Guest blog written by Anne Dietterich, Amreen Bashir, Awab Elmesbah, Giang Pham, Revanth Voothaluru, Seun Akinfolarin
This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2021. These are their learning journey stories.
We started MLD103M as six complete strangers scattered across three continents trying to learn better ways to tackle complex problems like those we expect to face in our careers. The class was different, though, from what we were used to. We were divided into teams, given real-life problems, and asked to learn in practice. Our project was on Community and Police relations in a city in the US. Over the seven weeks working on this, we experienced quite the journey!
The magnitude of the problem felt the biggest in the first week. When we had just learned about the topic and hadn’t started the process of learning about and understanding the problem, it was difficult for us to imagine what contributions we could make over seven weeks. We had a difficult time figuring out where to start. But it was also difficult not to understand the problem in simple terms: a mistrust between the police and the community that was the result of last summer events, including the police-involved shooting and killing of a resident in the city. At the beginning, the problem seemed as if it started last summer.
After receiving our brief and the initial set of meetings we buried our heads in desk research in the second week. We were trying to construct the problem is: what is the problem is, why does it matter, and how would it look if it were solved. We also had conversations with the authorizers on what they think the “solved problem” would look like. As one of them put it, “we want to build a bridge of communication back and forth with our community… it’s truly a concerted effort between community/police to improve our community”. The authorizers’ investment in solving the problem was a great motivation for the team.
During the third week, we were still relying on what we read from public documents and the media on what the problem is. We started deconstructing the problem and thinking about possible causes of the problem. We started developing a fishbone diagram for what we thought the causes and sub-causes might be. We were clear that these are hypotheses to test and that this was an early draft at breaking down the problem, but it was an important starting point. During this week we started reaching out to people and getting out of our team’s bubble.
Armed with our fishbone diagram, we started the fourth week with interviewing stakeholders in the community to test our earlier assumptions and further explore the problem. We started speaking with city residents, civil society leaders, city officials, police officers, and others. We saw two things immediately.
- First, it became clear that the problem was deeper than the fishbone showed. The historical dimensions of the problem in the city, and some of the deeply held grievances started to emerge.
- Second, the multiplicity of the views on what the problem is or what caused it was challenging. We saw how some aspects of the problem can be blind spots, even to the most invested actors.
Finally, these interviews weren’t just the first step to engage with the problem, but were extremely motivational as we observed how critical the problem is for the community we were working with. It was hard not to jump to solutions once the fishbone started to feel clear. It took a lot of discipline on our part and a lot of patience from our authorizers to keep us from getting ahead of ourselves. The fishbone grew to be effective in capturing different views, allowing us to visualize each person’s perception of the problem. We added and eliminated causes and sub-causes as we tested our hypotheses and assumptions through the interviewing process. The fishbone diagram we ended up with is not the same as the one we started with.
We continued to have these conversations with different stakeholders during the fifth week and after. The fishbone we developed proved also helpful in guiding the conversations. We updated it with more insights as we continued the interviews. We started focusing more on what perspectives and voices are missing, who should be listening, and how difficult conversations could be approached rather than avoided. During this week, we started thinking about potential entry points. Having had interviews with different stakeholders, we had a better understanding of the levels of acceptance, authority, and ability regarding addressing each of the sub-causes of the fishbone.
The sixth week was a rewarding one. It felt like the work we were doing helped open up a productive conversation with our authorizers and helped expand the thinking about the problem. Part of this came from lessons from our conversations with stakeholders, but part of this was also just an authentic conversation between our two authorizers about different barriers that don’t allow genuine conversations among the community and the police around the tense relationship in the city. During this week, we also started to come with potential ideas for some of the sub-causes we identified. Most of the ideas were centered in areas where there’s acceptance, authority and ability, and where the needle can get moving to address other sub-causes. We focused on communication, transparency, and community engagement.
One great source of ideas to address these entry points we identified came from the interviews with the stakeholders. These conversations brought a lot of innovative ideas, helped us make our suggestions relevant to the community, and kept us grounded in the community’s perception of what the problem solved looks like. We also looked at past experiences in the city, and successful initiatives nationwide. As we continued the conversations with stakeholders, we were gathering and testing some of these ideas. Then we had conversations with the authorizers on the possibility of experimenting with these ideas.
The seventh week was strategizing for the future. We worked with our authorizers to develop what the way forward would look like. We focused on how to iterate on the ideas we suggested, what might foster a culture of learning and adapting, what structures might hold this learning, and what aspects still require more learning. It is bittersweet to be ending the project when it feels like more progress is within reach, but we learned so much about the problem in the last seven weeks.
Throughout this time, we learned lessons not only about our problem of police-community relations, but also about using PDIA.
Our Key Takeaways
- With complex problems, there are multiple perspectives. Openly engaging in conversations, being empathetic, and staying flexible allows for key components to be identified deliberately.
- Conversations with authorizers and with stakeholders are an opportunity to get people engaged with the problem and able to recognize their own part of the work. Some of these conversations will feel small or short, but still have value in making sure that all voices are heard.
- Working with a team, especially a team of diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, helped us listen to the variety of perspectives on the problem. This, along with carefully collecting evidence, helps with avoiding misunderstandings.
- It is important to remain conscious of confirmation bias when addressing the problem. Staying open to different perspectives and asking many open-ended questions helps resist this bias.
- Complex problems are dynamic, and they manifest themselves differently to different stakeholders. It takes work to get to a place where the problem definition can speak to multiple groups and gain broad acceptance and support.
- Patience with oneself, one’s team, one’s stakeholders, and one’s problem is critical. There is a natural tendency to be action-oriented and to want to start fixing things from the beginning. It is worth taking the time to step back, be deliberate in understanding the problem, ask questions, and examine unknowns.
- There probably isn’t an easy solution, especially when you are dealing with a complex problem, so avoid premature or cookie-cutter solutions.
- It is possible to do a lot in seven weeks, especially when you dive straight into the work!
Watch the video and view the slides of the PDIA in Action event held in April 2021.