Using the PDIA Toolkit to Help a Nonprofit in Philadelphia

Guest blog written by Jamison Hicks

The PDIA toolkit has yet again proven to be both useful and effective in providing organizations with the structural means to continually monitor and evaluate programmatic and organizational success. From a usage perspective, even though the toolkit was created in the US, the majority of PDIA blog posts on implementation seemed to be focused on out-of-country nations. With this simple observation, I thought it right to take advantage of the opportunity to implement the toolkit for a nonprofit organization in the US, namely, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Before I get too far ahead of myself, I think it is important to briefly note how I came to learn about PDIA since I am not a conventional student of the program. While interning at World Vision, the Executive Advisor on Fragile States and my personal mentor Jonathan Papoulidis, introduced me to the toolkit. By reading the free online textbook and watching many videos, I was able to gain a sufficient grasp of the concepts and in turn convert theory to an “empiric”.

One Day At A Time (ODAAT), the nonprofit organization where I implemented the toolkit focuses on substance addiction and homelessness in North Philadelphia. This region has some of the highest rates of opioid use and homelessness in the US. The first step taken was gathering all program or team supervisors into one room to diagnose problems using the Fishbone Diagram. One lesson learned; understanding the language of the organization was a necessity. Terms and questions used were not easily understood by the organization. This resulted in having to continuously adjust the approach.

For example, when trying to figure out the overarching problem the community faced, and the causes of those problems, I found it extremely helpful to use the power of stories. To explain the main problems and their causes, I offered the example of murder. Generally, individuals do not murder others without reason. The motive behind the individual’s actions could be childhood traumatic experiences, pain, loneliness, etc. This analogy helped the organization draw comparisons between the example and the initial question asked. Their main or overarching problem was equated to the hypothetical murder, and their related causes were the equivalents to the reasons behind “said” murder. Stories increased the fluidity and effectiveness of the Fishbone Diagram.

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4 Ways to Rethink Economic Growth During COVID-19

Guest blog written by Manuela Fulga

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

The pandemic threatens to erase years of progress made by developing and emerging economies towards sustainable development. The World Bank estimates that between 71 and 100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020, increasing the global extreme poverty rate for the first time in more than 40 years.

This realization convinced me to apply to the “Leading Economic Growth” course at Harvard Kennedy School. My objective was to explore and learn practical strategies that countries can adopt in the current context, particularly with limited resources and tight fiscal spaces, in order to protect their population without forgetting the important investments necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The 10-week online course allowed me to take the key concepts from the lectures and readings and apply them to a specific country, developing a plan for the recovery. It truly felt like a journey, and more specifically like a climbing expedition: professors Hausmann and Andrews were the expert guides, leading the way and setting the trail for us; the video lectures and readings were the manuals we read before starting to climb; the weekly assignments – deep-dives to help us develop our own country strategy – represented key milestones, or the most difficult trails where we had to reflect on the learnings and apply them to our strategy; the feedback of the teaching assistants was our anchor and rope, setting us on the right path to success.

This course opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about economic growth and particularly to innovative approaches that can support governments in identifying game-changing policies. These are the four key takeaways that have forever changed my view on development and economics, and that have the potential to help countries build back better from COVID-19 towards a more resilient future.

Focusing on problems rather than solutions

The dominant theory of change in development is that great governments emerge when a savvy leader takes the opportunity of a crisis to implement the right policies and holds power long enough to drive implementation. In reality, the story is far from simple: it is not about one solution applicable for all, forced down the system by a powerful individual. Development is a complex matter, where many social and economic factors are correlated and interact with each other, causing at times unexpected consequences, and requiring multiple iterations to achieve true impact.

This is why “problem-driven iterative adaptation” (PDIA) is a more hopeful concept than “solution- and leader-driven change” (SLDC): countries do not have to wait for a brilliant leader to change their faith, but can adopt a new approach by engaging distributed groups of agents in a gradual and iterative search for the best policy to drive economic growth. PDIA materializes when governmental agents interact and exchange information in new ways, yielding locally determined responses to economic challenges by constructing and deconstructing bottlenecks preventing growth. This enables governments to transform tangled and complex problems into manageable issues, by revealing the root causes and addressing them step by step, identifying quick wins.

