It’s about the P’s

Problem Construction, Perception, Process, People and Projection

Guest blog written by Cynthia Steinhauser

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 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Over the course of 12 months, I was pursuing my public policy executive certificate through HBS when I came across the IPP program designed by Professor Matt Andrews and his amazing cadre of peers. The timing couldn’t have been better as my organization was working on a new initiative to create a one-stop shop for innovation in development services from three previously “siloed” departments. Our team is focused on one major task – to rethink our development services program and create an integrated, efficient process that results in a positive experience for our customers. I saw this program as an opportunity to assist with this effort. 

As someone with over 25 years working in local government, I often assist in strategic planning efforts for new initiatives or to “reset” existing programs to help get them back on track. I was usually brought in because something wasn’t working and had reached some type of impasse.  It was often my belief that many failed for one primary reason, they did not have a clear path forward i.e. a solid strategic plan. All it would take was the right person to shepherd them through a process to develop a plan that had a clear vision, mission, goals, objectives, assigned tasks, identified resources and a well-defined timeline. Once a plan was in place to hold people accountable, all would be good. While I have many examples of success using this approach, there are also examples of failures. However, when you work in the public eye, you don’t like to talk about “failures” because on face value they seem just that – a failure that taught us nothing and did so at the expense of taxpayers.  However, as PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation) has taught us, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, I believe that is exactly where PDIA can be most useful and have some of the greatest impact (but that is for another blog). This blog is about my entire IPP learning journey.

I’ll take P and Problem Construction for 100

Let me start by saying I thought IPP would be a good “refresher” course for skills I had been honing over the past two decades and as I noted, help me drive our process improvement faster and further.  It didn’t take long for me to realize the fallacy of this thinking.  As my IPP journey began I realized that all those years I was “helping” to develop a strategic plan I was focusing on the wrong thing. Instead of focusing on clearly defining the problem, I focused on solutions and the assumption that by simply breaking the solution into manageable components, we would have success. I realized that I was applying a plan and control methodology (i.e. develop plan of action, lock in plan, mobilize resources, implement and evaluate) to highly complex situations with many unknowns and should I continue in such a manner, my resulting inertia or failure could actually be rooted in the very beginning of my efforts. 

As I learned through this course, complex problems require a different approach, an iterative approach and one that starts with problem construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. Once I grasped this concept, it was like a floodgate had opened; I was able to reflect on the countless processes I had facilitated over the years and what I would do differently if I could get a “do-over.” Nevertheless, we can’t undo the past, so I quickly turned my focus to my current challenge: improving our development services process.  The first step was to pivot the focus from a solution to a problem statement. The following fishbone diagram is the 5th (and latest) iteration of my problem statement that was developed through this program.

I should note that my initial problem statement was longer and, as I learned, was nothing more than a solution hidden in the guise of a problem.  By engaging teammates who brought different perspectives, I landed on the above problem statement. As you can see from the diagram,  while the problem statement appears to be simple in nature, it is in fact quite complex and layered with unknowns, a perfect problem statement for the PDIA process! 

I’ll take P and Perception, Process, People, Projection for 500

One might imagine that honing and perfecting your strategic planning skills for many years, only to realize they were off-course would be discouraging or disheartening, but it wasn’t. I subscribe to the precept that the truly educated never graduate and I chose to embrace how this newfound knowledge could inform future efforts. Thus, it came as no surprise that yet another, even more humbling revelation would come to light in the form of four words starting with the letter P: Perception, Process, People, Projection or (as Professor Rob Wilkinson refers to them) the 4 P’s. Now that I had my problem statement “perfected” (forgive the indulgence of another “p” word in this prose) I was ready to get to work solving the problem. I pride myself as a person who get things done and I was ready to get to work and start fixing! That is when the next revelation came. I realized that my internal perception of the current development services review process was wrong for two significant reasons. 

First, I perceived that the entire process was broke. Second, I believed I was the only one who was able to evaluate our antiquated process with a neutral perspective and fresh set of eyes; therefore I was the person most equipped to lead the process improvement efforts. How humbling to reflect on my current and past efforts and realize how wrong I have been in this closely held view. Complex problems are not the product of an individual effort; therefore addressing them is not the job of one individual, but that of a team.  A team that is built on intentional relationships designed to create trust and that is where the 4P’s of strategic leadership are critical.  The 4 P’s are both internal and external in nature and if done correctly you are never really done. It is an intentional process that encourages us as leaders to 1) examine our own assumptions, 2) take note of how we engage with others, 3) manage processes individually and as a collective whole, 4) recognize and value the emotions of all engaged in the process, and 5) be cognizant of our own story and that of our team. Clearly, I have far to go in improving my leadership skills, but thankfully and appreciatively I can see the value of applying the 4 P’s to my work. Furthermore, I am grateful that I can apply them with some level of detachment so that I can first see where I am contributing to the problem. It is both humbling and liberating.

At this point you might be saying “This is all great but tell me how all of this is making a difference in what you originally set out to do – rethink the development services processes?”  If you are familiar with the adage “Sometimes you have to go slow, to go fast,” that is what is happening with my team.  For much of this course, I felt as if I was going at a snail’s pace and that I would end this course with nothing to show but a revised problem statement.  But this is where the magic of PDIA kicks in!

Approximately 7 weeks, we implemented our next phase in organizational optimization that placed new teammates under my supervision.  As a result, I needed to slow the process down and go almost back to the very beginning to get consensus on defining the problem.  Remember, it takes six months to build a Rolls Royce and thirteen hours to build a Toyota. What followed was a journey of developing trust with each other and engaging in crucial conversations in a way that allowed individuals to retain their dignity. I used that time to focus on building relationships. We started by holding an all-team meeting, the first for some.  We used this time to discuss the recent department optimization, assuage fears about privatization and spent the majority of the time focused on getting to know each other better. I have since made it a priority to regularly meet with teammates and hear their stories.  I have engaged my leadership team in deeper discussions around performance measures so we can hold ourselves accountable and track progress.  I also met with the team working on three major software projects that were 12+ months behind schedule to discuss our lack of progress; this helped develop shared accountability. After talking through the issues and arriving at shared expectations, we agreed upon general milestones to get all of the projects jumpstarted. We are now on track to have two projects rolled out by end of this year and the third project by mid-January 2021.  We have also identified a fourth project that will streamline our online rental application and have set a target of June 2021 for that to be completed. We have also reduced commercial review by two weeks.

To think that all of this started just four months ago with that first question – What is the problem or challenge you are trying to solve? – is a powerful realization and I now recognize this is where every complex problem needs to start.  It beckons a quote from TS Elliot – “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Learn more about the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) Community of Practice and visit the course website to apply.

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