Guest blog written by Margaret MacDonald
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 the Implementing Public Policy course I felt a little nervous. I wasn’t familiar with problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). I think I expected a prescriptive methodology and wasn’t sure if or how I would be able to apply the theory learned to my work. From the first assignments though the course work and theoretical components were obviously grounded in real-world observations because it was easy to think of examples from my own work experience that reflected the theory; for example – the distinction between functional success and legitimacy success really resonated for me. I really appreciated too that the strategies and tactics explored steered us away from searching for elusive “silver bullet” theories, approaches, or best practices and towards digging into a problem with those affected.
Instead modules focused on things like the importance of defining the problem and defining problems in a way that make it clear why they matter. In my experience we waste a lot of effort working on problems that are ill-defined or even implementing solutions because they solved a problem somewhere else. My experience is also that a lot of work is shaped significantly by existing processes or structures rather than by how that work moves us closer to desired outcomes. It can be difficult (and sometimes maybe not reasonably possible) for us to stop a project mid-stream if we are tracking towards project success based on success measures that were poorly defined or describe project markers rather than progress towards outcomes. The course has reinforced for me that complaints are a source of possible improvements rather than a disruptive detour.
My colleagues on the course really helped to motivate me to push on. Seeing the complexity and enormity of some of the problems they are working on and their perseverance and enthusiasm in the face of that was both humbling and motivating. I really liked being able to connect with some other municipal government employees too. Their experiences were similar to mine and I could see a desire in all of them to make their local environments better places. Encouragement from the course instructors and promptings from Anisha Poobalan were helpful and motivating! PDIA more generally was motivating because it requires you to define your problem clearly and to be clear about why the problem matters – this is not only motivating to authorizers but to implementers as well. Keeping the end in mind helps with day to day motivation when the steps along the way can be a slog and when it is hard to find the time with so many competing priorities.
While I still struggle with the problems I am dealing with, PDIA has given me helpful tools. I have created fishbone diagrams for almost every file that is on my plate. I have talked about functional success and legitimacy success with colleagues to help promote that there are different dimensions of success and that in the long run both of these dimensions are important. I’m more aware of things that come more naturally to me (e.g. engaging authorizers) and areas where I need improvement (e.g. engaging more with users). I have also become more deliberate when it comes to building teams. There are projects that I look back on and see that in some cases, I was already using some of the tenets of PDIA though often by accident rather than design. These (again in retrospect) are projects that were harder at the time but yielded better results than some that took a more traditional path.
When it comes to words of wisdom for other PDIA practitioners; so far my experience is that you need to be brave – when you engage deeply and try to take a different path than usual things can be bumpy, so take a deep breath, lean on your colleagues and trust yourself.