Hello Organization Man: the importance of old (and boring) administration in a new (and exciting) world

written by Matt Andrews

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran the following great Op-ed on the lack of administrative focus in governance systems. This is an important article. We need to be saying ‘Hello’ when it comes to learning about organization… no matter how mundane it seems. This inspires me to spend even more time teaching about bureaucracy. For more see my blog on mundane and my course entitled Getting things done in development.

Here’s an excerpt from the Op-ed entitled Goodbye organization man.

Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire. So they create a fire department — a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don’t create a fire department. When there’s a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.

We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems. …

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard (the rule of nobody) have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing board, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

The boring bureuacrat

What is Action Learning?

written by Matt Andrews

Action learning is a key part of PDIA. It is “a hybrid technique that allows participants to use what they learn to tackle priority problems within their companies under actual work conditions. Action learning is a social process for resolving the difficulties managers increasingly confront, where history offers no solution.

At its heart, action learning is a systematic process that increases participants’ organizational learning in order to help them respond more effectively to change. Originated by Reg Revans (1983), action learning is based on the underlying premise that there is no learning without action and no action without learning. Action learning is inextricably linked with action science. Action science (Argyris, Putnam, and Smith, 1985) provides a conceptual framework and a methodology for facilitating action learning, while Revan’s work establishes the actual form. The following processes of action science are implicit in action learning:

  • Critical reflection: bringing underlying assumptions to consciousness; testing those assumptions to determine if they are appropriate for attaining the desired goal
  • Reframing: altering assumptions that don’t accomplish desired goals
  • Unlearning and relearning: developing new sets of learned skills based on reframed assumptions; replacing old with new skills until new ones are automatic.

Action learning methodology has three main elements:

  1. Problems that people identify;
  2. People who accept responsibility for taking action on a particular issue; and
  3. Colleagues who support and challenge one another in the process of resolving the problems.

Using real tasks as the vehicle for learning, individuals, groups, or teams develop management and leadership skills while working on organizational problems and testing their assumptions against real consequences. By taking a real problem, analyzing it, and implementing solutions derived with colleagues, individuals monitor results and can be held accountable for their actions. Revans believes that if we are to cope with accelerating and turbulent change, then we must place our confidence in the lived experiences and insights of others in order to be successful.” from Experiential Learning, Past and Present  Lewis, L.H. and Williams, C.J. (1994).

Reflection Graphic

Follow “Getting Things Done” at the Harvard Kennedy School

Matt Andrews teaches a course entitled “Getting Things Done: Management in the Development Context,” at the Harvard Kennedy School. He often gets asked about what he teaches in his course. So, he has decided to experiment with blogging about his course after every class. Each blog entry will include his powerpoint presentation, his syllabus, required readings/videos as well as a summary of what happened in class.

He already has two blogs up. The first class was about the need to understand the bureaucracy better, and second class was on classical management theory, bureaucracy and scientific management. You can see the entire syllabus here. This is your opportunity to follow the class and learn more about “getting things done in development.” Let us know what you think.


The role of PDIA in fragile states

The coherence and effectiveness of engagement with the world’s ‘fragile and conflict-affected states’—beyond ethical imperatives and geo-strategic considerations—turns on answers to two vexing questions. First, on what defensible basis is any given country, at any given historical moment, deemed to be (or not to be) ‘fragile’? Second, if a defining characteristic of state fragility is low levels of capability to implement core responsibilities, how can international agencies best support domestic public organizations to acquire capability?

The first issue may appear to be a methodological one (wherein more and better data would provide a firmer empirical foundation on which to base key decisions) but any determination, especially of marginal cases, must also be grounded in a correspondingly comprehensive theory of change. Similarly, the optimal response to the second issue may appear to be importing technical and rigorously verified (‘best practice’) solutions, but in fact it is more likely to require a qualitatively different strategy, one able to experiment with alternative design specifications and adapt in real time to changing contextual realities (thereby iterating towards customized ‘best fit’ solutions).

