Lessons for Learning and Adaptation

As you consider a learning and adaptation approach for your project, keep in mind several lessons that other organizations have gained from their own experience in learning and adaptation.

Lesson 1 – Learning and adaptation are integral

It is strongly recommended that you integrate learning and adaptation into your program design from the very beginning and not as an add-on after activities are underway.

Lesson 2 – Organizations need to build their own capacities


Staffing and adaptive learning
USAID's Help! I'm hiring new staff, and I want them to work adaptively is a tool to help organizations increase their chances of selecting staff skilled in adaptive management by providing information on competencies to look for, qualifications to include in position descriptions, and interview questions to help assess candidates' competencies.

Adaptive Management: What it means for CSOs also recommends looking at other ways to assess these competencies; for example, by requesting evidence of learning behavior in applications or by including scenario-based or role-play exercises within interview processes.

Organizations have identified certain competencies and characteristics that enable teams to learn and adapt more effectively. This resource identifies curiosity, interest in learning, and openness to risk-taking as characteristics that enable team members to learn and adapt. In addition, team members who will play key technical roles in implementing your approach should have the necessary technical skills, knowledge, and tools to fill these roles effectively.


Lesson 3 – Develop a supportive culture for learning and adaptation

Learning and adaptation would be difficult without a supportive organizational culture and the buy-in from key stakeholders involved in your project. Key aspects of an adaptive organizational culture can be found in these two resources: 

Find these in our resource library

Ensuring that the leadership of your organization and other key partners or donors understand your learning and adaptation approach and are willing to provide the necessary resource and decision-making support is also an important consideration.

Lesson 4 – Learning and adaptation involve all staff

While learning and adaptation is often coordinated by a dedicated team with relevant technical skills, for learning and adaptation to be effective, it should engage all those who are involved in project implementation (including M&E, program, technical, finance, and operational staff as well as beneficiaries, partners, and funders).

Lesson 5 – Learning and adaptation require resources and processes

Organizations should allocate resources (staff time and funds) for data collection for learning and adaptation, as well as for planning for and implementing any changes that stem from learning. Organizations should establish a balance between good financial management and accountability practices to enable necessary adaptations. For more information on balancing adaptability and accountability, refer to the text box below. 

Balancing Adaptability and Accountability

“If internal key performance indicators all show ‘red’ when a project deviates from its original budget or delivery plan, or if staff get negative performance reviews for not delivering according to plan or for not achieving planned results having taken responsible risks, adaptation will be inhibited. Tracking of progress is still central to adaptive management, but in the face of evidence that work is off track, a reflective rather than a controlling response is needed. For complex problems, being off-track is almost inevitable. It is more appropriate for accountability mechanisms in such contexts to look for indicators of adaptive behavior. These include evidence of feedback and learning being generated and used to understand progress and why things may be off-track, and for making course-corrections.”


Lesson 6 – Empower the implementing team for decision-making

Project teams should be empowered to make decisions based on learning and feel confident that their decisions on adaptations will be applied. This means that the leadership of your organization should trust and support staff who are doing the work (and who usually have valuable contextual and programmatic knowledge) to make decisions and take actions to adapt quickly as necessary.

Implementation Tip

Key Considerations for Learning and Adaptation

Managing Complexity: Adaptive Management at Mercy Corps draws on the organization’s experience by outlining the main components and guiding questions for four core elements underpinning adaptive management: (1) organizational culture, (2) people and skills, (3) tools and systems, and (4) enabling environment.