Guest blog written by Deepa Singal
Participating in the Executive Education program, “Implementing Public Policy” at the Harvard Kennedy School was a dynamic, motivating and humbling experience. Our global cohort consisted of emerging leaders and seasoned policy experts from multiple sectors and countries, all with the shared purpose of making a positive impact in the world. The course was an interactive and intense program, taught by world class faculty and guest lecturers, supported by Harvard case studies, internationally used and validated methods, and relevant and interesting readings. To say it was tremendously educational is an understatement.
While this course would have been pertinent and fascinating any given year, the teachings and lessons underpinning our curriculum were extremely relevant to the complex and unique challenges facing us in our current context. Our cohort partook in this course as the world dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Loss, pain and daily stress prevailed throughout the duration of the course, as thousands of people lost their loved ones to an unknown disease, hundreds of thousands were isolated from their family and friends, and children and parents grappled with the stress of online learning and balancing working from home. Seniors were isolated and alone, businesses closed, livelihoods were lost, and front-line staff desperately tried to keep health care systems across the world from falling apart. In addition to the immediate and unintended consequences of the pandemic, our neighbours in the United States held one of the most important and contentious elections of world’s history, people united and divided over the death of George Floyd and the Black lives movement, and society reckoned with race, misogyny, structural inequalities, and the threat of rapidly spreading misinformation. As the world was in a state of unrest unlike most had seen in their generation, my colleagues were tasked with solving some of the world most pressing policy problems while navigating their own personal lives and loved ones through these unprecedented circumstances.
While I expected this course to be world class, and the methods and tools to be effective in solving policy challenges, I did not expect the core approach – Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation – and the principles underlying this approach to be applicable to almost all challenges we were facing in this current context of uncertainty and loss. Here are my top three learnings from this journey:
Lesson 1: Problem Driven Iterative Adaption is applicable and generalizable to a wide variety of professional and personal challenges: While I entered the class with a challenge from my professional organization, I quickly changed my case study to my volunteer role as a member of my children’s school COVID-19 task force and board member.
I have a PhD in Public Health and Epidemiology and volunteered my expertise to help ensure that the school leadership team had support as they implemented the Ministry of Health guidelines for a safe return to school during the pandemic and navigated students and staff through this challenging time. I switched my case study on the advice of Professor Matt urging us to pick a challenge we really cared about. I could think of nothing else that was more important than ensuring the safety and wellbeing of my children and their peers during the pandemic. I am ecstatic that our case could come from any area in our lives and appreciative for the opportunity to work on this challenging issue. As I worked through the PDIA Toolkit we were provided and the iterative learning check in tool that was used to report and reflect on our progress, I realized that the four central questions that were at the core of our iterative check in could be applicable to any area of our life where we were implementing a policy or intervention. The four questions “What did you do? What did you learn? What are you struggling with? What’s next?” could be applicable to any long- or short-term problem that required evaluation, reflection and iteration. I started using this tool to structure my team meetings at work, to structure our learnings and check-ins on the COVID-19 task force, and even implemented it for one my own biggest challenges in my personal life. As the mother of a young, bright, wonderful child with learning differences, I am constantly implementing services and supports to support his learning and having to evaluate the impact of the supports and his progress. I actually created a Fishbone diagram, outlining the challenges he was facing. I also created a PDIA check in tool for the interventions and supports we have in place for him – essentially the “policies” we were implementing to enhance his learning and support his differences. I now use this tool to structure my weekly meetings with his teachers, his occupation therapist, and his tutor. It is an extremely effective and efficient tool to reflect on the currents state, share progress, uncover challenges and build shared understanding. PDIA for parenting – thanks Harvard!
Lesson 2: Enrolment of new people in your vision is critical to successful implementation: Throughout the course we were encouraged to look for new avenues of authorization, new collaborations and expansion of our network to overcome hurdle and obstacles and open up new possibilities for solutions. In fact, the last question on our PDIA Check-In Tool was “please list the new people you have met and engaged with in the last two weeks”. As our school leadership team implemented the covid-19 guidelines in our school, a key to successful uptake of these guidelines was the enrollment of parent’s students and staff in the importance of following protocol. Ensuring that I spoke to new people every two weeks to gain feedback or authorization for the policies we were implementing was critical to fostering a shared vision of what this new school year would look like and ensuring students and teachers were thriving in this new environment. Previously, I would not have placed importance of enrolling new people in such a consistent manner to achieving a vision or solving a problem – there is great power in stretching ourselves to seek support and resources when solving complex challenges.
Lesson 3: To achieve success, start detecting your small wins. “Don’t weigh ants – do not expect that our brand-new business idea will topple Amazon overnight” – I was struck by a ted talk we watched by Mehranz Bassiri, where she urged us to not “weight ants” – weighing our small wins on a big scale results in missing out on learning and succeeding and in turn, leads to giving up and thinking we are not good enough. She urged us to measure our progress on a smaller scale. The PDIA process shows us how to deal with large, complex problems by breaking them into smaller goals and brings our focus to the small wins along the journey. These small wins have transformational power – as the combination of these small wins will lead to bigger and greater accomplishments and ultimately solving the larger problem. Throughout the PDIA process, we were encouraged to demonstrate our learnings and iterations as success, as well as the enrollment of new authorizers and stakeholders as success. Framing these wins as successful outcomes to our supervisors and authorizers allows them to see success in the process. This is a powerful shift in the way most teams I have worked in define success. Redefining success this way results in momentum, heightened morale and support for complex projects. Real progress it the combination of small and steady steps repeated over and over again.
As I advance a hybrid career in health research and policy, I will continue to reference back to the PDIA tool kit in my both my professional and personal life, as well as many of the materials and resources provided in this course. In addition to learning new skills and quiring new tools, I found great motivation and new perspective from my new colleagues across the world. I am grateful to the HKS staff, faculty and most importantly the participants in this course for their openness, sharing, and vulnerability. One of the first lessons that resonated with me in this course was that the work we are doing is difficult, and that new intractable challenges will keep arising. Once the world recovers from COVID-19, there will undoubtedly be another global disruption. I am comforted to know that there are dedicated, emphatic and skilled people like my fellow colleagues committed to helping society through these challenges.
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.