Home Blog & Media Adaptive and Program Management: Coaching the Same Team

Adaptive and Program Management: Coaching the Same Team

November 2, 2017

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Lisa Robbins-Garland

Senior Program Management Advisor
Mercy Corps

Setting the scene

When I joined our global program management team at Mercy Corps in 2014, I finally had the space to think about how we work, and not just race to get it done. I started learning about the resources available in our organization and in the sector for project and program managers. That would have been nice to know, I thought, back when I was reinventing the wheel as a program manager in my internet-less corner of the world. I wondered how many other managers felt the same way, too stressed for time to reflect, pressured to implement quickly, always feeling behind. The answer is too many.

It’s two months into a six-month program, and you’ve just been hired as the program manager, go! Too much to do, too little time. There are so many demands on managers’ time that even internally we end up competing for the small bandwidth our teams can spare. As a result, we’re always trying to figure out how to make sure important resources are easy to find and use. It also pushes global teams to strip down resources to the essentials.

Given this time poverty, it’s essential to support managers to critically reflect on how they work and where they could invest to set their teams up for success in achieving impact. How can they manage well, make time to incorporate learning, and still give themselves space to innovate?

Program management: laying the foundation

In 2012, Program Management at Mercy Corps (PM@MC) was created so that teams have the foundations to manage well and achieve impact through their programs. So they know what’s expected of them, and feel equipped with the resources to meet those expectations. It includes our Program Management Manual, Minimum Standards, Toolkit, online course, training curriculum and facilitator cohort. Our approach is closely linked to Project Management for Development Professionals (PMD Pro), and it continues to evolve.

We work in diverse contexts across over 40 countries. So we take a “flex to context” approach where we ask teams to meet certain minimum standards to ensure they have a strong program management foundation, but how they meet those standards and what tools they use is completely up to the team and their needs. Every team needs to have a workplan with clear roles and responsibilities, but whether that’s an Excel spreadsheet or using Agile methodology on Trello is up to the team. 

We don’t want to weigh teams down, but free them up so they have a strong foundation from which to move efficiently and effectively to achieve impact. For example, I see too many managers that rush to start without ensuring their team members understand how their work fits into the bigger picture, or how basic logistics and finance procedures work. This slows teams down later. It may not be the sexiest of subjects, but program management is critical.

Did you say adaptive management?

Speaking of sexy, what about adaptive management? When I first heard people speak about adaptive management, it was with whispered reverence, as if someone had just found the holy grail. I was skeptical. After working with our internal gurus on the subject, Emma Proud and Alison Hemberger, and joining external conversations, it took on real meaning.

I understand that adaptive management in programming is about emphasizing collaboration, learning and where necessary, adaptation to improve impact. It’s about recognizing we work in more and more complex contexts, being ready to move in a way that reflects this ever changing environment. When I visualize what this could look like in action, I see teams that are gathering timely information to feed into decision-making, managers that make space to learn from failures and redirect, a work culture that empowers teams closest to the field to make decisions. Adaptive management goes beyond programming, to the organizational and wider enabling environment we work within.

In programming, it comes back to effective management, and pushing the boundaries of what that could look like. No program should be static or unresponsive learning. Just like no program can operate in complete flux without some kind of management tools and processes.

False dichotomy

Often when people compare adaptive management and program management, it reminds me of the Apple vs. PC commercials from 10 years ago. All of the commercials followed the same pattern, a stuffy older gentleman in a suit represented PC and was pitted against a cool, younger actor playing Mac. PC was always portrayed as overly complicated and boring, compiling spreadsheets and pie charts, while Mac was more creative and dynamic. In my favorite ad of the series, Flashback (or this UK equivalent), Mac wants to share his art with PC and instead PC pulls out his calculator to add up how much time he wasted talking to Mac. To me, this is the way we talk about program management, like it’s a burden, outdated, not worth our time. In contrast, adaptive management is then seen as the new, more dynamic wave of the future. In reality, program management and working adaptively are teammates –  program management provides a structure without which adaptive programming could not thrive.

The false dichotomy of adaptive management vs. program management can be damaging.

It means we risk speaking in parallel to teams. Experts in each area end up speaking in different arenas or use different language. If the adaptive piece is separated from program management it can be problematic for the field. For example, I once had a team tell me they didn’t need to have a workplan because they were managing adaptively. In another case, a team told me that program management is only about ticking the boxes for donors.

Cheering for the same team

In the end, we all want the same thing – to help make a better world through lasting, positive change. We’re trying to support the same team with the same goals, just with different coaching methods. A winning sports team is stronger when they have multiple, but integrated coaching perspectives that challenge and push each other and their team to explore all their possibilities and limits.

How can we get managers to value the foundations of program management that, if molded to a team’s needs, can give them a launching point for improving their impact? How can we use the momentum around adaptive management to explore more dynamic ways of thinking, tools and processes that fit our complex contexts?

These are the questions we’re grappling with at Mercy Corps as we try to bring together these two conversations into one powerful stream. We intentionally have been trying to institutionalize our adaptive management work into PM@MC, so they are not seen as separate initiatives, but feeding into the same approach. We’re trying to capitalize on the organizational wide support for PM@MC and the momentum of adaptive management. It’s still early in the journey, but we have found this reframing a useful one. What it means in practice is still evolving, and we look forward to sharing our learning.

However, we’re not alone in making sense of how the adaptive management conversation fits with managing programs. The newly released Program Management Guide for Development Professionals (PgMD Pro) included being “adaptive” as one of the principles of program management. The recent Project Management Expo in London was filled with practitioners from the private, public and nonprofit sectors discussing how to manage in complex and changing environments. No one may have mentioned adaptive management by name, but they were mentioning similar themes in different terms—the importance of the right people, the culture of the team, dynamic tools and processes etc. At a recent Adaptive Management workshop hosted by Bond, the participants in the room discussed ways of working that help teams learn and iterate better. Many of these were innovations on traditional project management tools, like the nested logframe.

Adaptive management in practice tends to build on existing tools and processes, but at the same time has opened the door to exploring more effective ways of working in complex crises. While program management practitioners already see iteration and learning as part of their field, it has not always been employed effectively in dynamic contexts and must continue to evolve. It doesn’t have to be a choice; instead, let’s have this conversation together. We’re on the same team.