What Is Adaptive Management?

The following sections draw primarily on the book Adaptive Management: A Tool for Conservation Practitioners by Nick Salafsky, Richard Margoluis, and Kent H. Redford.

The Roots of Adaptive Management

Conservation takes place in complex systems. Over the past few decades, different disciplines dealing with complex systems have developed similar approaches to using applied science to take action in the face of uncertainty. As shown in the following diagram, examples of these approaches include “social learning,” “reflective practice,” “learning organizations,” and “adaptive management.” FOS uses the term “adaptive management” to refer to the approach that we use.

What is Adaptive Management?

Adaptive management has been gaining popularity in the mainstream conservation community in recent years. But what exactly is it? Some people may ask, “Isn’t adaptive management simply good management? Doesn’t it merely involve trying something and then if it doesn’t work, using your common sense to adapt and try something else?” We believe that adaptive management is good management, but that not all good management is adaptive management. We also believe that adaptive management requires common sense, but it is not a license to just try whatever you want. Instead, adaptive management requires an explicitly experimental or “scientific” approach to managing conservation projects as outlined in the following definition: Adaptive management incorporates research into conservation action. Specifically, it is the integration of design, management, and monitoring to systematically test assumptions in order to adapt and learn.

This definition can be expanded:

Testing assumptions is about systematically trying different actions to achieve a desired outcome. It is not, however, a random trial-and-error process. Instead, it involves first thinking about the situation at your project site and then developing a specific set of assumptions about what is occurring and what actions you might use to affect these events. You then implement these actions and monitor the actual results to see how they compare to the ones predicted by your assumptions. The key here is to develop an understanding of not only which actions work and which do not, but also why.

Adaptation is about taking action to improve your project based on the results of your monitoring. If your project actions did not achieve the expected results, it is because either your assumptions were wrong, your actions were poorly executed, the conditions at the project site have changed, your monitoring was faulty οΎ– or some combination of these problems. Adaptation involves changing your assumptions and your interventions to respond to the new information obtained through monitoring efforts.

Learning is about systematically documenting your team’s process and the results you have achieved. This documentation will help your team avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Furthermore, it will enable those in the broader conservation community to benefit from your experiences. Other practitioners are eager to learn from your successes and failures so that they can design and manage better projects and avoid some of the perils you may have encountered.


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