In his new paper, Engaging with Fragile and Conflict-Affected States, Michael Woolcock argues that an evolving approach known as Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) could be used to answer the second question. PDIA offers a coherent basis on which to distinguish between different types of development problems, and to help craft a more appropriate match between types of problems and types of solutions. It works by gathering real time input from many actors on the ground in order to continually inform the adaptive planning process.

Work along these lines has already been conducted in the fragile states of Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone, where teams of local researchers have been actively engaged in documenting changes in the nature and extent of conflict as a basis for contributing to a national policy dialogue. Policy debate about these issues would otherwise largely be conducted on an anecdotal basis, but using local researchers to generate local knowledge using local indicators has been central to identifying forms and source of local variation, in crafting a credible basis for reforms, and to enhancing the legitimacy of international actors, whose role in these matters has been to facilitate rather than pre-determine what might be done.

This paper was featured on the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) website today. You can view the article here. For more information, please read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or watch our Vimeo Channel.

BSC Paper wins ASA award

We are proud to announce that Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation co-authored by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock won the Faculty Article Award from the Sociology of Development Section of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The award ceremony was held in San Francisco on August 16, 2014. This seminal paper is the foundation of the Building State Capability (BSC) program and the precursor to PDIA. For more information, please read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or watch our Vimeo Channel.

This is PFM

The acronym PFM stands for Public Financial Management: But what does public financial management really mean?

Matt Andrews, Marco Cangiano, Neil Cole, Paolo de Renzio, Philipp Krause, and Renaud Seligmann have published a new paper on demystifying the concept of public financial management (PFM), drawing on their experiences as specialists in different contexts and with different views (from academia, the multilateral and bilateral development agencies, think tanks, government, and civil society). This paper provides an entry point for discussion on the constituent elements of PFM systems, how and why PFM reforms have emerged, and points to gaps for future attention. You can read it here.


Common Core Math: when the how undermines the what

written by Salimah Samji

Without the how, the what remains fiction — often compelling fiction. Development is littered with examples of projects/reforms that have failed because no one systematically thought through how the project/reform would actually be implemented given the local capacity and context. The common assumption is that if you design a technically sound project then implementation will magically happen by itself. Others believe that implementation happens by edict. The reality is that the mundane, while ordinary, banal and boring, can be the key to getting things done in development.

Elizabeth Green in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine makes a similar argument about the Common Core math standards — the new math, in the absence of new teaching, will lead to failure. The traditional approach to teaching math which involves memorizing lists of rules, does not work. It turns out, we already know this and attempts to find better ways to teach math can be traced back to the 1800s, with the most recent efforts in the 1960s and 1980s.

The key problem is numeracy – the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. Green’s research finds that America ranks in the bottom 5 of 20 countries in numeracy (a 2012 study comparing 16-65 year olds), and on national tests, approximately 67% of 4th and 8th graders are not proficient in math. Clearly all the past attempts of trying to teach “new math” have failed. In order for the latest version of new math to be successful, the teachers need to fully understand the new standards. They need training and support. In practice however, “training is still weak and infrequent, and principals — who are no more skilled at math than their teachers — remain unprepared to offer support. Textbooks, once again, have received only surface adjustments.”

Japan, has been very successful in implementing a similar approach to the Common Core. Green highlights that the teachers depend on jugyokenkyu or lesson study to perfect their teaching skills. This process includes planning a lesson, teaching it in front of an audience of students and other teachers, followed by a discussion of what worked — experiential learning with very tight feedback loops. The best discussions the Japanese teachers had were the most microscopic, minute-by-minute recollections of what had occurred, with commentary … essentially, the mundane!

Changing standards alone is not enough to create or sustain change. There is a need to address the existing delivery infrastructure, to build capacity and to allow for local experimentation, learning, iteration and adaptation. This is a process which takes time and cannot be done overnight, but it has the greatest chance of success.

If you are interested in learning more, read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). You can also watch our BSC video series.