Wrapping Up: My Leading Economic Growth Journey

Guest blog written by Penelope Tainton

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

I’ve made some interesting choices in my life. They may not always have been the best decisions for my own long-term prospects, but without fail, they have taken me on journeys of discovery and growth. Always stemming from my over-riding desire to “fix” things, to contribute, to make a difference, to bring about positive change in areas that matter to me, these have not been easy pathways to tread. But, along the way, I have met amazing fellow-travellers who care deeply, who are driven by purpose, who – twee as it may sound – make the world a better place through their thoughts, words and actions.

Given the opportunity last year to coordinate a “War Room” in the Western Cape, South Africa, brought the interesting experience of testing Problem Driven Iterative Adaptive (PDIA) methodology. 

Tasked with addressing five problem statements, seen to be important in unlocking economic growth in the Province, we brought together teams of senior officials to work differently. Since this was a six-month pilot, limited resources were put behind the work. This was a real challenge: the approach was new and nothing like it had been tried before;  none of us understood how PDIA worked; the hierarchical nature of the bureaucracy was stifling, with deeply-rooted animosities between some of the representatives of two different spheres of government involved; and the contestation amongst a newly elected group of politicians had not yet settled to any degree of comfort. 

Cautiously setting out on this road, I met my first fellow-traveller, Professor Matt Andrews. In the way of guides on every pioneering journey, with generosity of spirit and complete commitment to the adventure and its success, he opened his map, shared his wisdom, talked us through each step, gave us a hand to climb over the hurdles, walked with us out of the valleys

I have worked in a government environment on previous projects, and willingly admit to non-existent patience with unnecessary bureaucracy, delays, obfuscation and failure to grasp opportunities that present, and that could significantly improve the lives of the very people government is meant to serve. My country is deeply wounded, suffering the consequences of a devastatingly destructive past that twenty-six years post-democracy has not addressed. That makes me angry. And while people have individual responsibility to use opportunities presented, ultimately it is government that must provide the enabling environment that makes those opportunities available. 

So I approached this challenge with great excitement. Was this a way in which we could support personal and professional development for capable government officials, encourage them to really understand their problems, deliver relevant actions that would have real impact? 

The answer was a resounding “Yes”. 

In one-hundred days, our teams all delivered results. The participants were inspired by the process of engaging with their “clients” in a new way, open to listening and learning. They embraced the process of bringing learnings back into a safe, creative space, grappling with their problem statement together. Relationships between the two spheres of government shifted rapidly from the language of “us and them” to a strong “sense of us” – the team, working together to understand and address problems often stuck in government for many years. Instead of reverting to five- or ten-year plans and legislative changes, they found small actions that they could initiate to make a real difference. They discovered that they did not need agendas, that sitting in a circle changed the nature of the conversation, that rotating the role of chair added to the richness of the inputs and experience. It was ground-breaking. 

The pilot ended. And government did what government does best. It tied everything up in business-plans and budget processes and power-plays and inactivity. But, for some, there was enough light shining on that road, to show the destination that is possible, that we did not pack up and go home.

As we approach the point of unravelling all the red-tape and hopefully approach the start of a new process that will help us to embed this methodology in government, we had the opportunity to enrol for the Leading Economic Growth course. As someone who has never studied Economics, this was a somewhat daunting challenge. What an amazing opportunity – to be on campus at Harvard, to join others keen to learn the guidebook to problem-solving in government, and at the same time to grapple with this strange animal, the Economy which was just a vague form on the horizon of my consciousness.

And then the world tipped on its axis.

I woke up one morning to discover that I would not be going to Harvard. 

Borders were closed. 

Flights were cancelled. 

New words emerged in our common discourse: isolation, lockdown, social-distancing. 

We were all under threat as this apocalyptic virus tore through country after country, town after town, home after home, viciously contagious and seemingly unstoppable. And in the midst of the health crisis and the social devastation, we started to recognise the unprecedented economic ruin that this pandemic would cause to individuals, families, regions, countries, and the world. 

Suddenly, this shadowy thing called “The Economy” was no longer something that I could pay little attention to – it was the wolf at the door, demanding to be fed!

Amazingly, Professors Matt Andrews and Ricardo Hausmann, together with their support teams at Harvard, pivoted their course to deliver a ten-week virtual programme of lectures, readings and assignments. While, sadly, the chance to absorb the atmosphere of this world-renowned university campus could no longer be part of the experience, this reinforced that the greatness of the university does not rest in its bricks and mortar, but in its people and the impact they have in shaping thoughts. 

Our unexpected opportunity was that, due to reduced costs, more people could participate. And so, six representatives from the Western Cape enrolled, with generous support from Harvard’s Kistefos African Public Service Fellowship. 

We embarked on ten challenging and critically-relevant weeks of learning. Our group has found this process valuable and is committed to working together, continuing the thinking that has emerged as we face the biggest challenge to our economy that we could never have envisioned.

This is also an intensely personal journey. 

Throughout these ten weeks, grappling with the complexities of the product-space and growth diagnostics, my brain struggling to understand this whole new language, to absorb jumps in logic that were unclear to me, I often felt completely overwhelmed at the pressure to take on board complex concepts, and then use them in responding to challenging weekly assignments. People speak of bizarre Covid-19 dreams – mine were filled with monkeys jumping, trees growing, letters spinning through space. 

I started approaching each week with some sense of dread, feeling inadequate and concerned that, if I had not properly understood the previous week’s work, I would be unable to build on that for the next. Until, one evening, watching the increasingly disturbing world economic news, I realised that I understood what was being said – not in great detail, but in concept. I started to sense that, while I might never command the technical aspects of economic reform (and this would never be my role), I knew enough to bring this emerging awareness to our multiple challenges, which are exacerbated by Covid-19. 

I now understood the imperative to diversify our export basket, and why new know-how is critical to producing more complex products. 

I realised why those things that have always fuelled my anger – failures of government to deliver infrastructure and policy-certainty, to root out corruption – result in poor growth. 

I could engage with the fact that the injustice, inequality, poverty and hopelessness that is seemingly entrenched in our society, results from hundreds of years of policy that was not designed up-front to foster inclusive growth, and that we have a massive but important challenge to change this.

I loved the focused but practical exposure to PDIA in the course. 

I approached case studies I had read with new insights. I enjoyed the experience of defining my own problem statement, based on something that I care about. Having previously played a support role to teams working on their assigned problem statement, going through the process myself, deconstructing my challenge, identifying areas of potential action and who and how to make change happen, was illuminating

Rather battered and worn-down by months of struggle to move forward with our project in the Western Cape, this program reignited my passion and commitment to lead change. My old motto, relevant in so many roles I have chosen over so many years, “Illegitimi non carborundum”, has emerged again. 

We live in a significantly more challenging world than we did a mere eight months ago. I live in a country that continues to suffer the injustices of the past. I am confident that we can take this set of challenges and apply new thinking to find the possibilities. Opportunities emerge from this devastating situation – we need to find them and grab them. Now. We have talent. We have support. There are people who will walk the journey with us. 

We can do it.

And we must.

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