Responding to the unprecedented social-environmental change facing humankind will require responsive and flexible governance institutions (i.e., systems of rules and social norms) that facilitate adaptive capacity of individuals, groups and organisations. This may explain the sustained interest in the institutional dimensions of adaptive capacity. However, a better understanding of how institutions may enable adaptive capacity is still evolving. The literature is yet to clearly articulate how institutions relate to attributes of adaptive capacity. This study contributes to address this knowledge gap; it employs an evaluative approach that underscores the relationship between types of institutions and attributes of adaptive capacity (i.e., variety, learning capacity, autonomy, leadership, resources and fair governance). Such approach is used to examine how institutions enable adaptive capacity in the context of coastal resources co-managemen in the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary (Cambodia) and Tam Giang Lagoon (Vietnam). In this study, complexity emerges as a defining feature of adaptive capacity. It results from the relationship between institutions and adaptive capacity and the contextual factors in which such relationship takes place. Exercises aiming to assess adaptive capacity should consider the institutions-adaptive capacity nexus together with the embedding social, cultural and political context.