Learning and Adaptation Components

Although models and tools for applying learning and adaptation vary, some common components may be helpful to incorporate into your approach. The components below are derived from several key resources on adaptive management referenced in the Resources section of this module.

Component 1 – Flexible design approaches

To enable adaptability, projects should define higher-level goals and outcomes, accompanied by management and M&E approaches that prioritize accountability. Progress should focus on high-level goals and outcomes and on learning, rather than on pre-defined implementation plans and milestones. Ask, “did we do the right thing?” rather than, “did we do what we said we would do?”


Clustering, layering, and sequencing

USAID/OTI's action learning and incremental approach and their use of clustering, layering, and sequencing of activities is an example of a flexible design that is conducive to learning and adaptation and suitable for P/CVE. For more information refer to the Implement Module.

Designing a Complexity-Aware Theory of Change (ToC)

In cases where there is a high degree of complexity, a complexity-aware TOC should be developed. Complexity-aware strategies are useful for ToCs in general, but they become especially important in complex contexts. These include:

  1. Beginning with the "end in mind." Complexity-aware ToCs focus especially on defining the problem and describing higher-level outcomes that the project hopes to achieve, while leaving lower-level outcomes undefined or illustrative to allow for a more iterative theory of how the project is expected to achieve these outcomes.
  2. Acknowledging uncertainty. Complexity-aware ToCs acknowledge where there is uncertainty, either because the context is changing rapidly, or because more analysis is needed, or because there are so many variables affecting outcomes that cause-and-effect relations are not predictable or repeatable (or are only perceivable in retrospect).
  3. Identifying assumptions made at the time of design. It is important to explicitly identify the major assumptions on which the TOC has been based.
  4. Establishing a robust monitoring framework. Once the team has acknowledged areas of uncertainty and identified major assumptions, the team should establish a robust monitoring framework that it can use to assess the TOC and its underlying assumptions during implementation.
  5. Planning to adapt. Finally, the team needs to plan to adapt, and that means building in the ability to learn and adjust from the very beginning. 

For more information on designing your project and developing a TOC, refer to the Design module


Component 2 – Testing and learning

Testing and learning are particularly relevant when you engage multiple approaches or activities to achieve your project’s goal, but you don’t have evidence to support one activity over another (see section on Parallel Learning). Investing limited resources (e.g., time, funds, and staff) to test different approaches and activities enables you to identify and build on what is successful and learn from and possibly scale down or stop unsuccessful activities. For more information about a testing and learning process called “lean testing,” refer to this blog which also describes how lean testing is applied in Liberia. As described in this resource from Mercy Corps, piloting, testing, and adapting multiple ideas is a core component of adaptive management.

Component 3 – Create opportunities to reflect and learn

Taking the time to reflect on lessons and how to act on them is an essential part of adaptive management. Methods can range from “Pause and Reflect” moments during regular team coordination meetings to a one-day project review workshop each quarter. These reflection and review sessions help to: identify what’s working and what needs adapting; consider the impact of changes in the operating environment or context; and assess the validity of the theory of change underlying a project. As a result of reflection and learning activities, teams determine which adaptations are needed for project activities.

Component 4 – Context monitoring and analysis

Understanding the local context is a key part of the Assess Phase of a project, but it is also important to note that this context will inevitably change during implementation. Context Monitoring (described in the Methods and Tools section) enables your project team to understand, navigate, and adapt to changes. The risk and security assessment and management processes reviewed in the Implement Module are useful first steps for identifying some of the critical elements for context monitoring. However, context monitoring and analysis should not be confined to the Assess Phase or the risk assessment, but should be integrated throughout the project.

Component 5 – Feedback loops

Feedback involves collecting information and insights from staff, local partners, community members, and program participants. This resource suggests that listening and soliciting analysis and feedback from the community is critical to supporting local peacebuilding efforts, which also applies to the P/CVE field. An effective feedback loop begins with feedback collection and analysis and requires “closing the loop” by identifying and then taking corrective action. Feedback loops can also play an important role in stakeholder engagement. This resource shows that when stakeholders understand and observe how their feedback is informing project design, stronger buy-in occurs, which in turn leads to more robust learning and improved adaptation.

Component 6 – Documenting adaptations

When you make adaptations, be sure to document the changes and keep clear records of decisions and adaptations. Keeping a record of adaptations and the rationale for implementing changes allows the team to develop lessons learned that could inform P/CVE activities in the same communities or elsewhere. In addition, documenting the rationale and decision-making process behind adaptations is a useful accountability tool when reporting to donors and communicating with project partners. The Asia Foundation’s quick reference document provides guidance on documenting adaptations to your project.

Component 7 – Create a plan for learning and adaptation

Organize your learning and adaptation approach and methods as part of a plan that includes planning documents such as a Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning plan. Please use this worksheet to practice developing your own learning and adaptation plan.

Implementation Tip

Develop a learning agenda

USAID's CLA Toolkit includes a section on Learning Agendas with guidance and a template for developing a learning agenda.