Guest blog written by Mitchell Rusu
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.
What an incredible journey this has been!
Coming into this course, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was excited about attending classes at Harvard Kennedy School, but did not realise the tremendous learning opportunity that was awaiting me.
I’ve been working in the private sector my entire career (over twenty years) across many different industries, different countries, and multiple continents, and always for the best companies within their respective industries. Along the way, I have encountered various methods of problem-solving, challenge-resolution, and workflow-mapping. You could say that I thought I’d seen every leadership and management approach there was.
Yet, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover how useful this course would be to my development as a leader. While conceding that some aspects of the course were not entirely unfamiliar, the way they were brought together and packaged in such a powerful problem-solving approach that could be applied to any type of complex situation came as a great surprise and as a learning opportunity – a fresh way of looking at the tools in my cupboard.
Although the initial aim of this course was to teach us how to raise awareness of social problems and implement public policies that would ensure a sustainable long-term response, in my opinion, this course has taught us much more practical, hands-on skills. In this course we have learned a problem-solving methodology that can be applied in various fields, industries, or even our personal lives, whenever and wherever we face complex situations.
I have learned how powerful and engaging we can become by knowing how to appropriately construct a problem and present it in a way that engages multiple stakeholders, how to create powerful teams without formal authority over the members of the team, how to acquire authority from authorisers, how to progress in solving a complex problem in a non-linear way, and how to overcome roadblocks such as bureaucratic organisational structures that can affect your efficiency and ability to engage stakeholders.
Case Study: How I applied My HKS skills to a Banking Industry problem:
At the beginning of the course we were asked to think about a challenge or a project that we could work on over the following months by approaching it in a different way; the “Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation” (PDIA) way.
My project was to implement the “Bank Recovery Planning” policy in the newly established subsidiary of a large Banking Group, which was set up in response to the impact caused by Brexit to the banking industry in the European Union member states.
Why was it difficult?
A bank is a large and complex organization, and implementing complex regulatory policies requires real support, work, and collaboration across departments where I would not have formal authority. No one has “free time”, so attracting support for my project when there are so many competing priorities was a real challenge.
Once we identified our individual projects, we had to construct the problem and raise awareness around it, so that various stakeholders could connect with and understand the importance of addressing it. This allowed us to identify the “authorisers” that we needed to approach in order to mobilise support and to build legitimacy.
For me this particular aspect of the PDIA approach was extremely impactful – I realised that one can attract talented and useful resources to help in the process of addressing a complex issue without having formal authority over the resources. I realised that many successful people know how to build teams and attract support without necessarily having formal authority over the members of the team.
We then had to develop problem “fishbones” that helped us identify the major challenges within the problems, as well as the “entry points” – i.e. the different ways in which we could approach the various aspects of the overall problem.
The fishbones also helped us to think about what capabilities we needed in order to address the different aspects of the problem and to identify the type of resources and subject matter experts (SMEs) that we needed in our teams to help us along the problem-solving journey.
We proceeded to form our teams by convincing various SMEs to join us in the quest of implementing the policy that would address the overall issues/problem.
Trusting in my new HKS tools, I set about building my “problem fishbone” which allowed me to really understand the daunting complexities of my project, “Implement the Bank Recovery Planning Policy for a large Banking Group to satisfy operating regulatory requirements within the European Union”
- Implementing a far-reaching policy in a very large global organisation
- Policy had to be compliant across multiple jurisdictions and countries
- Team contained newly hired personnel with no prior experience on similar policy implementation projects
- Project required support from senior management who at first did not understand the need for such a policy
- Collaboration required with strict and inflexible regulators with whom we did not have a previously established relationship
- Lead the project from a different location, as my office was based in a different European city.
Was I successful?
Yes. Following the guidelines explained in our course, I was able to identify my main stakeholders, authorisers and SMEs that I was going to attract into my team.
I was also able to construct the problem that would be addressed through the implementation of the Bank Recovery Planning Policy and to present it to the main authorisers – i.e. the firm’s Board of Directors.
