Working on trade in Mexico from Sao Paulo

Guest blog written by Oscar Benitez

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.

We all experienced the turmoil caused by Covid-19 in 2020. We will spend years trying to describe how it became a huge setback for every activity and economic sector. In my case, I spent several months putting on hold most of the projects of the year, to eventually seeing them fall down one by one. By May, we were more than discouraged: half of our yearly planning was already cancelled, and the other half was on the way to suffering the same fate. To make things worse, the end of it was not on sight. From every angle, 2020 was a devastating year.

But it was the year I went to Harvard.

My work in the Mexican Foreign Service is to deliver solutions to any problem that falls in my hands. I have done that during the last five years I have served in the Mexican Consulate in Sao Paulo. My work doesn’t have the glamour of policy drafting or high politics, and is more about identifying opportunities on the field, matching counterparts with the same interests and taking care of the mountains of paperwork that come after that.

To be completely honest, the Covid-19 crisis gave me the opportunity to take this course. Otherwise, it would have been unaffordable, in terms of time or resources. The opportunity arrived right in the critical moment when we had to rethink and reshape the way we work.

My personal experience with PDIA

My challenge was focused on creating strategies to improve the trade section in my office. During the 22 weeks of the course I turned my project inside out, in order to understand it. As the course and our plan of action unfolded, my team and I discovered that our challenge had multiple origins and points of entry. We figured out that some elements we thought as important, didn’t add up value or weren’t even essential for our operation.

The premise of our approach was not to buy all of the ideas of the course, but at least borrow them, reflect about them and give them a try, within our own capacities. To induce disruption by creating a culture of effectiveness and trust. We found that the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation approach was suited to manage our operations in different areas I was working in, and not only the ones I was in charge of. So we created a space where we could develop simple, complicated and complex tasks without overlapping them, along with an environment where teams with different projects could meet and exchange information.

By the end of the course, I’m standing in a very different place than six months ago. Also, it is a place I wasn’t planning to be standing at the beginning of the course. The difference is that I am more efficient in my work, I am able to share my thoughts with both my authorizers and my teammates, and I know that I helped create a flow that doesn’t rely on me in order to succeed and to be self sufficient.

Success doesn’t always glow and shine. My most satisfactory achievement was to create a task force where I got to reunite my coworkers and authorizers to try new things, sit down on regular intervals to review and make small but carefully thought modifications to our project. In other words, to perform the PDIA approach. From then on, a shiny achievement was just a matter of time. 

I have a lot of outtakes from the course, but there was one in particular that helped me to learn, understand and induce change. So let’s talk about it.

WE NEED TO TALK!

At every point in my life I can see myself shaking at the sound of those four words: We need to talk! And more than talking it was about being scolded for something that I did. We live in constant fear of failure, of somebody pointing at us as the responsible for something that didn’t work. We forget that failure is something natural in day to day life. Our lives are part of an endless struggle of any nature you can imagine. Pretending to avoid failures in our work is naive and unhealthy. In contrast, we should try to make failure a necessary element of the cognitive process and try to manage it, not to avoid it. As an example, me and my colleagues used to talk to each other to complain about why things don’t work out, but not to prevent things from failure.

So we should really talk about it, once and again and again. Most of us work in organizations that work with thousands of employees, and we still act like we are saving the world on our own, from our desks. But even in the smallest environment, we work with a group of people that forms our team, with counterparts, with stakeholders and authorizers. They all cooperate towards the same goal, they have their opinions, and insights from their unique points of view. So we should encourage conversations about work, not just about complaining, but to try to find solutions. Even if they are harsh conversations, they will provide insights and information that only your team can provide, and probably showing you a reality that you shouldn’t ignore.

During the last 22 weeks, professor Andrews encouraged us to reflect about our challenges, our fears and to exchange our ideas. We begin questioning the nature of our problem, is it complex or complicated? Write it down, every week, because the problem may evolve and be different than what we expected. Then ask why does it matter? Why is it important? Why should it be solved? Say why again?

From there, we start building a narrative with our teams, brick by brick. Remembering that we are not alone, letting our teammates to open up, giving them space. We may be leaders, but we work with human beings able to perform critical thinking and they can do more than completing tasks (if that’s the case, I strongly suggest to use an algorithm for that). If two heads think better than one, imagine the potential your team has! Sit down and talk problems over, take action, sit down again, reflect, learn, and repeat until done.

This was tangible in the peer groups, where I spent almost half a year with my colleagues (and now my friends), sharing ideas, stories of success and difficult times.

I could try to resume all the important lessons learned in the IPP course, but it would not make justice to it. Like learning how to swim, it is a process of assimilation that polishes itself with repetition. This course helps you to get prepared for whatever your struggle is, remembering that every struggle is different, and should be addressed differently.

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

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