Guest blog written by Harman Bhullar, Sasinat Chindapol, Crystal Collier, Doreen King, Jingli Yan
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 2021. These are their learning journey stories.
On the problem …
In the dark, feeling for this shapeless beast,
Even when you think you know, do not be deceived,
Its ever-changing nature will make you question every move,
Build it up, break it down, and you shall find the truth.
When the ‘problem’ came to us, it was really a solution in the guise of a problem, for the original task was to make childcare in Burien a portable benefit that families could take with them. Even as we transformed it into a problem statement of families in Burien not having access to affordable and quality childcare, our problem construction work did not end there – we had painstakingly asked ourselves over and over again why this mattered and why it was a problem, not just a condition. Replicating this thought process with our authorizer Councilmember Kevin Schilling, we found that naming the distinction between the two created a pause and an opportunity for a deeper contemplation to give shape to the initially undefined problem.
Following the PDIA approach, we proceeded to problem deconstruction, which shed light on a number of insights, including underlying causes that did not seem to be obvious and inherent to the problem itself. Firstly, while stakeholders knew that affordable childcare was an issue, their understanding of its complexity was rather limited, contributing to insufficient motivation and urgency to take action. Secondly, the problem was not simply a lack of a solution, implying that no amount of expansion to Burien’s currently restricted budget will solve the childcare problem permanently. Our problem deconstruction pointed to much deeper societal issues that needed to be simultaneously or first addressed, including the need for a wider recognition that childcare is not an individual problem but in fact, one that weighs upon the community as a whole.
After we finally decided on three potential entry points to tackle first (awareness, lack of business support, and lack of city support), we began to fully appreciate the dynamicity of both the problem and the change space surrounding it. Through continually gathering information from a broad network of people and sources and updating our prior, we came face to face with the possibility that a change in one piece of information may trace back and require corrections to all of our past decisions. This realization, alongside the uncertainty that came with it, was difficult to embrace, and it also manifested in our AAA analysis. Kevin reminded us that authority, acceptance, and ability can change quickly, so does the feasibility of every solution that has been generated as a result of this analysis. It struck us that, perhaps we were too static in unpacking the problem and building the change space around the authorizer. Therefore, a dynamic mindset and an understanding of the problem as an evolving object, be it in the context of a six-week project or a five-year one, is an absolute necessity.
On small steps …
When you make inroads but can’t see the horizon,
Look again closer and be enlivened,
For small cracks in a dam can lead to a flood of change,
And small steps will solve big problems just the same.
Grappling with the problem at its full complexity, we sometimes doubted whether we could really enact change in a mere six or seven weeks. But as the saying goes, “Small is beautiful,” and this was our motto throughout the PDIA process. Small steps and the opportunities they bring are often perceived as mundane and insignificant, but they become important when accompanied by strategy and reflection. In each and every meeting, we didn’t just meet with stakeholders for meeting’s sake; we met with them to learn and move forward.
Relatedly, in identifying entry points, we found out through Kevin that the city had significant funding constraints that prevented major changes to the current childcare system. Using the fishbone and the AAA analysis, however, we learned that there were other entry points with existing change space, and that even absent one, growing such a space was also a productive action in itself. This may not always be obvious because outside of the PDIA framework, some of the smaller steps taken to grow the change space may seem like make-work or work avoidance. The difference lies in the intentionality of the action as a tool to learn and the discipline that is reflection. With this in mind, we were able to identify some initial steps that could help create momentum (e.g., a network map, fact sheets to be used to educate key constituencies).
Furthermore, PDIA showed us that small successes can serve as the fastest form of engagement that authorizers can take to build trust and develop ownership with the community. These increments created an arena for us to experiment, learn, and reiterate freely, rendering potential failures relatively harmless. Therefore, we exercised patience in taking small steps, while remembering to celebrate quick wins and learn from our mistakes. Linking this point with the dynamicity of the problem and the change space, we found value in the iterative nature of the PDIA process. It must be noted, however, that iterating did not imply remaining in the same place. In fact, it was important to try something, learn from it, and try it again or try something completely new, but the key was to keep moving forward. This is not an innate skill or mindset, especially for those coming from a plan and control environment, so having the weekly questions and steps laid out in a digestible manner really helped to frame our team’s direction and kept us on track.
On the Team …
But when the land is too vast to traverse on your own,
Look around to remind yourself – you’re not alone,
We can cover more ground if we move as a team,
Together, nothing is as impossible as it seems.
As much as PDIA was a fast-paced approach that required us to be proactive in making progress, it did highlight the need to dedicate time to human connection. The process was most definitely not an “individual sport.” There were too many moving parts for one person to realistically and efficiently cover alone, and it didn’t make sense to, given that the team had already brought together incredibly talented individuals with unique strengths and experiences. In order to identify these strengths and to build a cohesive team, we found it extremely important to build meaningful relationships within the team as early as possible, since we did not have a lot of time to complete the project. Aligning on the levels of commitment and responsibility before the project began also made the meetings and workflow very efficient.
Frequent communication was another essential component to successful teaming. In particular, deliberating among ourselves before meeting with our authorizer ensured a united front to solutioning even if we had differed in our approaches before. As a result, this built our credibility and the authorizer’s trust in the team. Even with our weekly meetings, however, we still felt that these sessions were not enough for us to fully synchronize our individual actions and see how they fit into the overall plan.
While we had a core team of five students, the nature of PDIA also required us to rely on a wider network of people who had been nothing but kind, willing, and helpful to us. Therefore, the need to intentionally engage with people and develop relationships outside the project’s scope was not limited to the five of us, but to everyone who had helped us along the way. For our interactions with our authorizer, this meant embracing difficult conversations and disagreements because although positive energy helped keep the team going, we also owed it to him to manage expectations and make progress. This involved setting realistic goals about what we could achieve and coming to terms with the fact that we could not do everything. For our interactions with those we had connected with to learn more about the problem, this entailed listening. As outsiders with a possibly different mindset, we stood to lose the space to build trust by talking and assuming too much, so the best approach was to demonstrate a genuine interest in mutual development and just listen.
On Closing Out
It’s the end of the journey, so it’s our time to go,
But we can’t wait to see what the future holds!
Now that the class has come to an end, we would like to thank our Professors, Burien City Councilmember Kevin Schilling, and everyone who had taken the time out of their days to reply to our emails, get on phone and Zoom calls with us, and send us resources so that we could get to where we are now. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for childcare access in Burien. As Kevin says it, let’s save the world!
Watch the video and view the slides of the PDIA in Action event held in May 2021.