Michael Carrier

There is more and more talk of ‘agility’ (or ‘adaptive management’) with regard to meeting people’s needs in increasingly complex and volatile contexts. This notion raises questions about the added value of humanitarian and development standards: do existing standards help, or on the contrary, limit our ability to ‘be agile’ and adapt operations when needs, contexts or resources change?

A standard can be defined as ‘a reference document, that provides rules, guidelines and characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of an optimal operational level in a given context’1. Put simply, and in a deliberately broad way, a standard provides a reference framework to orientate a project in a given operational context. This reference framework can be ‘formal’, like the Sphere standards2 or the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS)3, or ‘informal’, such as regular project management activities, which involve a certain level of standardisation, even though this is not always explicitly expressed.

The aid sector already has numerous reference frameworks at every level and in a variety of formats. Over time, project management became the established method for implementing projects, and this is now complemented by a number of new approaches:

  • Tools like the logical framework or Theory of Change;
  • Methods like the Quality and Accountability COMPASS;
  • Technical reference frameworks such as the Sphere Standards;
  • Good practice reference frameworks such as the OECD-DAC evaluation criteria or the Core Humanitarian Standard;
  • International frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

With the number and variety of frameworks that exist – and which could increase given the growing number of regulatory demands in the sector – the idea of ‘agility’ or ‘adaptive management’ can be seen as a way of rejecting the constraints of existing reference frameworks which are not deemed sufficiently flexible or relevant. But to what extent do existing standards really limit the agility of humanitarian and development projects? What can we do to help them evolve so that they increase – rather than hold back – our ability to respond to changing needs, contexts or resources?

Though the majority of those working in the sector recognise that standards are needed in order to avoid reinventing the wheel and to specify what is expected for each operation, many also point out the limits of existing frameworks.

Lack of flexibility – The ‘sequential’ nature of the project cycle, which is further reinforced due to the extensive use of the logical framework as the main contractual planning and monitoring tool, does not leave actors a great deal of room to adapt an operation when needs, contexts or resources evolve. Though establishing a pre-determined path – a chain of expected results – can help to involve and reassure the different stakeholders in an operation, there should also be ‘agile’ governance to allow the right decisions to be made at the right time and adapt the operational framework if necessary within clear, predetermined limits. A ‘scenario planning and monitoring’ approach can be a useful way to complement existing frameworks. This involves defining in advance the different possible operations, the indicators that will determine whether to go from one possibility to another (security, needs, etc.) and the decision-making methods that will encourage the involvement of stakeholders and optimal transparency between them.

Long-term vs. short-term learning – The idea of ‘learning’ is becoming increasingly important in humanitarian and development operations. Indeed, learning from our operations is an essential part of continuous improvement both for organisations and for the sector as a whole. Testing innovations, knowledge management, different evaluation methods and simple lesson learning at the end of each operation are essential ways to increase learning for the long term, but not necessarily for the short term. The challenge of agility consists of finding the right balance between acquiring knowledge to improve management in the future and obtaining better results in the short term based on current knowledge4. The increasingly frequent implementation of ‘real-time evaluations’ is a useful way of meeting the challenge of a long-term contribution while providing appropriate support immediately to the ongoing operation.

Coherence, complementarity and coordination – With the growing number of humanitarian and development organisations in many contexts, ‘agile’ initiatives are being prevented by different and sometimes contradictory demands between the different stakeholders of an operation. Agility depends on all the actors involved (operators, donors, authorities, representatives of a population or a group, evaluators, etc.) cooperating in a coherent and complementary manner. This does not mean that each stakeholder’s way of operating should be standardised but rather that these systems should be able to interact and contribute to greater complementarity. This ‘operational interoperability’ then acts as an interface between the different actors involved and facilitates an ‘agile approach’ that is realistic and adapted to each operational context.

The profusion and confusion of reference frameworks – In September 2014, the participants at a workshop at Groupe URD’s Autumn School counted no fewer than 150 reference frameworks5 to guide the actions of the sector. This profusion of frameworks can, of course, help to find answers to many questions, but it also comes at a cost for users, affecting their ability to use these references quickly and appropriately, and raising many questions (What do I really need? To what extent are these different frameworks complementary?).

