An experimental mindset to develop agile interventions in crisis countries

How UNDP is introducing Adaptive Management Practices in crisis countries.

3 min readMay 10, 2022
Photo: Ibrahim Nagi, UNDP Yemen

By Joerg Kuehnel

Leaders and practitioners working in conflict-affected and fragile settings are exploring new strategies for agile problem-solving and creating impact in their countries even through volatile, complex and sometimes chaotic circumstances.

Yemen, Madagascar, Palestine and Guatemala country offices are the first to pilot adaptive management learning loops supported by UNDP Crisis Bureau.

The aim is to show that continuous experimentation and intentional learning to improve intervention results can better position programming towards attaining sustainable development goals, reducing uncertainty and increasing resilience in the face of change.

We’ve noticed that current processes aren’t leading to adaptation, so we spend time diagnosing and considering how we can encourage more adaptability — despite the rules, not because of them.

Country managers have always needed to adapt programming to changing circumstances and realign projects that didn’t meet expected outcomes. Still, regulations and the predominant organizational culture don’t facilitate these processes.

Especially volatile complex crisis contexts require a high level of agility—and UNDP offices who succeed in adapting to rapidly changing circumstances do so because of individuals' efforts rather than existing systems.

An adaptive management approach gives these managers and practitioners a framework to continuously test new development ideas, learn from those tests, and apply what they learned — this is called a learning loop — and the cycle can repeat itself as new information arises.

UNDP Crisis Bureau sees a need to systematize these learning loops in politically sensitive contexts at a country office level rather than leave it to individual efforts. The new adaptive management initiative supports teams on the ground to deliver despite the complex challenges they face.

Quotes collected during an introduction to adaptive management practices for UNDP country offices.

During early phases, we realized that this couldn’t be something we do for country offices — in fact, it must be co-created with country offices.

Adaptive management needs to be strongly driven and incentivized by country office leadership. If leaders aren’t driving experimentation with this new way of thinking, it won’t happen. Changing hearts and minds requires time and, most importantly, convincing examples and experiences.

Abstract discussions around value and approaches to adaptive management do little to bring people on board. However, when colleagues experienced how adaptive management contributes to resolving a concrete problem, their buy-in flows in.

  • In Guatemala, the team uses adaptive management to understand and act in real-time on the evolving institutional context marking the Rule of Law portfolio.
  • In Madagascar, country office colleagues are kick-starting their new long-term roadmap with adaptive management at its core, including developing a new system for monitoring context and the adaptable management of an area-based resilience & recovery portfolio.
  • In Palestine, UNDP is conducting its programme evaluation and designing a new strategy based on an adaptive management approach. The Gaza Sub Office is introducing adaptive management to inform portfolio-level learning and decision-making.
  • In Yemen, the country office has conducted its first learning loop that integrates real-time monitoring and decisions on programme adaptations.

Adaptive learning loops will take very different forms and shapes in each country, and we’re still learning about what makes sense for UNDP country offices as we implement these pilot opportunities. Based on that experience, we’re developing a standard guidance and pragmatic approach for political economy and conflict analysis to inform learning loops.

UNDP personnel enthusiastic about bringing ideas like this to their office can join the community of adaptive management practitioners — to learn from one another!




SURGE is UNDP Crisis Bureau’s signature solution for rapid and effective crisis response.