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LA FÁBRICA, a strategy for the economic transformation and social inclusion of Renca, a commune in Chile

Guest blog written by Gabriela Elgueta P 

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Photograph: Cerro de Renca, Matias Peralta @matias.fpl

In the midst of the pandemic, I began this course when Chile had 300 deaths and 27,219 infections. Today, at the end of this process, I have to regret a total of 7,186 deaths and a total of 321,205 infections, mostly affecting the most vulnerable population, amplifying the effects of the social inequality in which most Chileans live. 

For 10 weeks I have been inserted in a process of combined learning between the conceptualization of economic growth and global trends with the contrasting reality of a vulnerable commune in the metropolitan area of Santiago that was experiencing a triple social crisis: health, social and economic. 

As a reflection of Chile, the metropolitan area of Santiago (RM) is a highly segregated city, both socially and economically, generating a deep inequality in access to public goods and services for the poorest segments of the population, compared to the higher income groups located in the East of the city. 

The commune of Renca, with 147,151 inhabitants, is located in the pericentral area of the city, with a multidimensional poverty of 28% widely exceeding the regional average (14.9%), has a population of low socio-economic level, is part of that city that experiences social exclusion and the consequences of the undesirable outcome, of fragmented planning and unequal public investment, carried out by the State itself, affecting the daily life of its neighbors, in the quality of its infrastructure and its equipment, both public and private. 

At the same time, at the beginning of the course, I was commissioned by the Mayor of Renca to develop a proposal for an economic development strategy for the commune that would consider a short-term reactivation plan and enabling actions for the medium term. In this way, one of the greatest lessons learned from the course has been the possibility of reflecting on and establishing a different way of developing this strategy. 

Often, political times and the daily contingency to which local governments are exposed, demand to be in “mode” of the solutions, however, it is fundamental to understand the complexity of the growth challenges, investing time in better understanding the problem, deconstructing it and identifying the binding constraints. Undoubtedly, the fishbone tool allowed me to visualize a broader framework of the problem and to open multiple conversations with key actors, and it also showed us the enormous gaps in information and robust data for the decision-making process. 

Continue reading LA FÁBRICA, a strategy for the economic transformation and social inclusion of Renca, a commune in Chile

Learning about Economic Growth in the Middle of a Pandemic

Guest blog written by Beenish Amjad

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

I was afraid that the onslaught of the pandemic would have devastating impact on a developing country like Pakistan which has a strong history of sluggish economic growth and long-standing need-base relationship with the IMF. The economy in 2019 was weakening and poverty (headcount poverty ratio 24.3) and inequality (Gini coefficient of 33.5) was rising. COVID-19 has not only pushed more people to the below-poverty line but also strained the Federal budget due to the substantial allocation to the Conditional Cash Transfer Program (Benazir Income Support Program now Ehsaas).

In the midst of the all this, I decided to take the Program of Leading Economic Growth, with Professor Ricardo Haussmann and Matt Andrews, to evaluate the barriers to the economic growth of Pakistan and learn about the strategies of overcoming them. In my opinion and as Professor Matt said, “we should focus on growth as means and not end”. The past 10 weeks journey, though strenuous, provided the learning experience of years. Throughout the program, wide and diverse range of topics were covered without compromising on the depths of the contents. These topics helped a great deal to understand those issues which have become the binding constraints to the economic growth. Several tools were taught to synthesize and breakdown these binding constraints to reach at the key issue hindering the growth. Some of the most useful tools included economic complexity index, fishbone diagram, PDIA and diagnostic tree. One tool which influenced me a great deal is “the Atlas of Economic Complexity”. Despite my previous education in Economics, I didn’t come across any tool which as user-friendly and so enormously comprehensive. It enabled me to witness the trajectory of the developments in the Exports and Imports of Pakistan and also to compare it with other countries. The snapshots of the export’s basket import basket and economic complexity ranking (along with the rational as explained by Professor Haussmann) was a thorough learning experience for me. 

Obviously, it is very difficult to highlight one issue which we consider as binding constraints to the growth. With the help of above tools, principles of binding constraint and case studies, I identified sluggish economic growth due to persistent current account deficit as economic challenge of Pakistan. With the help of further techniques, the problem was narrowed down to sluggish or no growth in exports.  