In order to overcome this problem, Groupe URD, for example, developed a quality and accountability operational framework6. This aims to help field teams to identify the reference frameworks that are important for them and translate these into realistic action that is adapted to a specific operational context and sector.

 Purpose vs. Process – Anyone working in the sector who wants to improve humanitarian and development operations is likely to find themselves contributing to the development of reference frameworks at some point or other. The majority of these initiatives are rational from the point of view of the individuals and organisations who develop and promote them. However, taken together, all these rules and frameworks do not necessarily produce a relevant and agile whole:

  • As is the case for all tools, some of these frameworks can be misused. If a ‘marker’ on a specific subject is not relevant, it can be misunderstood or can be inappropriate for the context. This can lead to extra work and the production of inaccurate information that does not contribute to good decision-making at the right time.
  • By over-formalising the processes in place, all of these frameworks can reduce two essential factors of an agile approach: 1. Giving staff the ability to question themselves and adapt to how an operation is evolving; 2. Informal monitoring that helps to reinforce the relations between different stakeholders and focuses on important aspects that have not necessarily been identified before.
  • As more regulations are introduced, a whole series of additional demands are made of actors in the aid sector, which can act as a barrier to an agile approach.

Though there is no magic recipe to address all of these issues, two ingredients can help to adapt the way the sector currently functions and facilitate an agile approach.

  1. Adapting to the context – As illustrated in the new Sphere standards, aid professionals now recognise that the demands of standards need to be adapted to the context.
  2. Adopting a results-based approach – An agile approach implies that you focus on expected changes rather than on operational methods or management. This further highlights the importance of change-oriented approaches which, at least theoretically, can lead to a shared vision of change and the stages involved, while remaining flexible about how this should be achieved. It also raises questions about the sector on two levels:
    • Rather than more certification, which focuses on the frameworks and the actions being implemented, is there not greater need within the sector for ‘models of excellence’ focused on the purpose and results of the organisation’s operations, which gives greater flexibility for an agile approach?
    • Does an agile approach necessarily imply that there is an obligation to achieve certain results, over and above an obligation to implement the agreed means? If so, what responsibilities should be given to the different stakeholders of an operation? And based on what standards?

Opportunities from the business sector – Given the questions facing the humanitarian and development sector, what role can agile methods from the business sector play in operations? Having been interested in this issue for a longer time, the business sector has shown that agility and standards are not necessarily incompatible:

  • The business sector’s agile projects are also implemented in sectors where there is a lot of regulatory pressure such as banking, insurance, energy, distribution, industry, and services. These show that it is possible to combine agile methods with technical and legal standards.
  • A reference document of good ‘agile’ practices exists: the Agile Manifesto. This is an extremely succinct document that sets out the main principles for managing an IT project properly. It is the basis for what are known today as agile methods in the business sector and can easily be adapted to the humanitarian and development sector7.
  • Methods, tools and training courses already exist to develop the knowledge and skills needed to implement agile projects. Different types of ‘agile certification’ for individuals are recognised in the business sector. For example, the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® formally recognises a person’s level of knowledge of agile principles and their competence in agile techniques. This type of individual certification can help to address certain key issues of agile projects such as the specific characteristics of an agile contract, continuous needs assessment, the definition of operational scenarios, planning work in keeping with the capacities of the team, monitoring performance and managing change.



The tension that exists between agility and standards underlines the difficulty of finding the right balance between respecting rules and adapting an operation when needs, contexts or resources change. Using formal and informal ‘standards’ properly in agile projects is as much a question of respecting the demands of the sector as a question of the experience of the different stakeholders in being able to use existing reference frameworks in a positive and flexible way to guide and facilitate the agility of operations. As the experience of the business sector has shown, if, rather than being imposed, standards are established with the different stakeholders and adapted to the context, they can actively support agile operations.

  1. Adapted from the definition of a ‘standard’ by ISO – ISO Standard – “a document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context.”
  4. Introductory text by Véronique de Geoffroy for the 2018 Autumn School on Humanitarian Aid
  5. Extract from the article, ‘Peer review – a way for the humanitarian sector to learn and improve’,  Julien Carlier & Hugues Maury, Humanitarian Aid on the Move, n° 15, Groupe URD,
  6. For more information about this tool, see:
  7. See the HEM article « Pour un manifeste agile de l’aide humanitaire et de la coopération au développement ».