This paper presents a set of principles and operational guidelines for research and development (R&D) to better address natural resource management problems distilled in a series of workshops with more than 150 experts and practitioners. The principles and guidelines, a number of which relate to scaling issues, are illustrated with case studies from Zimbabwe and Indonesia. The former included research on watershed management for improved small-scale irrigation, while the latter focused on work with communities that had confronted logging companies, partly because of the negative impact of logging on water quality. The principles are grouped as follows: (a) learning approaches; (b) systems approaches, and (c) organisational models. Eleven operational guidelines for implementing the approach are suggested, arranged in three clusters: (a) working together; (b) establishing the institutional and organisational framework; and (c) improving the approaches to suit the task. The elements and strategies for two of these cornerstones (collaborative partnerships and scaling-up and scaling-out) are illustrated to indicate the quality needed to achieve appropriate implementation of the R&D approach.