However, the fishbone also helped me to identify other authorisers who were also very important to the overall success of my project. They comprised the Heads of Departments which employed most of the SMEs that I needed in my team, the members of the governance forums that had to provide review and challenge oversight, and the ultimate approvers of the Bank Recovery Planning Policy project – i.e. the respective country’s Central Bank and the European Central Bank.
Engaging with all these authorisers from the early stages of the project was extremely beneficial, as it allowed me to:
- Secure the appropriate resources for my team,
- Identify the necessary leadership committees who provided independent review and challenge of every section of the project, and by doing so, added the much-needed credibility to the overall project, and
- Build relationships with the regulatory bodies that oversee the banking industry across continental Europe.
By applying the “multiple entry points” method, I was able to approach the problem from different angles and initiate various concurrent workstreams – i.e. setting up discussions with regulators for relation-building purposes and for understanding regulatory expectations, coordinating “educational sessions” for internal authorisers and stakeholders to explain the need for implementing the policy, addressing logistical issues, such as securing traveling budget for supporting personnel and enabling a data-sharing platform that was to be used for the production of the policy document.
Commencing multiple workstreams that could be pursued in parallel was also an extremely powerful approach that I learned though this course. It allowed me to continue to progress through the production phase, even if some aspects or areas of the project would develop at different speeds. By working on several workstreams at the same time facilitated a better engagement with various stakeholders across the organisation. They became aware of the various aspects of the overall project much sooner than if I had followed a linear/staggered approach, trying to solve one challenge at a time.
Another very useful aspect of the PDIA course, which helped me through my project, were the insights we learned about how bureaucratic organisational setups could hinder teams’ efficiency and the ability to engage with the appropriate stakeholders.
In my particular case, internal frictions were created as a result of an organisational misalignment – i.e. the Head of Recovery and Resolution Planning for the new subsidiary (my counterpart and the co-lead of the project) reported into the local Chief Financial Officer Executive; whereas, my reporting line was into the Global Recovery Resolution Planning Executive, which resided at the Group’s Headquarters.
Divergent priorities between the two different organisations become difficult to manage at times; however, the different organisational bureaucratic set-ups that I learned through the PDIA course helped me to quickly identify the issues, engage the appropriate authorisers, and highlight and address the divergence in the departmental objectives, which could have otherwise stalled for a long time.
Why the Iterative Approach Works
Probably the most powerful lesson we learned through this course was about the iterative process that we should apply when facing complex problems. This approach has taught us to set up workstreams that could quickly run through multiple iterations in an attempt to identify successful outcomes, rather than following a prolonged, linear approach, which could lead to an unfavourable outcome that would be difficult to change at a later stage of the project.
For the Bank Recovery Planning Policy project, I initiated such an iterative process for the calibration of the Recovery Indicators and the quantification of the Recovery Options available to the Board of Directors during periods of severe financial stress. This was a process that aimed to identify the appropriate thresholds for the Recovery Indicators and to assess the potential capital and liquidity benefits that would be generated through the implementation of the Recovery Options.
To execute this “rapid-fire” iterative process, I engaged the appropriate SMEs and set up a dedicated team to conduct multiple iterations. I also created a Working Group forum that provided quick review and challenge oversight to the outcomes of the iterations.
Following this approach, four different iterations were conducted during the period of three months that led to the appropriate calibration of the Recovery Indicators, Stress Scenarios and Recovery Options in record time. We were able to progress in parallel with other aspects of the overall project, while the iterations were being conducted.
The PDIA process I designed was a totally different approach to the way we conducted similar projects in the past, in which only one iteration would take place near the end of the project. This made it very difficult to re-write entire sections of the policy or adjust for other significant necessary updates.
All in all, the PDIA approach that we learned in the Public Policy Implementation course proved to be an extremely useful and powerful method to approaching complex problems. I was able to implement an extremely complicated policy for a newly formed organisation, using newly hired staff that had no prior experience, working with very strict regulators, and engaging with stakeholders and authorisers across many jurisdictions and time zones.
The successful execution of my project has materialised in a promotion that I was awarded at the end of the year!
I am extremely grateful to the Harvard Kennedy School team who created this course and taught us how to apply this powerful tool anytime we face complex problems.