PDIA in Sri Lanka: Learning to Engage New Investors for Economic Diversification – Let’s Go Fishing!

written by Anisha Poobalan

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Meet the Investment Promotions team, a group of Sri Lankan government officials from various departments, experts in differing fields, and all novices at the daunting task ahead of them – attracting foreign investors to Sri Lanka. I had the privilege of working alongside the I-team as a coach and colleague for a year. This post is an introduction to the ‘I team’, the challenges faced, victories celebrated, and the learning and experience gained for all involved, coaches and team members alike.

The I-team journey began in September 2016. A group of six to seven officials were assigned to the team and met together for the first time at a Launchpad session organized by the PDIA team. In some ways, this team had the most challenging yet also exciting goal to achieve. They were the front-line team, tasked with identifying, hooking and reeling in the ‘big fish’. Although, it seemed quite straightforward at the onset, the team had no clue how or where to even start. Which sectors should they focus on? How would they differentiate desired investments from harmful investments? What did Sri Lanka have to offer? How does a mid-level state official even contact an anchor investor? Weren’t there experts doing this already? How was this team, with no experience in promotions, expected to succeed? The questions, doubts and overall skepticism was endless. But, and this became the game changing ‘but’, there were team members, one or two to begin with, who were willing to take on the challenge, and truly believed that this approach would yield something different. So, with this mix of skepticism and determination, the team embarked on a journey full of unpredictable difficulties, surprising results and in the process they learned capabilities to diversify and grow Sri Lanka’s economy.

The team’s first ‘aha’ moment took place at a Launchpad session in the second month of their work. The team had been struggling to choose diversified, beneficial sectors to grow the Sri Lankan economy. Once they picked a few, based on their own research and expertise, (a team of their peers, the T-team, were working on a tool to target sectors parallel to the I-team work) they had to strategize ways to attract these sector specific investors. There were many strategies out there but what was their first step and what were investors looking for? During a guest presentation at the Launchpad session, the leader of the I-team picked up on a method this guest investor was using to promote his business. The team adopted the strategy and within a month of dedicated, focused work had some solid sector-specific ‘pitchbooks’ to use as their bait.

Towards the sixth and seventh months of work, the team began to lose steam. The pitchbooks were close to completion and had been circulated with no promising responses. The team members began to feel their task was impossible. What was the point in pitch books if they weren’t able to engage foreign investors or spark interest in Sri Lanka’s economy? As a coach, this was the most difficult point in any team’s journey. Motivating each team is probably the most important role a PDIA coach can play and generally, almost every month, either a team member or an entire team would undergo paralyzing slumps in their pace and effort. After a few weeks of stagnancy, the team decided to identify strategies for contacting and engaging foreign investors. They used indirect and direct methods, identifying 5 key strategies: engaging key local players for introductions to foreign contacts, meeting local importers who would be able to share pitchbooks and make introductions to their foreign sellers, pursuing foreign investors directly through email and phone calls, requesting Sri Lankan commercial officers in targeted countries to engage directly with investors there – using promotional material and reliable information provided by the I-team, and finally the team engaged with any indirect personal contacts in the targeted sectors.

These new strategies revived the team and with a little structure and quantitative goals, provided by the PDIA coaches, members were able to focus their efforts better. Each sector pair committed to making at least five new contacts a week, while maintaining and following up with contacts from previous weeks. These could be through any of the direct or indirect strategies the team had identified. It is important to note that this work was in addition to their typical, daily responsibilities as government officials. Somehow, officials managed to find the time to research, make calls, write emails, respond to queries and travel far to meet with sector experts. Each pair would report their work to the team weekly, and soon enough their hard work paid off! The team engaged with and hooked some of the biggest and most innovative players in the global market; accomplishments they never could have imagined when they first began this work. If you are interested in reading more about the I-team’s journey, learnings and results, read the team’s working paper.

I would like to conclude with a few thoughts on what it was like to coach a team like the Investment Promotions team. The first challenge was maintaining attendance at their weekly meetings. Not only was the lack of attendance frustrating and discouraging for those who did show up, it reflected the low priority members had given to the initiative. Within a few weeks, through direct conversations and interventions from their authorizer, those who were genuinely not interested in continuing, left the team and new members were appointed. Team members soon realized the importance of their work and the expectations superiors had for this work. I observed a renewed energy and interest in achieving the teams’ goals.

I mentioned the necessity and importance of consistent motivation earlier on in this post. One extremely effective method of motivating members was having a ‘star player’ on the team. This member set the pace and raised the bar so that the rest of the team couldn’t make the typical ‘I was too busy’ excuse for missed deadlines. Realizing that a peer could achieve their weekly goals showed the others that this was possible, despite their daily schedules, and sometimes led to some exciting breakthroughs. As a coach, it was important to ensure the team took ownership of their work. The temptation to intervene and direct the team can be strong. Especially, when the team becomes complacent or disagrees on ways forward, both of which were common for the I-team. These are the times at which I had to force myself to allow the team to make their own decisions, take their own path and learn from their own mistakes. Ownership created responsibility, enthusiasm and ultimately, satisfaction from a job well done. This is exactly how the team felt when they attracted global players to Sri Lanka; a sense of disbelief and awe at their own achievements!

I soon learnt to check up on the team and individual members as often as I could. I would observe tensions during meetings and follow up with members who seemed disgruntled or disinterested. Most often, a quick check in and a little motivation can go a long way in getting a team member back on track. And finally, but most important, appreciate, appreciate, appreciate! This is key and generally not practiced enough. As coaches, we worked hard to appreciate any and all steps towards achieving the teams’ goals. We also celebrated small and big wins as much as possible. This motivated the whole team to continue the good work, and aim for greater wins and bigger fish!

Working alongside the remarkable members of the Investment Promotions team, experiencing their challenges and celebrating their victories, was a true honour. Our hope is that their story will encourage and motivate similar teams and government officials around the world, working hard to diversify and grow their own economy through foreign investment.

Anisha Poobalan worked with us on the PDIA Sri Lanka project from September 2016 to September 2017.

This is part of a blog series that is tagged “PDIA Journey,” written by people who have participated in a PDIA process. 

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