IPP Program Journey: Solving Complex Problems in Albany

Guest blog written by David Galin

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy  Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

Coming into this course, I was under the impression it was going to help me better understand the nuances of implementing policy from a roadmap that was created for every situation.  I was a bit nervous we would be taught a rigid set of procedures on how to implement policy – something that was made for every situation but really only worked for maybe one out of every ten, if we were all lucky.  Thankfully I was very wrong.  I learned about a theory that works for those situations that aren’t rigid and need meaningful analytical evaluation.  Situations where you need to think outside the box, need support from your authorizers, but also need to continually build a team.  Situations where you are not only implementing policy but in fact problem solving.  Read: messy, confusing, complex situations.

I learned there truly are a variety of issues – complex and complicated and everything in-between.  I think this is a principle that sometimes you think about in the back of your head but start to say to yourself you’ve overcomplicating the issue and that can’t be.  Turns out, it is.  I learned that you need to see things for what they are but also be willing to look past the first layer of the issue.  You need to unpack the problem.  People are very quick to hear what they think the issue is, and immediately try to come up with solutions.  Sometimes the issue isn’t complicated and that type of problem solving can work.  But sometimes the issue is so complex that you need to spend a significant amount of time unpacking the problem.  Taking the time to understand the hurdles in front of you and the hurdles that may be hidden beneath the surface, before developing a game plan. 

The other thing I learned is that PDIA is as much about relationships as it is about process.  Building relationships – before, during, and after iteration and implementation – is very important.  Having established relationships can cut down on the time needed to build them when trying to solve a complex problem, and helps foster a sense of trust – not only with your authorizers, but with your peers.

The entire process is designed to create a constant feedback loophelping you to review whether your potential solutions are working or not, but also to getting you working with other people, obtaining and re-affirming authorization from your superiors, and brainstorming additional methods to tackling an issue.  When it comes to our problem, we were able to learn that data-driven decision-making is optimal to use as part of PDIA.  Having data and being able to evaluate it before and after the feedback review helps to determine whether that iteration was successful or not.  We made progress narrowing down some of the core issues behind the perceived sub-optimal performance of See Click Fix, including no consistent methodology of using “acknowledged” vs. “closed,” and have also seen a decline in days to acknowledge and days to close as part of the expanded use of ipads as part of our improvements.

What motivated me about PDIA was how easily this process could be used for such a breadth of issues.  Not all problems are created equal, and not every pre-determined path to a solution works for every problem.  An example of this conclusion was found no further away than in our own class.  Some classmates were looking to determine who to establish better collaboration across their organization’s departments while some classmates were trying to get running water to every part of their country or stimulate trade across international borders.  Some classmates were using this process to plot out their next interactions with the World Bank, and some classmates were using this process to plot out their next interaction with their supervisor.  It is simply stunning to me at how easily this process can be picked up and used for the next complex problem that has nothing to do with the previous problem.

In addition to the work I’ve already done at some of the surface levels with See Click Fix, I’ve also tried to engrain this process into solving some other complex issues – not always drawing a fishbone diagram and formalizing the plan on paper, but even just in my head.  Issues as seemingly small as interpersonal conflicts between team members at work can sometimes be solved using PDIA and drilling down to find what the true root cause of the conflict is.  This process has also been part of the discussion when determining that our organization required a new senior level position, Chief of Operations – a position that is going to be dedicated to solving complex problems across our organization.  I believe I have a responsibility to share the nuances and details of this process with our soon-to-be Chief of Operations so he can determine what portions of the process, if not the entire thing, he will use to help iterate and solve.

As for myself, I will still be using PDIA in my new role as Chief of Staff.  While my role will be more management-based than operation-based, I still intend to use the process to solve cross-departmental issues and implement new policies.  As I mentioned before – I truly believe this process can work for a variety of complex issues and I’m looking forward to putting this to the test further in 2020 to help build a city where every neighborhood works.

My words of wisdom would be what I already mentioned above – I think that building relationships is one of the most important parts of this process.  Having relationships built prior to iteration can help get you started on the right foot.  Building relationships during the process can help you sustain and iterate further.  Having a lack of relationships built can foster distrust and potentially enable people to try to sabotage the potential solutions.  Some individuals fear change – they see it as a threat to them, their routines, and their comfort levels.  Some individuals feed off change – they see it as an opportunity to grow, learn, and progress.  When a relationship hasn’t been built with the individuals who fear change, my very unscientific conclusion is that they’re less inclined to help iterate, test, and eventually change.  Having a good working relationship, even with someone who fears change, can help that person overcome their fears, and allow them to put their trust in you.

I am so encouraged by my fellow classmates and the work each are doing as we speak.  When I first arrived in this course, I was overwhelmed by the importance of the issues many of our classmates are working on and didn’t feel like I belonged because my issue didn’t seem as complex.  But what I found during our class and the conversations and relationship-building was that each of us was brought to this class for a reason – to test the bounds of PDIA on a variety of complex issues but also help us create relationships across national and international boundaries.  We’ve created a network of problem-solvers and am excited to see what future iterations of problem-solving will come out of this group in the future.

To learn more about Implementing Public Policy (IPP) watch the course and testimonial video, listen to the podcast, and visit the course website.

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