Abstract: Adaptive management is often proposed as the most effective way to manage complex watersheds. However, our experience suggests that social and institutional factors constrain the search for, and integration of, the genuine learning that defines adaptive management. Drawing on our work as social scientists, and on a guided panel discussion at a recent AWRA conference, we suggest that watershed-scale adaptive management must be recognized as a radical departure from established ways of managing natural resources if it is to achieve its promise. Successful implementation will require new ways of thinking about management, new organizational structures and new implementation processes and tools. Adaptive management encourages scrutiny of prevailing social and organizational norms and this is unlikely to occur without a change in the culture of natural resource management and research. Planners and managers require educational, administrative, and political support as they seek to understand and implement adaptive management. Learning and reflection must be valued and rewarded, and fora established where learning through adaptive management can be shared and explored. The creation of new institutions, including educational curricula, organizational policies and practices, and professional norms and beliefs, will require support from within bureaucracies and from politicians. For adaptive management to be effective researchers and managers alike must work together at the watershed-scale to bridge the gaps between theory and practice, and between social and technical understandings of watersheds and the people who occupy and use them.