Strategy testing: an innovative approach to monitoring highly flexible aid programs

Debra Ladner


How can we develop a rigorous and meaningful monitoring system that will support, rather than hinder, a flexible, adaptive programme approach? This paper outlines the Strategy Testing (ST) approach The Asia Foundation has developed in response to this question. It finds that ST is a promising monitoring approach, contributing to broader efforts to reorient development assistance and operationalise more strategic, flexible and adaptive approaches. This paper draws on The Asia Foundation’s experience of completing four cycles of ST in 10 countries and across 16 programme initiatives.

Traditional monitoring approaches are not suited to highly flexible, adaptive programmes because it is not possible to identify outcomes and indicators at the outset of the programme. An ST approach allows teams to transform what they learn into immediate action rather than delay the application of lessons learned until the end-of-programme review.

ST requires programme teams to take periodic, structured breaks from day-to-day implementation to collectively reflect on what they have learned, and to ask whether the assumptions underpinning their strategies are still valid in light of new information, insights, and shifts in local context. Teams then adjust their programmes as needed. The ST process has generated new insights into how a flexible, adaptive approach works in practice.

  • Prompts for adjusting programme strategies and outcomes: (1) new information, (2) external events and (3) roadblocks and achievement.
  • Programme teams adjust their strategies by either dropping or refining an existing strategy or adding a new one.
  • ST is most appropriate for programmes requiring a flexible approach. In other instances standard monitoring techniques are probably more suitable. Further, it may not be an approach appropriate for programmes operating under a rigid, output-driven logframe with fixed indicators and targets, or those teams who cannot quickly reallocate budgets.
  • ST offers a structured opportunity for staff to have collective, critical discussions they are probably already having. This ensures everyone can participate and insights are formally documented.
  • The quality and impact of ST will largely depend on team culture. An external facilitator can set the tone for effective ST discussions that encourages honest and reflective discussion and avoids them becoming only a formality
  • ST involves the time and labour of the the whole programme team, not dedicated M&E officers.
  • The ST process can be a useful training tool, gradually building staff capacity, contributing to positive institutional changes and helping to shape more entrepreneurial and critical programme teams.

The DFAT-TAF partnership team hope that others will build on the ST approach and how it could be used to facilitate greater flexibility and adaptation in more traditional donor funded programmes.

  • Donor policies and practices are as significant as those of the implementing organisation in the effectiveness of an ST approach.
  • Commitment and investment is part of what makes it an effective and meaningful process.
  • ST has functions beyond monitoring. It also offers oversight for programme management, and its focus on strategy and impact make it a useful programme development tool. It can provide orientation for external actors or new staff who want to understand the programme.


Ladner, D. (2015). Strategy Testing: An innovative approach to monitoring highly flexible aid programs. Working politically in practice case study 3. San Francisco, USA: The Asia Foundation.