Bringing the Field to the Classroom: Learning to do PDIA in Practice

7 mins read

written by Salimah Samji

Implementation is hard. It is often the weakest link in the success of a policy or program. Yet, public policy education remains focused on teaching students to design and analyze policies. As Francis Fukuyama aptly wrote, “most programs train students to become capable policy analysts, but with no understanding of how to implement those policies in the real world,” and “the world is littered with optimal policies that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted.”

BSC Faculty Director, Matt Andrews, has been teaching Getting Things Done: Management in a Development Context, at the Harvard Kennedy School for over a decade. In this course, students learn how public policy implementation can be improved and made more effective. They learn how to identify the nature of the implementation problem they are working on and then how to match their challenge to the appropriate management approach: plan and control, adaptive methods, and facilitated emergence. They also learn about blended approaches and how a “blend” would work. 

In the face of complex implementation challenges, we believe that practitioners should be using more facilitated emergence methods, where the focus is on problems (not solutions), follows a step-by-step process (not a rigid long-term plan), and allows for flexible learning and adaptation (instead of control-oriented implementation). While many practitioners agree that more flexible approaches are needed, they do not know “how” to use alternative methods to plan and control. Our experience with direct policy engagements and executive training for development practitioners around the world, has taught us that action learning is crucial for building the muscle memory of solving complex problems: the only way to learn is by doing.

In response to this, we developed a new course module in 2018: PDIA in Action: Development through Facilitated Emergence. Our objective was to allow students to apply a research-oriented version of PDIA – to learn how to incorporate facilitated emergence within a rapidly applied team-based research strategy. 

A key component of this course has been providing the students with an opportunity to work on real-world problems with people who are familiar with the PDIA approach. In the previous years, students have worked with government teams with whom we have had direct policy engagements. This year, we asked the alumni of our Implementing Public Policy (IPP) executive education program if they were interested in providing real-world policy problems they were facing and whether they wanted to be the authorizer or client for our students. 

Three IPP alumnae, Julia Martin, Maggie Jones and Olga Yulikova, who had been trained on PDIA and implementation, signed up to work with our students. Two of them had been funded to attend IPP by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and all three of them worked for either local or state governments. They assigned the following challenges to our students:

  • Homelessness in Tarrant County, Texas
  • Homicide in Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Early-onset dementia in the workplace in Massachusetts

Twenty-six students signed up to take the course on January 27th, 2020. Over the next six weeks, the students worked across six teams and adopted a problem driven approach to foster learning that could help their authorizers develop an applied response to their challenge. They learned how to work together as a team, drew fishbone diagrams, conducted the triple-A change space analysis, identified entry points, spoke to stakeholders, undertook two iterations, and presented their lessons learned to the authorizers in class on March 9th, 2020 (see photograph above). 

Here are some of the key lessons they learned. 

Dealing with uncertainty and unknowns is hard – and it is okay

This was hard and frustrating for students because they are taught to be the “expert” who has to know it all. This required a lot of un-learning. They noted:

  • “Addressing unknown problems is hard.”
  • “I have learned that the learning never ends (or at least it should not), and we must be okay with that.”
  • “It requires testing and learning about different hypotheses with genuine curiosity without advocating or pursuing one particular strategy.”
  • “One of the challenges of addressing unknown problems is that different people can have different definitions of the problem.”
  • “The hardest thing was the time constraint and the idea that we had to move fast without having all the information.”

There is a huge bias toward finding quick solutions.

Almost all of the students struggled with the urge to jump to solutions instead of taking the time to fully diagnose and deconstruct their problem. They reflected:

  • “One of the hardest things during the process was to resist the temptation to think how to solve the problem well before being able to fully understand the problem.”
  • “It was hard to step away from the notion that we needed to deliver a solution. Stepping away from the notion of finding a solution and follow best practices allowed us to learn more about the context.”
  • “I think for me, it was incredibly revelatory how we tend to think in a solution-driven way, particularly when we are uncomfortable with a problem that we can’t fully identify or understand. This course made me realize that it is fine not to have solutions right away, but to continue asking why something is or is not.”
  • “A solution-first approach undoubtedly hampers our ability to understand and iterate on different problem definitions, and consequently, on different ideas for action.”
  • “Learning is as equally valuable as having a solution. With more learning, one will be able to design a more adequate solution that really addresses the root causes of the problem.”

