Adaptive planning is a set of tools and processes for developing plans for solving complex, adaptive problems. Unlike traditional planning processes, adaptive planning keeps the focus primarily on the results you’re trying to achieve, with less time spent on creating detailed strategic plans.
The toolkit describes the three major steps in adaptive planning, providing specific processes and tools for implementing these steps:
- Clearly defining the results: Articulating the ways the world needs to change, both small and large, to solve a complex problem.
- Exploring the context and your assumptions: Gathering external information or systematically mining your own thinking to surface deeper information to guide the planning, often information focused on mapping the current environment and sources of influence or forecasting the future environment.
- Engaging in strategy and action planning: Developing high level strategies for the longer-term, action plans for short-term work, and building in ways to learn and be adaptive over time.
In traditional planning, we spend about 10% of our time thinking about results (often a vision statement or set of high-level outcomes), 10% of our time scanning the environment, and 80% of our time documenting exactly what we are going to do – our goals, objectives, activities, deliverables, milestones, etc. – and then we execute.
This formula can be successful in certain contexts: those that are predictable and where the knowledge about what is needed is well documented and refined. However, in settings where the problem is complex and solutions are uncertain, this type of planning can, and often does, lead to failure.
In complex settings, we want to avoid developing comprehensive plans of action and instead focus our effort on understanding the results we want to achieve – how we believe the world needs to change to solve the problem. Then we want to dive deep into understanding the context and testing some of our assumptions about what it will take to get to the solutions. From there, we can begin to plan our short term actions and for higher-level strategies over the long term. We also plan how to adapt along the way.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article, “The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live Strategy” has a great comparison of traditional planning processes and the more adaptive, experimental processes needed in complex settings.
Adaptive planning when is not appropriate for all settings. To determine if adaptive planning is the right fit for your situation, you need to think about the context and the problem.
There are different types of problems to solve:
Simple Problems are those where the right “recipe” is essential but once you’ve discovered it, replication will get you almost the same result every time. They are problems that are similar to baking a cake: you may not know the recipe to start, but once you have it, you’re good to go. If solutions are implemented correctly and with quality, a pre-determined set of activities can be expected to produce a predictable chain of outcomes over time and in different settings. You would not use adaptive planning to address a simple problem.
In Socially Complicated Problems, the right “protocols and formulas” are known or can be known, but agreement on the problem they will solve, whether it should be solved, who has the right to solve it, and what solution should be used is lacking. Water conservation is an example of a socially complicated problem as many of the policy and technology solutions are known, but the political and public will is inconsistent. Socially complicated problems often benefit from adaptive planning processes because they are typically heavily influenced by the context and shifting environments.
Technically Complicated Problems require the right “protocols and formulas” and high levels of expertise and training. There is not a high level of debate about whether the problem exists, whether it should be solved, or even who should solve it, but it is difficult to come up with the protocols and formulas to solve the problem. Experience is built over time to get to the right result, which can be repeated over time with the expectation of success. Curing cancer is a good example – few people disagree with the idea that we need new protocols for curing cancer, but while we’ve made real progress, we have a long way to go before a solution (or set of solutions) is found.
And then there are Complex Problems. These are the problems that are socially and technologically complicated. There are no “right” recipes or protocols that work in every situation, many outside factors influence the situation, and every situation is unique. Experience helps, but in no way guarantees success. Raising a child is a helpful metaphor – just as each complex problem is unique, each child is unique because of biology and social interactions – at every step of the way the child adapts and becomes less predictable than they were the day before. Experience helps, but it is not sufficient to guarantee success. Examples of complex problems include natural resource planning, voting rights, and crime prevention, all of which have had shifting social environments and there is no set formula for what works.
Adaptive planning is critical when tackling complex problems. It can also be appropriate for complicated problems, though not in all settings. One way to know if an adaptive planning process is a fit for a complicated setting is to ask yourself how uncertain you are about what it will take to get to the solution. If the uncertainty is high, adaptive planning is the approach for you!
One of the overarching tools to integrate into your adaptive planning process is called integrative thinking. For many people, being faced with two opposite options means making a choice between the two and, often, the act of choosing is stressful and difficult. In contrast, integrative thinking uses the tension between the two choices as an opportunity to generate creative and innovative solutions.
This approach is relevant when you are articulating intended results, gathering context information, and selecting strategies. By integrating multiple perspectives and understandings of the problem, you are more likely to be comfortable with the idea of a plan that will need to adapt over time. When we are invested in specific definitions of the problem, solutions, or even ways of getting to solutions, it can be very difficult to adapt regardless of how much evidence suggests we should.
This infographic summarizes the difference between integrative and non-integrative thinking.
Adaptive planning processes need tools for each of the three planning components: defining your results, exploring your context and assumptions, and developing and revising your strategies over time.
There are a number of tools that can help! Strategic Roadmaps are designed to help you focus on results while Before and After Action Reviews (BAR/AARs) can help you craft the adaptive strategy that get you to your results. Other tools are designed to help question the assumptions we have about what it will take to get to the desired outcome and understand the context. These include forecasting strategies (e.g. scenario mapping, simulations, pre-mortems, and the Delphi Method) and mapping strategies (e.g., systems, network, power, and stakeholder mapping).