E5: Doing and Learning in a Noisy, Complex World: The Adaptive Management Card Game

Effectively bridging science and policy today requires, in part, finding the right balance between doing (implementing policy interventions and management actions that are broadly supported) and learning (understanding whether they are achieving their desired effect). However, scientists, decision makers, policy makers, and stakeholders face many challenges that limit their ability to implement interventions and learn about their effectiveness. These challenges include:

  • Increasing complexity and uncertainty which make it difficult to defensibly link social-environmental outcomes to the interventions of policy makers or decision makers;
  • Increasing intensity of dueling science which can lead to disagreements about the evidence around what interventions will best achieve the outcomes that people want to see;
  • Increasing need to demonstrate results quickly due an urgency to address critical social-environmental problems;
  • Increasing information overload, a lack of synthesis, and/or poor science communication about the current state of evidence around critical issues;
  • Increasing stakes and conflict among competing interests leading to disagreements about the outcomes that people want to see;
  • Increasing overlap in decision authorities, mandates, and responsibilities of different government agencies around common issues;
  • Increasing scrutiny of decisions and needs for public transparency; and
  • Decreasing resources to support science and decision making.

At a fundamental level, these challenges reflect difficulties with either getting things done and/or effectively learning about whether interventions / actions are achieving intended outcomes.

Adaptive management provides a way for addressing many of these inherent challenges. The practice of Adaptive Management has evolved and greatly advanced over its 42-year history since the initial publication of C.S. “Buzz” Holling’s book entitled “Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management” in 1978. Since that time widely varying approaches and interpretations have emerged around how to apply it; some rigorous in methods, some deficient. Yet to this day, there remains strong interest and support for the approach as demonstrated by its sustained and even increasing popularity as a tool for confronting uncertainties in many different environmental contexts: environmental assessment, climate change adaptation, natural resource management, conservation, ecosystem restoration, and international development.

This interactive session will explore some of the key insights underlying adaptive management that have emerged over its 40 years of practice as documented in a unique adaptive management card game developed by the workshop facilitators. This session will provide an introduction to adaptive management and allow attendees to play an interactive card game that highlights its phases, steps, elements, and factors affecting success. Attendees will be asked to reflect on their personal experience and how these phases, steps, elements, and could have been used to improve a current or previous challenge related to how science is/was used in policy or decision making. Attendees will walk away with their own card game deck and a curated reading list of resources to support future discovery and understanding of the approach.

The workshop will be led by two senior practitioners with experience across the globe. These facilitators work at ESSA Technologies Ltd., a private consulting firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada that has been focused on applying adaptive management as a cornerstone of its work since 1979. This workshop leverages the insights and diverse experience of these facilitators and others at ESSA who have collectively developed adaptive management plans across a wide range of situations and sectors including endangered species recovery, habitat and ecosystem restoration, fisheries and water management, and management of industrial projects.


  • Marc Nelitz, MRM, RPBio, Adaptive Management Lead, ESSA Technologies Ltd.
  • Jimena Eyzaguirre, International Team Director | Climate Change Adaptation Lead, ESSA Technologies Ltd.