Building capability: the true success of PDIA

written by Anisha Poobalan

The PDIA team has been working in Sri Lanka for the past six months with five talented and motivated government teams. This work is challenging and demands hard work by government officials and yet through short, repeated iterations, real progress is achieved. The teams update a facilitator every two weeks while also preparing for their next two week ‘sprint’. Once a month, the teams meet together at a ‘Launchpad’ session to update each other, evaluate their progress, adapt their action plans accordingly and set out for the next month of hard work. I have the privilege of sitting in on team meetings every week. This work takes time, it takes perseverance and it requires trust, and the task of attacking some of the most challenging areas in government is frustrating but absolutely worth it with each breakthrough. While impossible to articulate completely, this post attempts to reflect the ground reality of practicing PDIA in order to build state capability.

Emergence, in complexity theory, is the process by which lessons learned from new engagements and activities lead to a unique recombination of ideas and capabilities that result in unpredictable solutions. Emergence is evident in each PDIA team. For example, as one team made progress on their problem, they identified a constraint that needed to be addressed if they were to succeed. Another team had a similar realization and eventually the idea for a potential solution cropped up and an entire team was formed around it. As one of the team members noted, the more we engage, the more opportunities arise and connections are made and we will get lucky soon!

As the teams prepare for their lucky moment and produce tangible products, the individual capability built is the true success of this work.  As one team leader said, ‘We haven’t done something like this in the 30 years I have been [working] here!’ At the first launchpad session, a team member told me about experiences they had had at similar workshops. ‘We meet and discuss various topics and then leave. But I think this will be different, we must actually do something.’ Faced with a new challenge, undertaking a task he had no experience in, this member is now an expert and motivates the others along. From the onset, he has been determined to achieve his targets and has proven to the rest in that team, that hard work and genuine interest can lead to unexpected, impressive learning and results.

Another team member, an experienced yet skeptical team leader, did not leave the first launchpad session quite as confident. She didn’t believe this work would lead to real results and doubted they would have the necessary political backing. A few months later, she is now the most motivated, engaged, focused member on his team. ‘So many people come to collect information, then they put down their ideas in a document and give it to us to act on. This just ends up on a shelf. It’s better not to talk, but to do something – so we are happy! Especially the support from the higher-level authorizers has given us confidence to keep working’. This team embarked on a journey from confusion to clarity. They had to trust this approach, take action and gradually fill the information gaps they did not even know existed a few months before. It has been frustrating, and yet they continue in good faith that with each piece of information gathered they are closer to a clear, achievable vision for their project. The capability to create project profiles like this has grown in this team and will be useful to their colleagues across government. These capabilities are the results of hard work, intentional engagement, and consistent expansion of authority.

Some people ask, ‘So what makes a good team? What departments should they come from or what expertise should they have?’ My answer to that is simple: a successful team comprises of people who are willing to work; government officials willing to trust a completely new approach and work hard. Hard working teams are essential to the success of PDIA and while expertise, seniority, and experience may be considered necessary, without genuine hard work, any team, no matter how talented, will fail. Here in Sri Lanka, each team is unique, with varying weaknesses and strengths they have learned to work around. Some teams lack strong leadership which forces team members to take greater responsibility and ownership in decision making and motivation. Other teams have strong leadership so some members took on less responsibility and at points didn’t contribute at all to achieving the teams’ goals. Some teams have capable workers frustrated by their lack of authority, and others have the authority but lack capability. There are teams that perform well with organized deadlines and targets, while others struggle to set deadlines beyond the coming week. Each team’s composition has adapted as the work evolved, and each team has achieved great things through their diverse skill sets, past experience, commitment to real work and time-bound action.

I hope these field notes help give a sense of what PDIA is like on the ground and how this approach, although difficult and emotionally draining, can lead to new, or make use of latent, capabilities within government.

If you are interested in learning more about the Sri Lanka work, you can read the targeting team working paper.

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