Posted By : Markus Hesse
28th February 2019
Programme Development Goes Agile – the Next Generation of Adaptive Programme Development
Programme Development Goes Agile – the Next Generation of Adaptive Programme Development-image

Project Cycle Management, Logframes and Theory of Change. The actual planning standards preferred by many international CSOs and their funding institutions should get credit for their achievement 15-20 years ago, when they promoted result based planning in programme development. But are they fit for the future? Or are their limitations impacting today’s programmes to succeed in a fast changing environment? Are Agile Programmes the next step in the evolution of programme development and what can they offer?

To clear the air before we start: This blog is not about bashing established standards in development programmes. In 2008, my team developed for an international CSO a Project Cycle Management (PCM) handbook including a global standard for Logframes and trained 58 PCM trainers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Australasia, ensuring for the first time the comparability of programmes across regions and continents and shifting the organisation’s programmes towards result based planning. However, assessing the Logframe and its fit for the future, we needed to reflect on limitations as well as changes in the dynamics of the external environment.

Over many years, authors like Burkard Gnärig (link: The Hedgehog and the Beetle) have described in a compelling way how our society in general and the most disadvantaged societies in particular become more and more disruptive, and the now speed, scope and surprise of change is increasing dramatically. In such an environment, a multiyear plan with rigid expected results and already pre-defined activities -developed before the programme has even started- loses its benefits. A Logframe helps to understand the cause and effect of a programme. It helps to scope the programme plan and to avoid that resources are wasted by lack of focus on the specific objective and the expected results. On an academic level it enables the CSO to demonstrate its outcomes and impact through appropriate indicators and to demonstrate to donors the benefit at a conceptual level. However, various studies and evaluations demonstrate that the planning results are rarely used once implementation has started. After the initiation of programmes, Logframes are only used to report back and to please CSOs and donors. They are not used by local partners and staff to actually run the progamme.

A high burden of bureaucracy led to field workers being occupied with retrospective reporting, measuring a high level of academically sound indicators with little or no relevance of daily decision-making at the project level. Working hand in hand with international CSOs on maximising social impact, we could demonstrate on programmes in East Africa that local programme staff spend up to 65% of their time on reporting activities (rather than on actual community development). Evaluations of community, national, regional and global programmes concluded that the established approaches to the transformation of the public sector and the development of communities in disadvantaged societies does not achieve the desired social impact.

Hence, in recent years, an understanding emerged across the sector that development programs established by CSOs, funded by institutions and implemented by local partners, should operate in a less rigid, more adaptive and context specific manner. As a consequence, adaptive approaches like Agile Programmes have been recently introduced and become increasingly mainstream in the civil society sector.

So what is an Agile Programme and how does it look like?

Agile programmes (also called “adaptive programmes”) emphasises the value of iterative change processes of learning by doing, continually testing and adapting programme approaches and delivery with a high focus on local ownership. Direct Impact Group’s model for agile programmes follows the following principles:

  • Local ownership and interactions over processes and tools
  • Self-organised team work over comprehensive documentation
  • Stakeholder consultation and collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

While there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more. Let me explain what we mean by this:

Local ownership and interactions over processes and tools

Of course it is helpful to have a suite of processes and tools to structure and facilitate collaboration. However, using extensive academic jargon doesn’t help to create and maintain local ownership. Processes and tools need to be field tested, simple and user friendly so they add value for local staff in managing their activities.

Self-organised team work over comprehensive documentation

Data for output, outcome and impact monitoring should be derived from actual work on the ground, not create additional distractive work load. Reports filled in by staff to please international HQ or donors are not helpful, as they consume local capacity which is heavily needed for getting things done. Once the plan of an iteration is agreed, the team on the ground needs to be empowered to accomplish its results in a self-organised manner.

Stakeholder consultation and collaboration over contract negotiations

Seeking your stakeholders perspective and engagement should be natural behaviour in all programmes. Contracts are supposed to provide a framework for programme work, not regulate daily operations. One of our clients using a Logframe approach had established 7 decision points before a budget line could be reallocated towards an activity that clearly made sense in the context of achieving the already agreed outcome. That is just not good enough, as it provides incentives to follow an outdated -but approved- plan. This leads us to the last point which is:

Responding to change over following a plan 

The ability to respond to change quickly needs simple and effective update and feedback loops on a daily basis. Regular reviews need to consider the perspectives of beneficiaries and funding partners. This is where agile programmes differ dramatically from agile project management methods used in the business sector, where you have only one role called “customer” – unifying the need and purchasing power.

Change requests developed and implemented without ownership or participation of beneficiaries lead to donor driven interventions. Change requests developed by donor engagement lead to a culture of blank check and don’t build trust and ownership on the donor side. The art is to bring the two aspects together and to facilitate the collaboration. A role that CSOs could fill very well with the right mind set.

These principles describe the way agile programmes address the issue of adapting to a fast changing environment. Various leading international CSOs and donor agencies are exploring the new way of programme development.
Does this approach solve all problems in programme development? Of course not. In our next blog, we will talk about challenges beneficiaries, local partners, CSOs and donors face in establishing adaptive approaches and how they have addressed these challenges.

Markus Hesse

Markus is the co-founder and managing partner of Direct Impact Group, ltd. He combines experience as consultant and coach of international projects in a variety of industries for Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies with experience in executive management of international organisations. His core competencies are agile strategies and transformative change programmes. Markus Hesse’s educational background includes an M.A. in Business Coaching and Change Management. He is author for the EURO-FH university in Hamburg on change management and accredited member of the Europan Association of Supervision and Coaching.