written by Peter Harrington
After over two years of working with the government of Albania, and as we embark on a new project to work with the government of Sri Lanka, we at the Building State Capability program (BSC) have been learning a lot about doing PDIA in practice.
Lessons have been big and small, practical and theoretical – an emerging body of observations and experience that is constantly informing our work. Amongst other things, we are finding that teams are proving an effective vehicle for tackling problems. We have found that a lot of structure and regular, tight loops of iteration are helping teams reflect and learn. We have found that it is vital to engage with several levels of the bureaucracy at the same time to ensure a stable authorising space for new things to happen. This all amounts to a sort of ‘thick engagement’, where little-and-often type interaction, woven in at many levels, bears more fruit than big set-piece interventions.
Each of these lessons are deserving of deeper exploration in their own right, and we will do so in subsequent posts. For now, I want to draw out some reflections about the real goal of our work, and our theory of change.
In the capacity-building arena, the latest wisdom holds that the best learning comes from doing. We think this is right. Capacity building models that rely purely on workshop or classroom settings and interactions are less effective in creating new know-how than interventions that work alongside officials on real projects, allowing them to learn by working on the job. Many organisations working in the development space now explicitly incorporate this into their methodology, and in so doing promise to ensure delivery of something important alongside the capacity building (think of external organizations that offer assistance in delivery, often by placing advisers into government departments, and promise to ensure a certain goal is achieved and the government capacity to deliver is also enhanced).
It sounds like a win-win (building capabilities while achieving delivery). The problem is that, in practice, when the implementers in the governments inevitably wobble, or get distracted, or pulled off the project by an unsupportive boss (or whatever happens to undermine the process, as has probably happened many times before), the external advisors end up intervening to get the thing done, because that’s what was promised, what the funder often cares more about, and what is measurable.
When that happens, the learning stops. And the idea of learning by doing stops, because the rescue work by external actors signalled that learning by doing—and failing, at least partially, in the process—was at best a secondary objective (and maybe not even a serious one). Think about anything you have ever learned in your life – whether at school or as an adult. If you knew someone was standing by to catch a dropped ball, or in practice was doing most of the legwork, would you have really learned anything? For the institutions where we work, although the deliverable may have been delivered, when the engagement expires, nothing will have changed in the way the institution works in the long run. This applies equally, by the way, to any institution or learning process, anywhere in the world.
The riddle here is this: what really makes things change and improve in an institution, such that delivery is enhanced and capability to deliver is strengthened? The answer is complex, but it boils down to people in the context doing things differently – being empowered to find out what different is and actually pursue it themselves.
In pursuing this answer, we regularly deploy the concept of ‘positive deviance’ in our work: successful behaviors or strategies enabling people to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers. Such people are everywhere, sometimes succeeding, and depending on the conditions sometimes failing, to change the way things work – either through their own force of will, or by modelling something different. Methods to find and empower positive deviants within a community have existed for many years. But what if, by cultivating a habit of self-directed work and problem solving, it was possible to not just discover positive deviants but create new ones?
Doing things differently stems from thinking differently, and you only think differently when you learn – it’s more or less the definition of learning. Looked at this way, learning becomes the sine qua non of institutional change. It may not be sufficient on its own – structures, systems and processes still matter – but without a change in paradigm among a critical mass of deviants, those other things (which are the stuff of more traditional interventions) will always teeter on the brink of isomorphism.
We believe that positive deviance comes from learning, especially learning in a self-directed way, and learning about things that matter to the people doing them. If you can catalyse this kind of learning in individuals, you create a different kind of agency for change. If you can go beyond this and catalyse this kind of learnings in groups of individuals within an institution or set of institutions, and create a sufficiently strong holding space for their positive deviance to fertilise and affect others, then gradually whole systems can change. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s any other way that it happens. As Margaret Mead put it, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
This is our theory of change. The methods we use – particularly the structured 6-month intensive learning and action workshop we call Launchpad – are trying above all to accelerate this learning by creating a safe space in which to experiment, teach ideas and methods that disrupt the status quo, and create new team dynamics and work habits among bureaucrats. By working with senior and political leaders at the same time, we are trying to foster different management habits, to help prevent positive deviance being stamped out. In doing all this, the goal is to cultivate individuals, teams, departments and ultimately institutions that have a habit of learning – which is what equips them to adapt and solve their own problems.
This does not mean that the model is necessarily better at achieving project delivery than other methods out there, although so far it has been effective at that too. The difference is that we are willing to let individuals or even teams fail to deliver, because it is critical for the learning, and without learning there is no change in the long term. Doing this is sometimes frustrating and costly, and certainly requires us gritting our teeth and not intervening, but what we see so often is agents and groups of agents working their way out of tricky situations with better ideas and performance than when they went in. They are more empowered and capable to provide the agency needed for their countries’ development. This is the goal, and it can be achieved.