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A Problem-driven Approach to Complexity, Public Policy and Economic Growth

Guest blog written by  Claudio Roberto Amitrano 

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

What is development? How is it driven? How can we get there? Who is it for? What do countries have in common? What are their specific problems? How do we identify them? How do we find solutions? Who will lead, authorize, design and implement them? Who are ‘We’ and how do we build the ‘Sense of us’? What can we learn from the policymaking process, working in multi-agent teams and doing things together? 

These issues come to my mind when I think about the Leading Economic Growth (LEG) course from Harvard Kennedy School. However, those questions were presented not to show an absolute answer, but to teach us a way of thinking about them, a method to identify the important problems for our societies and to empower us to find and implement solutions that fix them. 

Despite not providing definitive answers, the course touched upon some clues. Firstly, it seems that economic development is related to technology, which can be divided in three parts: 1) embodied knowledge (machines); 2) codified knowledge (books and manuals); 3) tacit knowledge (knowhow in people’s brains). While the first two are relatively easy to diffuse and absorb, the latest is not. 

The way countries use technology to foster development is strongly related to complexity. The more diverse and less ubiquitous the set of goods and services a country produce and trade, the more complex and developed its economy is. In turn, diversity and ubiquity are conditioned by the amount of different knowhow a country can absorb and amass. Although each individual might know less, the society, as whole, knows more. The image of the scrabble game is quite interesting to exemplify this idea. A word to be written needs letters. The more letters one have, the more different and complex words one can write. 

In this sense, growth is associated with the country’s ability to ‘jump’ to nearby activities, whose knowhow is similar to the ones already developed. On the other hand, it might be related to its ability to ‘jump’ to faraway activities, whose knowhow is quite different from the ones already learnt, but through strategic policies can be acquired. Notwithstanding, the ‘growth problem’ is not only connected to these issues. It also depends on the removal of the binding constraints that hinder progress and the policies countries develop to deal with them. It leads us to another way of thinking complexity. 

Complexity can also be seen as problems with multiple moving parts and interdependent players, in which relationships, their properties of self-organisation and interconnections defines their trajectories. From the standpoint of public policy, identifying and finding solutions to complex problems requires a Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation’ (PDIA) approach, instead of a ‘Solution-and Leader-Driven Change’ (SLDC), in which one can construct and deconstruct problems. From the perspective of economics, it requires a Growth Diagnostic approach, whose main objective is to find the binding constraint to economic growth. Based on the idea of  complementarity between inputs, as well as between institutions, this methodology is able to avoid or at least minimize the second-best interactions problem. 

Continue reading A Problem-driven Approach to Complexity, Public Policy and Economic Growth

PDIA and Coordination Challenges within Government

Guest blog written by Nevena Bosnic, Mehdi El Boukhari, Ama Peiris, Matthew Welchert

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Over the past seven weeks, our group embarked on the learning journey of problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) as it applies to coordination challenges facing the various levels of government as well as civil society in addressing homelessness in Tarrant County, Texas. We had the great pleasure to work with an authorizer, Maggie Jones, who serves as the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development. Our team – comprised of graduate students from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government – provided a diversity of perspectives and richness of insights. Together, we confronted and struggled through the challenges that come with working in complex adaptive challenges as we constructed and deconstructed the problem, sought potential entry points, developed and acted on ideas for interventions, and finally, reflected and iterated with yet another round of the process. Through this blog post, we hope to share with readers: (1) our key learnings from the course, (2) insights we gained about the problem we sought to address, and (3) words of wisdom for other students and practitioners.


