What can be done to cultivate adaptive capacity?

We are avid followers of (and typically agreers with) Duncan Green’s insightful blogs on Oxfam’s From Poverty to Power. But a recent statement seemed to hit a false note: “Adaptive Management stands or falls on soft skills (emotional intelligence, empathy) that are extremely hard to train into people.” Green goes on to make the comparison to the difficulty in teaching people to dance—some of us got it, some of us don’t. His solution (to adaptive management, not dancing) is to “recruit the right people and give them the freedom to work adaptively.”

We can agree with the second part of that last statement without reservation: people throughout a project need the latitude to work adaptively.  But the idea that you have to recruit the right people seems to suggest that adaptive capacity is innate in some and out of reach for others—some of us got it, some of us don't.

Syntegral believes that we all have a capacity for adaption—we are just often constrained in exercising that capacity and from tapping our “inner adapter” by dozens of mundane daily cues that make us question the legitimacy of adaptation. We have manuals, logical frameworks, theories of change, checklists, performance evaluations etc. that reinforce the idea that there is a predetermined path—a right way—that must be followed if one is to be acknowledged as performing well. Thus, even though we may possess a degree of adaptive capacity and actually use it routinely, most implementers (and especially those on the frontline) 1) have not identified this as a relevant capacity, 2) are tacitly encouraged to see adaptation as a consequence of having done things wrong, and 2) have not been given the opportunity to systematically strengthening this capacity.

Syntegral argues that people throughout a project can gain knowledge and learn skills such as:

  1. Balancing the need to adapt an intervention to a local context while retaining “core” program principles.
  2. Clarifying tasks and their objectives and/or contesting others’ understandings of tasks to ensure that everyone is on the “same page.”
  3. Anticipating both system- and culture-related factors within a program that might inhibit adaptability.
  4. When adapting for scale, analyzing the “contexts of implementation” at both the site for which the activity was designed as well as at target sites.
  5. Identifying contextual elements most susceptible to variability and volatility and preparing practical work-arounds.
  6. Understanding the kinds of inputs needed for adaptive management so that they can actively contribute to that approach whether they are frontline workers, mid-level managers or policy and decision-makers.

So while, yes, an adaptive mindset might come more easily to some with certain life experiences, education and professional vantage points, significant knowledge and skills can be learned and practiced to strengthen practically anyone’s adaptive capacity.