A Reflection on PDIA in Action: Homelessness in Tarrant County

Guest blog written by Akbar Ahmadzai, Emma Davies, Renzo LavinFernando Marquez

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Six weeks ago, the class counted off numbers: One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. Some of us were fortunate enough to have been assigned to group 2. Others convinced classmates to switch with them. Regardless of how we got there, all of us in group 2 would be working on Homelessness in Tarrant County. Had any of us been to Texas? No. Had any of us worked on homelessness issues in the past? No. Yet, in the next six weeks, through reading numerous documents and reaching out to people knowledgeable about the issue, we too would learn about the problem of homelessness in Tarrant County. 

On our first day, our group was inclined to think that access to affordable housing was the main driver of homelessness. An obvious solution to this problem seemed to be increasing the number of available units. After our first call with our authorizer, Maggie Jones, the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development, we quickly realized we were wrong in two key ways. First, the problem was much more complex than just the lack of housing and we would have to dive deeper to understand it better. Second, there were no obvious solutions to addressing homelessness and, given that homelessness is a multidimensional problem, several measures would be required to tackle sub-areas contributing to homelessness. 

We were introduced to a large network of people, agencies, and community organizations working on addressing homelessness in Tarrant County. Within the first week, we learned that “more than 2,000 individuals experience homelessness on any given night in Tarrant County” and, during the point in time count, there were 560 unsheltered homeless people despite 602 available beds throughout the system. Furthermore, there were many people at risk of losing their housing and becoming homeless in the near future. Armed with this information, we defined (constructed) the problem as follows:

Continuing to engage with people working on homelessness in Tarrant County and reading several documents related to the issue of homelessness helped us identify various subproblems and factors that contribute to homelessness in Tarrant County. The question “why” proved extremely helpful when deconstructing our problem. For instance,

Question: Why are many people homeless, or on the verge of being homeless, in Tarrant County despite numerous resources and services allocated to the problem?

Answer: (one reason) access to affordable housing

Question: Why is there limited access to affordable housing?

Answer: Vouchers are being denied by landlords, rent is increasing, and housing is far from transit.

Question: (one option) Why is rent increasing?

Answer: There is an increasing population and there are few units available.

Going through this process we deconstructed our problem and presented it as a fishbone diagram. Unemployment, affordable housing, coordination among stakeholders, underutilized emergency shelters and lack of tailored programming formed the main bones of our diagram.  

Over the next few weeks, we would refine our fishbone and include subcomponents that we initially neglected including healthcare, stigma, and critical documents. 

Though much of our time was spent on better understanding the problem, it is also important to identify areas for action. One of the premises of doing PDIA is that systemic change happens when a piece of the system is altered and produces a change in dynamics that ends up impacting the structure. Identifying the binding constraints to solve the bigger problem is key to determining the right entry points. Not all areas of the fishbone are equally feasible to fix or address. Following the AAA method, we discussed the levels of authority, acceptance, and ability that we, as a group, had to work on each of the causes of the problem. We eventually narrowed our focus to two entry points: Underutilized emergency shelters and critical documents.

Our last two weeks were spent exploring whether there is positive deviance or latent potential in Tarrant County or external best practice elsewhere. Some progress was made, however, many questions remained. For critical documents, we learned who is working on critical documents to address homelessness in Tarrant County, what is being done in Durham, NC, and barriers to accessing IDs faced by undocumented homeless people in the US. A major question that remained was the magnitude of the problem in Tarrant County, namely, how many homeless people lack critical documents or identification. For underutilized shelters, we learned why people remain unsheltered, how this can be addressed, the consequences of eligibility criteria and what to do with specific groups that are not served. 

MLD 103M not only taught us about homelessness in Tarrant County but also about PDIA.

PDIA goes beyond the “plan and control” approach, by (1) allowing flexibility and offering an iterative process to understand complex problems and (2) working within a team setting to generate ideas and take action. The most important thing to do when addressing a complex problem is to try to understand it. Most of the process is about exploring the problem and digging into its multiple roots and contributing factors. This can be overwhelming, because of the amount of information, interrelated causes, networks of actors involved, etc. Also, it can be frustrating because there are no obvious answers to some of the questions that arise during the process. 

The method pushed us to do something every week, either investigating or reflecting on a certain aspect of the problem, thinking or testing ideas, or reaching out to new people. There is always a concrete and actionable step to work on and, even if those steps do not offer a solution to the problem, they foster learning. Furthermore, it became clear that even simple ideas can have a profound impact on the issue at hand.

The iterative approach helped us move forward and make progress very quickly, but it also prevented us from continuing too far in the wrong direction. Working in development projects, this is very important to avoid not only wasting valuable resources in long projects that end up failing but also to prevent implementers and beneficiaries from getting frustrated, which can sometimes close the door to future change.

PDIA provides an approach to deal with complex problems in a more systematic way. Complex problems may seem overwhelming, however, deconstructing the problem into its subcomponents makes the problem more manageable. Additionally, this allows actors to address the root of the problem.  

Our group found that:

  • Deconstructing the problem was a particularly insightful exercise. Asking “why” to each of the causes of the problem helped break it down and make it more manageable. It also helped question assumptions that seemed to make sense at first but ended up being wrong when we explored them deeper.
  • Teamwork is critical for this process because it provided the space to share not only the findings, learnings and ideas but also frustrations, anxiety, and the feelings of ambiguity that arose during the process. Teamwork built accountability and each member was committed to doing a good job. 
  • Time pressure helped. Having a weekly task to reach out to someone and find a new document accelerated our learning process.  
  • Communication is pivotal to understanding the extent of a complex problem and its underlying causes. A lot of people are knowledgeable about the issue, but this knowledge is not widely shared. Engaging with these people was an act in knowledge-gathering. We were learning from people’s nuanced understanding and perspective on the issue.  

PDIA framework expands the opportunities for innovation and thinking out of the box. It shifts people away from a solutions mindset to focus on other steps in the process such as the problem construction, problem deconstruction, and areas where actors have the authority, acceptance, and ability to make change. 

PDIA’s iterative process allows for flexibility when testing out ideas within a complex and unknown setting.Identifying an authorizer who is not only knowledgeable about the problem but is also passionate about working toward resolving it is crucial to conducting PDIA. The authorizer should allocate ample amount of time to work with the team to provide direction, motivation, and encouragement as the process of working with unknown problems is overwhelming and requires a central point that brings all parts together when needed.  

In six short – albeit busy – weeks, it is fair to say that a shift in mindset has occurred for each of us in group 2. We are no longer drawn to solution-based approaches without first understanding the root(s) of the problem. Additionally, we no longer shy away from complex issues where we lack expertise. We had no relation to Texas nor homelessness, yet, this process forced us to learn – and to learn quickly. It highlighted the importance of communication, teamwork, and leveraging networks. In May, we are all leaving HKS excited to apply and share PDIA within our respective fields.  

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