  • The ecosystem is large and not all actors have a clear picture of how they fit within the larger system. Thus, they do not strategize well how they as an individual organization can encourage better coordination. It can be helpful to think of a metaphor of topographical map wherein your key organization is in a valley. You may see other related organizations and actors in some nearby hills and bluffs, but you might be blind to what exists beyond those heights. PDIA requires you to venture forth beyond the hills to get a sense of the total ecosystem. 
  • There are a lot of different stakeholders who are working independently to fight homelessness. There is little to no capitalizing on each other’s strengths because each stakeholder is bound by short term objectives and constraints. Coordination inherently requires compromising a degree of control to others, but asking organizations to share or give up some of their autonomy is a difficult ask. Constructing a problem that matters helps rally and galvanize support. 
  • It is alright to not have a big idea which might theoretically have a large impact. It is often better to try multiple small, achievable actions to shift towards greater change. Complexity is daunting, but by deconstructing the problem and identifying where there is sufficient authority, acceptance, and ability to act you can begin to take action. Rather than focusing all of your efforts on a big solution, removed from potential feasibility, taking immediate, fast action where possible provides lessons and begins the process of change. 
  • Huge challenge in understanding all of the many moving parts. Interactions and causal relationships are unlikely to reveal themselves without first pushing at the problem from multiple angles. By taking many different, small, independent actions pathways and connections might become more visible. 
  • The wonderful world of positive deviants. Do not reinvent the wheel. It sounds simple enough, but if you do not explore, ask around, look for the small successes already underway, then you risk missing solutions already in action. 
  • Deconstructing the problem is an endless process. You will always go back to redefining the problem and uncovering new root causes (rather than manifestations of the problem). Iteration can be trying, even frustrating, but the process of purposeful repetition building on what has been learned is critical to uncovering new solutions, and taking meaningful next steps.
  • Un-learning’ or learning you were wrong is still learning. Through the process of iteration and adaptation, you will likely be wrong. Indeed, you should be wrong. Embrace the potential for an idea not panning out, or an action not producing the desired result. By hitting a wall, you now know there is a wall there. In dealing with complex problems, even learning the boundaries of action is an important step. But be sure to learn and adapt. Why is the wall there? Where is a backdoor? It is in asking these deeper questions that PDIA’s repetition allows us to overcome hurdles. 
  • Examining change space is something most people don’t think about outside of PDIA. This results in a lot of efforts being made, sometimes to no avail. Crawl around the design space; which means to explore and make use of other success being done elsewhere. Perhaps a best practice has been implemented with success elsewhere. How would it be applicable to my situation? But remember to reflect inwardly as well. There is likely a great deal of latent potential within your own organization which can be brought to bear. Change will require many kinds of actions, from both without and within. 
Continue reading PDIA and Coordination Challenges within Government

Leading Economic Growth 2020: Moving Executive Education Online during a Pandemic

written by Salimah Samji

In March 2020, Harvard University decided to move all classes to online-only, in an effort to de-densify our campus and to slow the spread of COVID-19. It soon became clear that remote learning was going to be our new normal. 

At the time,  Leading Economic Growth, a longstanding 5-day residential executive education program co-chaired by the Growth Lab’s Ricardo Hausmann and BSC’s Matt Andrews, was scheduled for May 2020. Participants had already applied for this program, but we needed to make a decision: should we not offer it until next year or do we pivot to online?

We observed that the lockdowns and other measures that countries were employing in response to the pandemic were exacerbating the large economic disparities that exist around the globe, and the need to build public sector capability to meet this challenge had never been greater. We strongly believed that it was an important time to convene policymakers and practitioners around the critical economic issues all cities, regions, and countries were facing. Drawing on BSC’s past experience running both online programs and blended learning programs, we put our knowhow into action and pivoted a 5-day residential program into a 10-week online program.

The program used a three-part model: you learn the concept, practice by applying the concepts, then reflect on the application to your context. We designed the course to include two asynchronous content sessions and one live question and answer session with the faculty each week. Participants were required to identify an economic growth challenge in their city, region or country, that they would use to apply the concepts, frameworks, and tools they learned each week. Participants also attend a weekly peer learning group session where they could engage with each other and deepen their understanding. 

This was one of the first executive education programs to pivot online at the Harvard Kennedy School. We launched the program in early April with three weeks to market the program. Given the short time frame, we expected to seat a class of 50-60 participants. Nevertheless, there was a huge demand; we received over 300 applications and we enrolled 222 participants!

216 participants from 64 countries successfully completed the 10-week program.

 82% of the participants rated the assignments as extremely or very useful, and 67% attended their first executive education program. We were able to leverage the disruption to not only continue training development leaders around the world, but also improve access to training by allowing more people to enroll and expanding representation from a greater variety of countries.

