Quarterly Sector Reviews: putting adaptive management into practice

Written by Adam Kessler and Nayeem Kashem

Insight into how Enterprise Partners learns from, and adapts, strategies and interventions.

Adaptive management has increasingly become an area of interest for development practitioners. This has led to a strong demand for simple processes and tools to foster continual learning and evidence-based decision making.

As market systems programmes work in a rapidly changing environment, organisations need to set up systems which allows decisions to be made in real time.  

Enterprise Partners (EP) is a DFID funded project based in Ethiopia (duration: 2013 – 2020), working in the garments, leather, horticulture, SME finance and investment sectors.

Following a market systems approach, EP promotes industrial transformation that is inclusive of women and the environment. EP uses the DCED Standard for Results Measurement, to set a framework through which we can measure results and use them to manage the programme. 

As EP’s area of focus is quite wide-ranging, we realised that the strategic direction for each sector needs to be well coordinated. Learnings from one sector are replicable to other sectors; especially regarding the political economy of Ethiopia.

We also recognised that intervention teams were spending too much time on problem-solving and less time taking a step back to make evidence-based, strategic decisions. Decisions were made more intuitively and in an uncoordinated manner. This created challenges for our use of the DCED Standard, which explicitly requires monitoring data to be used to inform management decisions. 
All these led us to launch a process in late 2016 called “Quarterly Sector Reviews” 

What is a Quarterly Sector Reviews (QSR)?

The QSR is a quarterly half-day workshop for each sector. Each workshop includes the intervention team, monitoring and result measurement team, strategic communications team, thematic advisors and senior management.

QSR objectives:

  1. Review the progress of interventions, markets, and sectors
  2. Make key decisions regarding their management
  3. Provide the information required for the quarterly progress report writing

All the sessions are completed within one week to minimise the time required for the team.

How can the sector reviews be conducted efficiently?

1. Strong preparation

Intervention, thematic and MRM teams gather the latest data on their interventions before coming into the session and update the intervention guides and market strategies to reflect the latest changes. Results chain is changed if necessary based on learning in the previous quarter and colour-coded to visually show progress. The example below demonstrates a colour-coded results chain:

  • red = activity significantly off track
  • yellow = delayed
  • greeen = achieved in time

The colour coding helps the QSR audience to immediately identify the key issues that need to be discussed. The process of agreeing the colour coding before the QSR also encourages the intervention and MRM teams to work closely together to monitor the progress of interventions and collect supporting evidence.

Colour-coded results chain

2. Portfolio presentation

The QSR week starts with a presentation to all staff on the overall status of the portfolio. It provides an overview of log-frame progress, risk analysis, intervention quality status and value for money. A portfolio dashboard is presented to all employee which answers the following questions:

  • How are we doing against logframe targets (output, outcome, impact)?
  • What is the risk exposure of our portfolio (risk rating against indicators)?
  • What is the quality of our interventions (how many are facilitative vs direct, systemic vs opportunistic etc.)
  • How well are we managing resource (VFM report)?

The following example demonstrates EP’s portfolio dashboard (see page 7) which summarises the answers to the questions above and provides overall direction for the QSR.

Enterprise Partners portfolio dashboard

3. Clear roles and responsibilities

A simple terms of reference and schedule for QSR is developed and communicated beforehand. It should be circulated three weeks prior to the QSR week. EP uses the following table for clarity of roles and responsibility:

 TeamsBefore reviewDuring reviewAfter review
Senior Management• Develop presentations on portfolio analysis and VFM 
• Develop a list of priorities for Mgt. review
• Set clear agenda for each review meeting, highlighting areas of focus
• Participating in review meetings and ensuring that key decisions are made  
 • Follow up on key decisions made.
Intervention, MRM team and thematic team 

• Ensuring that latest information is collected and updating the intervention guides with:
   – Updated results
   – Updated projections
   – Colour-coded results chains, showing where the intervention is and isn’t progressing
• Update strategies 
• Collect other information as needed on changes in the market and sector 

• Collect other information as needed on changes in the market and sector
• The Sector Lead is expected to lead the discussion, managing time to ensure that all topics are covered
• Sector lead ensures the market donut is presented for strategic alignment
• Intervention managers present updates to IGs, and changes to the market context
• Take notes on key topics and decisions made

• Updating documents in the light of discussions
• Follow through on decisions made.
Strategic Communications Team• Contribute to strategic M4P advice
• Gathering inputs for reporting
 • Supporting update of revised strategies
• Developing the Quarterly Progress Report


4. Provide direction and tips for managing discussion

Intervention teams need guidance for precise and time effective conversations. The followings are some guidelines EP uses:

Discussion on intervention progress and learning

  • What is the status-quo? What is the evidence to substantiate?  
  • How strong is our evidence? 
  • Were the activities and results in line with our expectations, as set out in the results chain? 
  • How have partners engaged with us? Are we satisfied with their buy-in and behavior change? Are the incentives changing? How are other stakeholders (competing and complementary) responding to our intervention?

Discussion on markets

  • How are our interventions affecting the core actors and other support functions? What is the evidence? 
  • What are the external factors influencing these changes?
  • Are there other constraints proving to be binding for success? 

Potential decisions to take on interventions

  • Keep going: if we are satisfied with how things are going. 
  • Scaling up: stepping up work in existing markets or interventions, finding new partners or ways for crowd-in. 
  • Expansion: begin to work on additional support functions in an existing market or address a new market if there is a need to achieve sector vision. 
  • Scaling down: stopping work in an existing market or intervention. This could be because
    1) facilitative activities are completed and only regular monitoring required
    2) No progress, therefore completely close intervention
    3) Weak result, therefore close intervention with learning report
    4) Intervention no longer a strategic priority

Key learnings about QSRs

  • Crisp facilitation of discussion is key to managing the workshops. Otherwise, even with strong preparation, discussions can drag on without reaching conclusions. EP manages this challenge by appointing the technical director to lead all the discussion. The strategic communications team note key actions and decisions for post QSR follow-up.
  • For the first few EP QSRs, management led the discussion and tended to tell people what to do. This approach undermined the principle and effectiveness of QSRs. Subsequently, EP management toned down their role in decision making which ensured more voice and buy-in of intervention managers. 
  • EP’s interventions are flexible and adaptive, changing in response to MRM data and changes in the market. Consequently, the intervention results chains are frequently updated, as assumptions prove to be wrong or timeframes inaccurate. While desirable, this can make it difficult to hold intervention managers to account for their work. Adaptive management cannot become an excuse for intervention delays or poor delivery. Consequently, EP developed needed stronger guidance on when delays were acceptable and when they weren’t. More interventions were closed due to long delays, leading to a stronger sense of urgency. This approach has improved overall accountability of effective delivery of interventions.
  • Integrate the QSR with other organisational processes. If the QSR is a standalone process, it seems like an additional burden for busy team members. In EP, the QSR is well integrated with other organisational processes, reducing the additional time needed for preparation, and increasing the usefulness of the sessions. For example, quarterly output data is collected during QSR preparation and reported at the beginning of the week, helping staff to understand the overall progress of EP. Results chains are updated and referred to during the QSR, emphasising the importance of using results chains for management. Moreover, the QSR is used to gather data for our quarterly progress report, so team members spend less time on reporting. 

We hope you find this blog useful and we look forward to reading what has worked for you in the comments section.