Going Back in order to go Forward (South Africa)

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Guest blog written by Lolo Isabelle Balindile Manzini, Xolani Innocent Mthembu, Katerina Nicolaou-Manias, Godfrey F. Phetla, Vijay Valla

It sounds counter-intuitive to go back over and over again in order to go forward. Going back to the drawing board to re-examine, re-assess, review, refine and revise the problem statement and its root causes is one of the key underpinning principles of Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) on a path towards achieving either policy reform, sustainable development or providing enabling support to small business in the mainstream economy. PDIA fosters constant learning, both on a professional and personal level, while devising context-specific, small, actionable steps that promote success, through identifying pockets of excellence (positive deviance) and then building dynamic sustainable solutions to the problem being addressed.

After a 15-week time-intensive and demanding course both professionally and personally, you cannot possibly walk away without turning all of your pre-conceived ideas of problems in every aspect of your life (and how you problem solve them) upside down and inside out.

The PDIA experience teaches you continual reflection, re-examination, re-assessment, revision and refinement in your approach to addressing all facets of the problem, making progress by learning about the problem and through putting small steps into place to address it, making progress towards solving it.

Professionally, we seem to have forgotten some of the most innate methods of learning and problem solving. As babies learning to walk, we did not do so in one big step, but through a series a small steps, building strength in our arms and legs, crawling, learning to stand and finally taking one small step at a time, learning, calibrating, iterating and adapting. Why don’t we do this at work? PDIA challenges the way we apply the big bang, one-size fits all approach to development. One of the biggest take-aways from the course is that complex challenges cannot be solved in one big step but rather through a series of small, concrete, context-specific action steps, iterating, through constant engagement, fostering flexibility and the emergence of new capabilities, ideas and solutions to pressing problems.

One of the more intense elements of the course relates to working in teams. In Lilo and Stitch, Lilo talks about ‘ohana’ which means family and “family means no-one gets left behind.” It’s the only way to describe getting through this course: capitalising on each members strengths, carrying each other to find solutions through the PDIA journey to successful qualification. While this is very frustrating, it is also rewarding in terms of tacit learning.  Fifteen weeks later, a ‘family’ emerges working on a development problem, in our case, it is facilitating the Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) and Red Tape Reduction (RTR) in South Africa.

PDIA fosters creativity in a client-centered, context-specific manner for addressing EoDB and RTR problems. Often demoralised by the magnitude of the problem and lack of resources, the PDIA approach challenges us the break the problem down into small doable steps, within our own span of control. Using the fishbone diagram and analysis of the change space analysis (AAA), we discover the “entry point” to the problem.

From our fishbone and 5 Whys analysis, it was clear, one of the root causes, that expressed itself across all other root causes, was the fact that government doesn’t talk to small businesses. In engaging businesses we learnt our biggest lesson: government doesn’t communicate in an easily digestible and accessible manner. Revising our fishbone and AAA analysis, we discovered that communication was our lowest hanging fruit; a place where we had maximum Authority, Acceptance and Ability. We learned that we needed to listen, listen, and listen some more…

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Governments are great at planning, but implementation is not a strength. PDIA taught us that small context-specific, actionable steps yield success, instilling confidence and momentum towards achieving the aspirational development goal. PDIA brings complex problems to life!

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As a team, walking away from the life-changing PDIA course, we all agreed that we would use PDIA and what we learned. Professionally, we will:

  • Apply PDIA’s problem construction and deconstruction approach;
  • Foster relationships, encourage stakeholder participation and engagement to obtain buy-in;
  • Ensure that we have authority, acceptance and ability;
  • Promote self-reflection, learning, iteration and adaptation;
  • Apply these principles with municipalities regarding the EoDB and RTR, acting as mentors, while empowering them to problem solve in their local context; and
  • Hold weekly or fortnightly meetings to track progress, through engagement promoting joint accountability.

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There is no guarantee that your first bite of the apple will get you to heaven or hell, but you will need to rethink many times about the route you need to take to get there. At the end of the journey, you may not have the answers, but you will certainly have a better understanding of your problem.

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This team works for the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD) in the Government of South Africa. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in December 2018. This is their story.

To learn more, visit our website or download the PDIAtoolkit (available in English and Spanish).


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