Active and adaptive planning versus set plans in PDIA

written by Matt Andrews

A colleague asked me two questions in response to last week’s blog on initiating PDIA:

  1. “It does not sound like you develop a thorough plan for action. Is this correct?”
  2. “How do you move from the workshop to action, and particularly to action learning?”

I will reflect on these questions in future blog posts, but today I will only address the first one.

It is probably easiest to say that we emphasize planning instead of plans when doing PDIA, where the former is about a process of engaging around a problem and the latter is simply on developing a documented step-by-step strategy.

We believe that planning allows for learning and interaction, by those who will do the work, and this is immensely useful.

We also see planning as an ongoing process, that is active and adaptive and does not happen in one moment or manifest in one document.

That is not to say we do not start with a defined planning exercise. We do.

The planning process is initiated in what we call the initial Launchpad event, which I described in the last blog posting. It occurs in about a day, where we (the in-country PDIA facilitators) work with a number of internal teams addressing festering problems in their governments.

The internal teams do the work at these events, and our PDIA folks just facilitate the process, taking the teams through aggressive sessions of constructing and deconstructing problems, identifying entry points for action, and actual action steps (as described in my prior blog and in the early sections of our new working paper on one of the teams in Sri Lanka).

This initial planning activity does generate a one page action agenda (or plan of sorts), which is intentionally short and simple. It includes the following information:

  • a description of the problem, and why the problem matters,
  • the causes of the problem,
  • what the problem might look like solved (and especially what this kind of result would look like in the time period we are working with—usually 6 months),
  • what the ‘indicative’ results might involve at the 4 month and 2 month periods (working backwards, we ask ‘where would you need to be to get to the 6 month ‘problem solved’ result?),
  • fully specified next steps (where the teams identify what they will do in the next two weeks and what they plan to do in the two weeks after that), and
  • what is assumed in terms of authorization of the next steps, acceptance of these next steps, and abilities to do the next steps (we want teams to specify their assumptions so we can track learn where they are right and wrong and adapt accordingly in future steps).

This kind of content will be familiar to those who know about our Searchframe concept. This content is pretty much the basis of the Searchframe. We don’t often have teams build the Searchframe itself, but it is a heuristic that allows us to work with some type of ‘plan’ but one that is not overly prescriptive and limiting.

This initial planning exercise is only the start of the work, however, and “you never end up where you start in PDIA.”

The exercise is the key to getting started, and its main goal is to empower a quick progression to action. Thus, the most important thing is the listing of key action steps to take next, and a date to come back and ask about how those action steps went, what was learned, and what will be next.

A ‘check in’ event data is usually set about two or three weeks in the future, and we inform the teams that they will be involved in a ‘push period’ between events. (This is similar to a ‘sprint’ in agile processes, but we think the idea of ‘pushing yourself and your organization’ is more apt in the governments we work with, so we call it a ‘push period’). The two to three week push period length provides enough time for teams to act on their next steps but also creates a time boundary necessary to promote urgency and build momentum.

The team meets in-between the events, and works to take the steps they ‘planned’. Then they meet at the check in and answer a series of questions: What did you do? What did you learn? What are you struggling with? What is next?

The answers to these questions provide the basis of learning and adaptation, and allow the teams to adjust their assumptions, next steps, and even (sometimes) expectations. They do this iteratively every few weeks, often finding that their adaptations become smaller over time (as they learn more and engage more, they become more sure of what they are doing and more clear about how to do it).

As such, the initial planning exercise is not the main event, and the initial ‘plan’ is not the main document—or even the final document. The event is just the start of an iterative action-infused planning process, where a loose plan is constantly being adapted until one knows where to go.

From this description, hopefully it is clear that we do foster planning and even a plan, but in ways that are quite different to common approaches to doing development:

  • The work is done by the internal teams, not external partners (consultants or people in donor agencies). We as the external PDIA facilitators may nudge thinking in some directions during the process, but the work is not ours. This is because ownership is a real thing that comes by owners doing the thing they must own, and when outsiders take the work from the owners it undermines ownership.
  • The initial planning exercise and one page plan is not perfect, and is often not as infused with evidence and data as many development practitioners hope it to be. I am an academic and I believe in data and evidence, but in the PDIA process we find that government teams often do not have the data or evidence at hand to do rapid planning, or they do not have the capability to use such. Waiting on data to develop a perfect plan slows the process of progressing to action and getting to the learning by doing. We have thus learned that it is better to not create a huge ‘evidence hurdle’ at the initial stage. We find that, where evidence and data matters, the teams often steer themselves to action around data sourcing, analysis etc. beyond planning. This allows them to find and analyze evidence as part of the process, and build lessons from such into their process.

[A note here is important, given that some recent commentaries have placed ‘using evidence’ and even using ‘big data’ as central to the PDIA process and Doing Development Differently. I love data, and think that there is a huge role for using evidence and big data in development, but I do not see how it is a central part of PDIA. Hardcore evidence based policymaking and big data analysis tends to depend on narrow groups of highly skilled insiders (or more commonly outsiders), the availability of significant amounts of data, and a fairly long process of analysis that yields—most commonly—a document as a result. These are not the hallmarks of effective PDIA and I would caution against making ‘access to evidence’ or ‘using Big Data’ as key signs that one is doing PDIA].

I hope this post has been useful in helping explain our thoughts on plans versus planning. Next week I will describe how we do the iterations in a bit more detail. Remember to read our book on these topics (it is FREE through open access) and read the new working paper on PDIA in action in one of the teams in Sri Lanka. We will produce more of these active narratives soon.


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