Initiating PDIA: Start by running…and then run some more

written by Matt Andrews

“Once there is interest, how do you start a PDIA project?”

Many people have asked me this question. They are often in consulting firms or donor agencies thinking about working on PDIA with host governments, or in some central bureau in the government itself.

“We have an authorizer, know the itch that needs scratching (the problem), and have a team convened to address it,” they say. “But we don’t know what to do to get the work off the ground.”

I ask what they would think of doing, and they typically provide one of the following answers:

“We should do research on the problem (the itch)” or “We should hold a multi-day workshop where people get to analyze the problem and really used to a problem driven approach.”

I have tried starting PDIA with both strategies. Neither is effective in getting the process going.

  • When outsiders (donors, academics, or even central agencies responsible for making but not implementing policy) do the primary research on ‘the problem’, their product is usually a report that sits on shelves. If you start with such a product it is hard to reorient people to change their learned behavior and actually use the report.
  • When you hold an elaborate workshop, using design thinking, fancy analysis, or the like, it is very easy to get stuck in performance—or in a fun and exciting new activity. We find people in governments do attend such events and have fun in them, but often get lost in the discussion or analysis and stay stuck in that place.

Having tried these and other strategies to initiate PDIA interventions, we at Harvard BSC have learned (by doing, reflection, and trying again…) some basic principles about what does not work in getting started, and what does work. Here are a few of these findings:

  • It does not work when outsiders analyze the problem on behalf of those who will act to solve it. It works when those in the insider PDIA teams construct and deconstruct the problem (whether they do this ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). The insiders must own the process, and the outsiders must ‘give the work back’ to the rightful owners.
  • It does not work to stage long introductory workshops to launch PDIA processes, as participants either get frustrated with the time away from work or distracted by the workshop itself. Either way they get stuck and the workshop does not mobilize their action. It works if you convene teams for short ‘launchpad-type events’ where they engage rapidly and move as rapidly to action (beyond talk). We are always anxious to move internal PDIA teams to action. The meetings are simply staging events: they are not what ‘doing PDIA’ is actually about.

Acting on these principles, we now always start PDIA running.

We bring internal teams together, and in a day (or at most a day and a half) we ‘launch’ through a series of sessions that (i) introduce them to the PDIA method, (ii) have them construct and (iii) deconstruct their problems, (iv) identify entry points for action, and (v) specify three or more initial practical steps they can take to start addressing these entry points. At the end of the session they go away with their problem analysis and their next step action commitments, as well as a date when they will again meet a facilitator to discuss their action, and learn by reflection.

This is a lot to get done in a short period. This is intentional, as we are trying to model upfront the importance of acting quickly to create the basis of progress and learning. We use time limits on every activity to establish this kind of pressure, and push all team members to ‘do something’, then ‘stop and reflect’, and then do the next thing.

When we get to the end of each Launchpad event, the internal teams have their own ‘next step’ strategies, and a clear view that the PDIA process has now started: they are already running, and acting, and engaging in a new and difficult space. And they know what they need to do next, and what date in the near future they will account for their progress, be asked about their learning, and pushed to identify more ‘next steps’.

When I tell interested parties in donor agencies, consulting firms, etc. about our ‘start by running’ approach, they have a number of common responses:

“It does not sound like anyone is doing a proper diagnosis of the problem: what happens if the team gets it wrong?”

“What happens if the team identifies next steps that make no sense?”

“This strategy could be a disaster if you have the wrong people in the room—who don’t know what they are doing or who have a biased view on what they are doing…”

These concerns are real, but really don’t matter much in the PDIA process:

  • We don’t believe that initial problem diagnostics are commonly correct when one starts a program (no matter how smart the researchers doing the analysis).
  • We also don’t believe that you commonly identify the right ‘next steps’ from a study or a discussion.
  • And we also don’t believe that these kinds of processes are ever unbiased, or that you commonly get the right people in the room at the start of a process.

We don’t believe you address these concerns by doing great up front research. Rather, we aim to get the teams into action as quickly as possible, where the action creates opportunity for reflection, and reflection informs constant experiential learning—about the problem, past and next steps, and who should be involved in the process. This learning resides in the actors involved in the doing, and prompts their adaptation. Which leads to greater capability and constant improvement in how they see the problem, think of potential solutions, and engage others to make these solutions happen.

A final note:

When I discussed this strategy with a friend charged with ‘doing PDIA’ as part of a contract with a well-known bilateral donor, he lamented: “You are telling me the workshop is but a launching event for the real PDIA process of acting, reflecting, learning and adapting….but I was hired to do a workshop as if it was DOING PDIA. No one spoke of getting into action after the workshop.”

To this colleague—and the donors that hired him—I say simply, “PDIA is about getting people involved, and acting, and you always need to get to action fast. PDIA must start by running, and must keep teams running afterwards. Anything that happens one-off, or that promotes slow progress and limited repeated engagement is simply not PDIA.”

Learn more about initiating PDIA in practice in chapters 7 and 9 of our free book, Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action.

One thought on “Initiating PDIA: Start by running…and then run some more

  1. Pingback: Active and adaptive planning versus set plans in PDIA | Building State Capability

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