The importance of bringing in different perspectives.

All students saw the value of engaging with a variety of stakeholders to better understand their problem. They reflected: 

  • “The differences in perspective proved really helpful in refining our ideas and testing our assumptions.”
  • “It is fundamental to talk to as many people involved in the problem as possible, in order to get different perspectives and potential hidden issues that may be related to the main problem at stake.”
  • “I also learned how helpful it is to navigate the unknown by engaging with others, not only the new people that we contacted every week but also the members of our team.”
  • “I will also be taking away the discipline of systematically reaching out to stakeholders to understand a problem from different perspectives and invite collaboration from other actors.”
  • “The process of calling someone new every week was incredibly insightful but also rewarding and inspiring.”
  • “It is crucial to understand the perspective of those affected by the problem.”

Iteration, taking small steps, and the power of learning.

They noted: 

  • “Since adaptive challenges – like homelessness or racism or workplace discrimination – have human costs, it feels at times like small interventions are not doing enough, but I’ve recognized in this class that these small-scale interventions are a prime way of learning about the intervention and iterating the intervention to fit the context and more adequately address the problem.”
  • “I’ve learned that small interventions help better understand the system and assess the (intended and unintended) implications, which help you further navigate the problem-solving process and iterate new ideas to address the challenge.”
  • “Every step led to new engagements, new information, and new ideas that would generate new actionable steps while learning in the process.”
  • “In certain cases, small solutions or a bundle of solutions are necessary for impact to be realized.”
  • “The method pushes you to be doing something every week, either investigating something, thinking or testing ideas, reaching to new people, reflecting on a certain aspect of the problem. There is always a concrete and actionable step to work on, and even if those steps would not bring a solution to the problem, they fostered learning.”
  • “The iterative approach was especially useful too. Not only that it helps to move forward and make progress very fast, but it also prevents from going too far in the wrong direction.”
  • “I learned that taking action and learning quickly and then planning the subsequent step can be effective. It is also fun.”
  • “The challenges of un-learning: having to reframe your knowledge and assumptions of any given problem as you move through the process. … sometimes political challenges/ issues of acceptance are not apparent. Only way you can find them is by pushing on an entry point and have someone push back.”
  • “There is opportunity for great learning in a short period of time. We came away from the process with a much more in-depth understanding of the problem than we started with and more than what I thought we could gain in the short period of time.”
  • “One of the main lessons I will carry forward is the idea that small steps -if well-identified and crafted- can create small changes that then set the system to move in a different direction.”

Teamwork needs careful thought and design.

They reflected:

  • “The teamwork for this process was helpful because it was the space to share, not only the findings, learnings and ideas, but also it was a safe group to share our frustration, anxiety and the feelings of working with ambiguity.”
  • “The importance of keeping the team motivated as dealing with complicated and unknown problems can lead to feelings of frustration and disengagement.”
  • “Creating thick lines of communication is easier said than done and requires more work at the beginning of the process.”
  • “One of the challenges is making sure that the learning is indeed shared and incorporated by the whole team and not just by individuals.”
  • “I have learned that teams do not merely make the work lighter, but they make it more meaningful with greater opportunity to learn through engagement, discussion, and reflection.”

We were really humbled by how much they learned about (i) the challenge they were assigned, (ii) effective teamwork, (iii) the value of engaging with people, and (iv) most importantly, themselves – all in a short period of six weeks. 

Each team also wrote a blog about their learning journey. Here are the links:

Homelessness in Tarrant County, Texas

Homicide in Charlotte, North Carolina

PDIA and dementia in the workplace

Reducing maternal mortality in Meghalaya, India

Becoming comfortable with complexity

PDIA and coordination challenges in government


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