Here are some comments from participants:

Continue reading Leading Economic Growth 2020: Moving Executive Education Online during a Pandemic

Becoming Comfortable with Complexity

Guest blog written by Rebecca Trupin, Prateek Mittal

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Our PDIA journey began with our authorizer, a senior bureaucrat in the State Government of Meghalaya, sharing a document with us about his vision to build capability of the state administration to deal with complex problems. We had been working with him on local governance-related projects and were keen on institutionalizing adaptive problem-solving processes. We suggested that he try a few pilot projects in different sectors to understand and document how a PDIA approach could work in the state. At that time, he had recently taken over the health department and improving maternal and child health indicators had become one of his priorities. We decided to focus on the complex problem of high maternal mortality in the state.

We had several late night/early morning interviews, courtesy of the 10-hour time difference, with different stakeholders and had weekly check-ins with our authorizer. Through this process, we mapped the various causes of maternal deaths in a fishbone diagram that helped us visualize the complexity of the problem.

Based on this, we generated some ideas that could be useful in learning more about the problem and help the health department better prioritize resources towards issues that can give them some strong gains in the short-term. We used this work to make a case for building a PDIA team in Meghalaya that could build on this and make some tangible progress on improving maternal health outcomes in the state. 

As we reflect on the process, we want to share three things about three things that capture our key learnings and takeaways for anyone who is interested in doing PDIA.

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PDIA and Dementia in the Workplace

Guest blog written by Tamsir Cham, Andrea Hayes, Fateme Najafi, Aysha Valery

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Overall, we learned that the PDIA process is about being patient, digging deep into a problem, continuing to iterate, and engaging both the stakeholders and the authorizers.  We also learned how to dig deep into problems.  Digging deep requires discovering the underlying or root causes of a problem. To discover these causes, we kept asking ourselves: “Why is this a problem?” In PDIA terms, we call this “The Five Whys.”  In our case, our dialogue went somewhat like this:

  • Why is it a problem that the state of Massachusetts is not equipped to handle dementia in the workplace?  
  • Because there is lack of awareness.
  • But why is there lack of awareness? 

Once we dug deeper into the problem, or deconstructed the problem in PDIA language, we drew the bones on our fishbone diagram.  In the words of Tamsir Cham, “Just like all the bones make up the fish, if you don’t have all those bones together, you won’t have a fish.”

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Strengthening Collaboration to Tackle Increasing Homicides in Charlotte, North Carolina

Guest blog written by Simone D’Abreu, Smriti Iyer, Sofia Salas, Hafou Toure, Annie White

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

PDIA can simultaneously hold the complexity of being exciting and frustrating; challenging and inspiring; harder and easier than you think. If we could choose one phrase to define PDIA, it would probably be iterative learning. In the next few lines, we want to share some of the main things we learnt in this process, both about doing PDIA and about working with a team.

Bring on the problems, not the solutions

We have been trained to jump to solutions and answers and not spend enough time diagnosing the problem. Through this process we learned that asking the right questions and defining the problem -over and over again- is often more productive than finding the “right” solution. This understanding and learning stems from the idea that often problems are complex in nature and understanding the levers within the problem we can operate in is more important that jumping to a solution immediately.

Problems have many explanations as they are people involved

Everyone has a different view of the problem and the factors driving it. It’s hard to explain how knowing more about a problem makes it even harder to articulate it in one sentence and honor the conflict and ambiguity that exists in its definition. Problems, as well as problem definitions are not static and evolve over time. Different people have different views and explanations that must be listened to. As such, we should constantly evaluate our definitions of the problem.

The problem we were trying to delve into was that of coordination between the city and the county in order to tackle the increasing rates of homicides better in the city of Charlotte. We went back and forth on what to define the problem as and in our initial discussions our fishbone analysis which looks at root causes resembled the diagram below.

As time progressed our problem definition continuously evolved and we found that each stakeholder we spoke to had a different perspective on what the problem was and what were the root causes that led to symptoms such as high homicide rates. We mapped the root causes against the three dimensions that PDIA framework provides us, that is; Authority, Acceptance and Ability of the authoriser of our work to affect change in the problem of lack of coordination between different agencies. On the basis of this framework, we narrowed the causes and the areas we could intervene in, to Competing Priorities and Trust Deficit. We chose these two because they rated highest on the parameters of acceptance, authority and ability and were not problems that we felt were necessarily structural in nature.

Continue reading Strengthening Collaboration to Tackle Increasing Homicides in Charlotte, North Carolina