in a variety of sectors including many working in international development.  Organizations represented included: AdaptivePurpose, Camris, Dexis, FHI360, Heroic Improvisation, IRI, FSG, Global Integrity, PSI, Pathfinder, MSH, Root Change, Social Solutions, USAID LEARN as well as independent consultants.

The purpose of the event was to facilitate a discussion about the largely undefined realm of adaptive practice and provide an interactive community-building experience to help build connections between practitioners operating in this realm and inform planning for our growing community of practice.

Another aim of this event was to gain a better understanding of the landscape of actors advancing knowledge and practice in this realm; their theoretical foundations; and possible connections.  The event included an introduction to the ‘Complexity&Praxis’ community; a brief initial literature scan presentation; a participatory mapping activity; and a concluding discussion.  

Then, participants were divided into 3 smaller groups to engage in an interactive mapping exercise with the aim to identify organizations working in this space; and explore what is informing their approach and explore linkages. Group members placed organizations along a spectrum from low to high levels of adaptive practice which was determined by the participants in each group.  Participants also elaborated on some of the linkages between the organizations mapped and discussed emerging trends.  

In the closing session, each group shared their maps with all other participants and shared experiences with the exercise and initial observations.

What happened? 

The event was kicked off by Kirsten Collins, Managing Director of AdaptivePurpose, who gave an overview of the ‘Complexity&Praxis’ community of practice (see attached slides) before introducing Luis Ortiz of MSH.  Luis and his colleague, Jenn Cardno shared a brief presentation of their findings from an initial literature scan to identify organizations currently discussing, implementing or measuring ‘adaptive practices’.  This included an analysis of 16 organizations and their initiatives, publications, and measurement efforts.

Key takeaways

  • Many participants have the interest or responsibility to track adaptive management topics.  The dynamic nature of current research and players, however, makes it hard to keep up with the state of the art. The mapping exercise was an opportunity to share our individual knowledge and see how it fits in the greater picture as described by our peers.
  • We learned that the landscape of adaptive practice is diverse, spanning across sectoral work and disciplines.
  • There is a great deal of inertia to adopting more systemic and adaptive approaches. The organizations that are measuring these adaptive practices are not releasing the information because it is uncertain and often hard to quantify. There is also a heavy investment needed to create interest in these practices, with very few supporters from the funding side.
  • Most organizations mapped were “northern” organizations reflecting the participants in the room and the dominance of these organizations in the conversation on adaptive practice.   These conversations are (with some exception) not translating much into the work that is happening at the country level, however.  Some organizations in Africa are using adaptive practices, but as workarounds for inflexible traditional structures.
  • While some agencies are documenting their theories and ideas on adaptive practice, many are not, but are operationalizing it through their work practices. The country level actors doing this work are not writing about it since many local organizations have no incentive to publish.  
  • The organizations that are measuring adaptive practices are not publicly sharing much of this information.
  • There is a great deal of inertia to adopting more systemic and adaptive approaches. The larger organizations tend to have more trouble.  While it is possible to have adaptive projects, it is harder to integrate these practices organization-wide as there are more barriers to learning in bigger organizations. Some of the resistance in CLA (USAID), for example, is because of the upfront cost and because people are risk-averse.  When lives are at stake, there is tremendous fear of failure.  Other barriers include prescriptive work plans and the contribution vs. attribution debate.
  • There is a disconnect in Washington with the learning that happens on the ground.  While it is easy to justify learning on the ground because it is practical, it becomes theoretical and disconnected in Washington.  So how do we incentivize knowledge management?