The poor performance of biodiversity institutions has prompted calls for reform. Adaptive governance has been promoted as a means of supporting improved biodiversity outcomes. However, incorporating adaptive elements into biodiversity governance has been a challenge. In particular, efforts to make institutions more 'adaptive' often fail to account for existing capacity and context-specific factors. Clear guidance on how to move from general, ambitious adaptive governance prescriptions to specific, context-dependent recommendations is needed. This paper demonstrates how insights from pragmatism can inform an approach for designing institutional reforms that address current shortcomings in adaptive governance approaches. This design scaffolds reform options on a platform of existing competency and institutional legacy. Informed by the results of a prior institutional diagnosis, reform development followed a three-stage process: defining plausible reform spaces; identifying reform possibilities within these spaces; and elaborating reform options. Two very different landscapes provided the case studies: (1) a highly modified agricultural landscape, where private landholders are responsible for managing biodiversity as a public good; (2) a group of national parks, where the state holds primary responsibility. The reforms in the agricultural landscape build on successful landholder and organizational efforts to self-organize and pursue innovative solutions, while those for the protected area enable greater managerial discretion and address the challenges of working across multiple government jurisdictions. This context-driven approach draws on insights from pragmatism to provide guidance on the design of institutional reforms that meet the demands of adaptive governance in a way that is both systematic and realistic. Â© 2015, Springer Science+Business Media New York.