Adaptive management and innovation

What can we learn by joining up our thinking?

In international development, acronyms and synonyms abound.

I’m a long time champion of ‘adaptive management’, a phrase that can (arguably!) be swapped with a host of acronyms like DDD (Doing Development Differently), TWP (Thinking and Working Politically), PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation).

To over-simplify, these speak to the need for teams, programmes and organisations to sense and respond, so they can adapt to what’s most relevant and effective on the ground.

There’s another synonym for adaptive management I’ve noticed in the couple of years: innovation.

This synonym is surprising (and not just because it’s not an acronym), because ‘innovation’ has sometimes felt rather ‘other’ to me. For many years I found it lived in a different team, a separate department, or a standalone programme. Perhaps even with special toilets and decor, as our co-founder Lea talks about in her post, here.

It wasn’t until I joined an innovation consultancy called Brink that the similarities in concepts that language had hidden became clearer.

Both adaptive management and innovation are grounded in the recognition that we need better (and not necessarily new) solutions to the complex problems in the world.

Adaptive management emerged because, when tackling complex challenges, you can’t plan everything up front.

In my experience, the context, relationships, systems and incentives shape what’s possible on a programme. It takes time to learn about these, to build relationships, test what works and iterate in response. Rather than implementing an initiative with our heads down looking at a pre-formed plan of action, adaptive management demands that we look up and around, notice what’s happening in the systems around us, listen to external feedback, and respond.

The same is true of innovation, where we think big, then start small and try to get better, quicker. Innovation encourages us to be intentional in experimenting and testing assumptions. Reflecting, learning and adapting are fundamental tenets of a ‘sprint’ — innovation language for a short burst of work that brings teams together around a task.

What are the benefits of bringing together our thinking on innovation and adaptive management?

Adaptive management could learn from the intentionality of testing and experimenting, the rigour of writing (and testing) hypotheses, and the swarming of cross-functional teams around a problem.

And perhaps adaptive management can share lessons in embedding or mainstreaming an approach across an organisation. Over time, we have learned how to create the context for adaptive management at a team, consortium, or organisational level.

For us at Brink we use the framing of Behavioural Innovation to understand the mindsets, mechanisms, and methods that enable innovation.

Keep your eyes peeled for our next post on how we use Behavioural Innovation to create the context for innovation, then we can dance around a triangle: exploring mindsets, mechanisms and methods.