Practicing Governance: PDIA and Basketball

Guest post written by Brad Cunningham

Basketball players everywhere are trying their best to shoot a ball through a hoop. In pursuit of this goal, players develop their own style of shooting. The image below shows three of the greatest basketball players just as they are about to shoot. At first glance, their form looks pretty similar. However, the differences intrigue me, and make me think about PDIA.


From left to right: Steve Nash, Reggie Miller, and Larry Bird

With a closer look, differences in these players form becomes apparent. When Steve Nash shoots, the ball stays further in front of him, close to directly above his elbow, and slightly right of the center of his body. When Reggie Miller shoots, the ball is centered above his head (not his elbow) and further back. Larry Bird takes the ball even further behind his head and has it centered above his shoulder instead of his head.

If that all seems like insignificant nuance, consider that while Larry Bird shoots, the ball is nowhere in his field of vision. Contrast this with Steve Nash, who almost obscures his vision of the basket with the ball. Despite these differences of shooting form, all three of these players achieved the highest level of shooting functionality during their careers.

In sports, elements of form are often referred to as “mechanics”. Elite athletes using different mechanics happens in many sports. Top golfers develop unique swings that accommodate their physique and style of play. Baseball pitchers also develop unique pitching motions. In each of these sports, it is remarkable that different forms developed even though players are trying to achieve exactly the same function: put a ball through a hoop from up to 24 feet away, hit a golf ball a far distance in the desired direction, or throw a baseball past a batter.

I can only speculate at how a multiplicity of mechanics comes about based on my own (admittedly amateur) experience playing basketball. I was recently back on a basketball court for the first time in a while. An hour flew by while I was working through the seemingly endless combinations of elbow position, ball position, aiming cues, release angle, left hand position, etc. Yet by the end, the rapid feedback I got from how consistently the ball was going in had helped me find a combination of form-elements that worked for me.

In sports, athletes and teams improve their functionality and the integration of their elements of from through a process called “practice”. In governance, agencies improve through a process we call “re-form”. These words are interesting. In my experience, the activities that “practice” brings to mind (such as trial-and-error, coaching, and gaining skills through experience) are much more relevant to improving the functionality of agencies in developing countries. These also happen to be the ideas that PDIA is built around.

In contrast, “reform” implies re-adjusting forms. Without connecting newly adopted forms to their functionality through a process of “practicing”, the purpose gets lost. This is embodied in activities like changing bureaucratic rules and procedures that are easy targets for change but rarely seem to enhance functionality. To get where they need to go, government agencies need help and time practicing their craft. They need clear goals and quick and timely feedback on whether the form adjustments they make are helping to reach these goals. In other words, they need PDIA.

In addition to direct feedback during practice through a PDIA type process, professional athletes are also constantly scrutinized through detailed statistics of their functionality – shooting percentages, batting averages, driving accuracy, etc. This is a great analogy for the kind of metrics we need for government. As Matt Andrews has pointed out before, metrics of governance too often focus on forms. Instead, we need more and better metrics of functionality that will promote the practice of governance.

All of this confirms my suspicion that PDIA is not some new fad of a panacea that was invented by ivory tower elites. Rather, I see it as a mundane (and perhaps far too obvious) description of how people and organizations have always gone about getting better at accomplishing something in the real world… and I think that’s great.

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