"Sorry, not my priority right now...": How to Get Your Organization to Adapt with You

Sep 19, 2017 | by Karri Byrne

I recently read that "Adaptive Management requires clear problem definition." The article I was reading went on to describe how a vision or project goal needs to be concrete enough to focus action, but broad enough to allow space for adaptation. That's good advice for institutional goals too, but what happens when my problem is not your problem?

This might be the crux of the issue for many of us who fail to engage our colleagues in ideas or approaches of Adaptive Management. It becomes, in part, an issue of perspective. Our colleagues wonder why we keep banging on about something , and we don't understand why they won't help us. Sometimes we offer up a meeting to "talk things through" when what we really mean is we want to convince them they are wrong, or that they should help us despite how busy they are.

I've seen projects held up while a colleague "reviews the issue" - meaning it goes to a pile on their desk because they don't quite know what is needed - or a system or procedure has to be retro-fitted to accommodate the new project context. This is frustrating for all and does little to build positive working relationships.

Here, I share a couple of tips on how to take actions that can smoothly move the process of Adaptive Management:

  • Identify shared goals: As early as possible, come together to discuss the big picture and see how other teams may be asked to contribute in the future. New projects are always exciting to start up, and this can be a great place to help others understand the big picture and set a precedent for collaboration in the future. Doing this early on can mean avoiding (or at least reducing) future problems; but it is never too late to adopt this approach. Even mid-project, bringing teams together to discuss how to work better/differently (rather than focusing on tasks and to-do lists) can make a huge difference.
  • Stay focused on what you really want: This is adaptive management at work, so make sure you are open to other solutions. If the team you are working with says "no", make sure you understand why, have clarity about what you really need, and ask them for help in finding a solution. If you know what you need (as opposed to what you want, or what you originally assumed would be possible) and in what timeframe, there may be other options. Do you need that specific report, or is it about having appropriate documentation generally? Could work be done concurrently or by a different team member? Narrowing your focus on what you really need can go a long way in getting others onboard.
  • Don't make your failure to communicate the fault of others: This happens a lot between programs and operations staff. We often forget to tell others about our deadlines and then blame them for not moving quickly. Find out about their deadlines, make sure they understand yours, and talk through a schedule when it comes to critical program pieces that need support from multiple teams.
  • Decide on how to decide: Because Adaptive Management requires a series of small adjustments, over time, it can feel like nothing is ever completed, or procedures are constantly being re-written. Although there is plenty of discussion on making time and space for reflection, dialogue is not decision-making. So as early as possible, decide how and by whom decisions will be made. Think about who genuinely wants to be involved in the decisions, who has expertise that is needed , whose cooperation you may need for changes, and how many people to involve. Once you have decided, make sure you document it.
  • Remember to say please and thank you: Good manners and kindness can take you farther than you imagine. Remember to thank people who go out of their way for you, and it is likely they will be willing to help you out the next time you are in a pinch. Be respectful of people's time, and they will feel less frustrated by the extra time that adaptation sometimes takes.

Learning at #SEEP2017

Join us at the 2017 SEEP Annual Conference, where we will be presenting a Peer Learning Session titled, "Understanding Incentives: Making Changes that Matter" to hear how members of BEAM Exchange's Adaptive Management Steering Committee addressed some of these challenges. You may also read BEAM Exchange's research "The Road to Adaptive Management" to dive deeper into the issues behind why many people and organizations struggle with adaptive approaches. Understanding what's behind the "no" can help you get to shared goals more quickly, and set you off on the path of adaptive management.

Goals can be modified and refined as a project matures, but working collaboratively will pay off in the long run: getting your project off to a good start, helping you learn more quickly, and preparing you to weather the bumps along the way.

Karri Goeldner Byrne brings over 20 years of leadership and management experience from some of the world's most challenging environments, including Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Bosnia. Her interest in adaptive approaches was born from her time as Chief of Party in Ethiopia and her recent research for BEAM Exchange. In her role an independent consultant, Karri has helped several organizations refine their management processes to encourage more adaptive approaches and to design adaptive market system programs. As former USAID staff, she brings both donor and implementer perspectives to her work on market systems. Karri has also played a significant role in bringing business thinking to humanitarian settings with her work on the development of the EMMA Toolkit and her long-standing commitment to the MERS Guidelines.

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