Motivating teams to muddle through

written by Anisha Poobalan

In theory, PDIA seemed like the most logical, straightforward way to go about solving a problem. A team is formed, they deconstruct the identified problem and then attack each causal area, learning and adapting as they go. Being in the field, meeting with the teams weekly, hearing about the obstacles cropping up at each turn, I realize how frustrating and discouraging this work can be. The first challenge is to get the government officials working, but then comes the task of motivating them to keep at it. The temptation to just give up and revert to the status quo grows greater with each pushback they face.

Motivation is central to this work and motivation is difficult. Each team responds to different methods of motivation at different stages on their journey. Various strategies might boost a team for a week or two before they slow down again. In the past two months, the teams were motivated by presentations to high level authorities, responsibility sheets, healthy inter-team competition, inspiring stories from successful economies, brutally honest conversations, site visits, and more. A common factor in all these strategies is the accountability it creates. Creating a culture in which mid-level civil servants are inspired, empowered and then held accountable for delivering real outputs, is necessary if they are to remain motivated.

Throughout the project, teams voiced concerns at their lack of authorization. They doubted that superiors would support their work and proposals and this demotivated them. One team worried that policy makers would not incorporate their proposals and inputs from external consultants might outweigh the teams’ findings. Another team questioned their authority to directly engage with investors and yet another team worried about their inability to influence change. Over the past two months, teams have presented and received the support of several high-level policymakers, ministries and stakeholders. Much to the teams’ surprise, their superiors are keen to expedite approvals, empower the teams, and take ownership of the proposals made. Real work led to engagement which led to authorization and this high-level support and expectation has motivated the teams beyond belief.

Inter-team meetings and synergies motivate and create accountability as well. The teams eventually understood how dependent they were on each other and success for one team meant success for the whole group. If one team was slacking or faced a road block, the output from another team may not be demanded or used to its full potential. For example, when two inter-dependent teams met for the first time, they realized that although theoretically, the output from the first team was world-class, real world experience and engagements were necessary to inform these results. That was a gap the second team had learned to and now had the capability to fill. This meeting helped link their new, or in some cases latent, capabilities. This growing interdependence has created accountability for each team to deliver. As one team continued to work, they identified a gap in the economy that would challenge their success in the future. They were overwhelmed by the severity of the problem and realized they did not have the bandwidth to address this themselves. Much to their relief however, at the next launchpad session they found that another team was already addressing this issue and the team could assure external parties that the challenge was being addressed. The team worked harder at filling this gap once they knew another group was depending on them to succeed. These are big steps in a system that lacks synergy and suffers from severe coordination failure.

Navigating the local landscape in any context is difficult, but some of these officers have struggled with repeated coordination failure for almost 30 years. This leads to frustration, discouragement and cynicism about change. One of the teams experienced this when trying to share a summary document with another government agency. They had to share this document to get support from higher level officials and expedite their work. What should have taken two days, took over two weeks. A disheartening but useful lesson, this team is learning to plan ahead, follow up and prepare for such delays in their timeline. Another team is still waiting on the approval for a document submitted around six months ago. The time and energy spent on inter- and intra-agency coordination is frustrating but the teams have made considerable progress despite the difficulties. Their persistence and continued efforts are inspiring and we hope that these notes will encourage you to persevere in your own challenging contexts.

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