PDIA and Authorizers with an itch

written by Matt Andrews

“How do you decide where to work on a PDIA project?”  This is probably the most common question I have been asked with respect to PDIA.

After over 5 years of doing this work in a variety of countries and sectors, I have a simple answer: “When we find authorizers with an itch.”

“That sounds bizarre,” I hear you say. Or maybe you think I’m just being cute to fit in with a playful blogging technique.

No, authorizers with an itch are key to starting any PDIA initiative.

When I say we need counterparts with an itch, I mean that they are very aware of a problem they can’t solve. Like an itch you can’t scratch, or that you scratch again and again but to no avail. This is usually a policy problem that has come to the surface one too many times, usually where various prior reforms or policies or interventions have not provided effective solutions.

Stubborn itches create frustration and even desperation, which can create the space for doing things differently—and taking risks. PDIA needs this kind of space, and this motivating influence. Without it, we have found very little room to focus on the problem, and learn-by-doing towards a new solution.

There are downsides of working to scratch a stubborn itch. The fact that others have tried scratching it, to no avail, means that it is usually going to be ‘wicked hard’ to solve (so don’t expect an easy path to a solution). The fact that it seems to move around (sometimes itching here and sometimes there) reflects the many unseen and even dynamic factors that cause the itch itself (like nasty politics or bureaucratic dysfunction). Don’t expect these factors to go away just because you are tackling the problem with PDIA. You will hit the nastiness soon. Be ready.

When I say we need ‘authorizers’ to start, it is because the PDIA work we do is always in the public domain, where no real work (with action attached) is done without someone’s explicit authorization. The required authorizer is always, in my experience, someone inside the context undergoing change. This means the work cannot be ordered or organized or identified by an external agent (donor, consultant, or even academic).

My team at Harvard found this out the hard way. As you will read in a forthcoming working paper by Stuart Russell, Peter Harrington and I, we have experimented with PDIA initiatives where problems are identified in different ways.  We have had limited success whenever anyone from Harvard or an external entity (like a donor) has been a main identifier of the problem. In contrast, we have almost always had some success when the problem was identified by a domestic authorizer in the place undergoing change.

This is simply because the internal authorizer needs to have internal authority: at the least, to convene a group of internal people to start engaging with the problem, and beyond this to protect the PDIA process from threats and distractions. No external party can do this.

Beyond convening authority, we find that the authorizers need to provide three types of authorization: shareable authorization (where they allow the engagement of other authorizers in the process of scratching the itch), flexible authorization (which allows for an experimental process), and patient (or grit) authorization (where one can expect some continued support in the search for an effective ‘scratch’ solution).

These are big authorization needs, and one does not know if they will be met at the start of the PDIA process. But they tend to come when authorizers face an itch (making them willing to share, adaptive in demands, and patient for a real solution).

We find, therefore, that there is enough space to initiate a PDIA initiative if we find an authorizer with an itch she cannot scratch.  That’s where we start our work, buckling our seat belts and getting ready for a journey of, and to the unexpected.

Are you in a situation where an authorizer is facing a stubborn itch? Maybe you have space to ask, “What’s the problem…and can we mobilize a team to try something different to solve it?”

Learn more about engaging authorizers around problems that matter in chapters 6 and 9 of our free book, Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action.


One thought on “PDIA and Authorizers with an itch

  1. Pingback: Initiating PDIA: Start by running…and then run some more | Building State Capability

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