Guest blog written by Simone D’Abreu, Smriti Iyer, Sofia Salas, Hafou Toure, Annie White
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.
PDIA can simultaneously hold the complexity of being exciting and frustrating; challenging and inspiring; harder and easier than you think. If we could choose one phrase to define PDIA, it would probably be iterative learning. In the next few lines, we want to share some of the main things we learnt in this process, both about doing PDIA and about working with a team.
Bring on the problems, not the solutions
We have been trained to jump to solutions and answers and not spend enough time diagnosing the problem. Through this process we learned that asking the right questions and defining the problem -over and over again- is often more productive than finding the “right” solution. This understanding and learning stems from the idea that often problems are complex in nature and understanding the levers within the problem we can operate in is more important that jumping to a solution immediately.
Problems have many explanations as they are people involved
Everyone has a different view of the problem and the factors driving it. It’s hard to explain how knowing more about a problem makes it even harder to articulate it in one sentence and honor the conflict and ambiguity that exists in its definition. Problems, as well as problem definitions are not static and evolve over time. Different people have different views and explanations that must be listened to. As such, we should constantly evaluate our definitions of the problem.
The problem we were trying to delve into was that of coordination between the city and the county in order to tackle the increasing rates of homicides better in the city of Charlotte. We went back and forth on what to define the problem as and in our initial discussions our fishbone analysis which looks at root causes resembled the diagram below.
As time progressed our problem definition continuously evolved and we found that each stakeholder we spoke to had a different perspective on what the problem was and what were the root causes that led to symptoms such as high homicide rates. We mapped the root causes against the three dimensions that PDIA framework provides us, that is; Authority, Acceptance and Ability of the authoriser of our work to affect change in the problem of lack of coordination between different agencies. On the basis of this framework, we narrowed the causes and the areas we could intervene in, to Competing Priorities and Trust Deficit. We chose these two because they rated highest on the parameters of acceptance, authority and ability and were not problems that we felt were necessarily structural in nature.
Those affected have the answers
People who are already working on the problem already have a lot of information and lessons learnt. Community members and grassroots organizations, as well as victims, and those who have been directly involved, have a lot of knowledge and ideas about what the problems are and how to resolve them. It is important not only to listen to them, but also to get them involved in every phase of the iteration process: ideation, design, implementation and assessment in order to engage in solutions that are sustainable and actually represent more voices at the table. Problems such as homicide requires approaches other than the conventional top down approach.
It is not about revolutionary ideas, it is about connecting the dots
Every time we came up with a new idea, we would get a bit frustrated when we learnt that someone in the government of Charlotte was either already trying it or planning to do it.. Soon, frustration turned into learning: that we didn’t need to come up with revolutionary ideas, we had to understand why they were working or not and how to connect different people who were trying different things. Often the largest problem was what we had stated at the start: the lack of coordination and collaboration. Everyone seemed to be working in their own silos and perhaps our only job during the process was to make them aware that these other initiatives existed.
Small steps are important; sometimes, even more than the large solution
A lot of the development sector and work seems to revolve around dismantling and completely overhauling existing systems. PDIA teaches one not to reinvent the wheel. Often, implementing small actions can have a great impact. One needs to resist the urge to change the whole system. Sometimes it is enough to move one gear or take one incremental step and see what happens next.
Albeit hard for type A personalities, patience and flexibility do work
Addressing unknown problems requires patience and flexibility, as well as letting go of a lot of default practices and assumptions on our part. One of the challenges of addressing unknown problems is that different people can have different definitions of the problem. Another one is that they might seem so big that people can prefer not to do anything because “there is no solution big enough” for such a challenge.
Cooperation is easier said than done
Trying to help others how to cooperate highlighted our own cooperation challenges. We found out early on that county and city governments had different priorities and communication challenges. Throughout the process, some of these challenges were mirrored in how we functioned as a group. However, team members always stepped up and found ways to work together. As with the rest of the process, we learnt that cooperating and working together is easier said than done. It highlighted something very simple to us which is that while the problem of coordination at the face of it seems to be an easy fix it is often not and we had to learn this the hard way through being in a diverse group who had competing priorities over their time which is similar to the case we were studying. It helped us build empathy for our authoriser and government to understand why things that seem so obvious often do not get done.
When reflecting on the PDIA process, the group learned valuable lessons that will not only help us throughout our educational careers but also our professional careers. First, one has to trust the PDIA process and trust your teammates . It is important to trust the PDIA process because at times the group may receive conflicting information from different sources that may further confuse the group. Yet, when the group meets to discuss findings, we would break down the information together to make sense of it. It’s important to share information with your group throughout the process because it helps to organize the different information acquired and come up with relevant and effective next steps.
The next valuable lesson is to conduct as many interviews and talk to as diverse a set of people as you can. When the individuals within the group engaged with different knowledge experts – the group gained different perspectives of the root cause. The group reached a diversity of perspectives by interacting with a wide range of stakeholders. For example, the group interacted with city and local officials inside and outside Charlotte, organizations that work with homicide issues, and Charlotte residents who are impacted by homicides. The diversity of interviews resulted in a diversity of root causes, helping the group create next steps for Charlotte City government. It is important to reach different people who are involved and impacted by the problem to ensure that important voices are heard.
Lastly, small changes can lead to a huge positive impact within a system. From the group’s experience, small changes within an organization may include a different method of communication or utilizing established partnerships for a different purpose. For example, the Charlotte government already had connections with organizations that assist with the homicide rate on the ground, but the relationship involved a financial resource exchange. These organizations were not viewed as thought partners that could have served as knowledge experts about resident and community perspectives over the homicide rate. The Charlotte government had a valuable untapped resource that could have brought new perspectives to the table when creating solutions.
PDIA as an approach is best suited to problems that have high ambiguity and conflict in their definitions and the problem definition itself changes dynamically. Given the upheaval of systems we have begun to witness across the globe, it feels like a framework that is likely to get traction if we are really trying to make headway with understanding and ultimately solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.