Coupling Action Learning and International Development

10 mins read

Guest blog written by Artem Shaipov

After completing the Implementing Public Policy Program and joining the IPP Community of Practice, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to work with a group of master students taking a class at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) titled, “Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) in Action: Development through facilitated emergence” (MLD 103).

The course objectives were to (i) introduce the students to the PDIA methodology and (ii) give them an opportunity to immediately apply what they learned in class to a specific policy challenge that I had a privilege to nominate. Working on advancing legal education reform in Ukraine, I asked the group of five students to approach the following development problem:

“The supply side of Ukraine’s legal system is inadequate for fulfilling the role and responsibilities of the legal profession in a modern democratic society, contributing to the legal system’s self-perpetuating failure to ensure the rule of law and deliver justice in Ukrainian society.”

To help the students get up to speed and hit the ground running, I provided them with a list of reading materials and other resources that gave them background information on their policy challenge and a list of stakeholders ranging from senior government officials, leaders of the bar to law deans, local experts, and student union leaders that the students could contact to learn more about the local context and better understand the problem they were about to start working on. This support was important to engage the students in problem solving from the start. One of the students reflected on this experience in the anonymous feedback: 

[Authorizer] was a great supporter of our work, and has provided excellent guidance in understanding the problem of legal education in Ukraine. He […] kept us highly engaged.

The course spanned seven weeks starting in January 2021. The  students met twice a week on Tuesdays for lectures delivered by Matt Andrews and Salimah Samji and Thursdays for check-ins with me as their authorizer. Each week, the students did research on the development problem, interviewed stakeholders, turned in individual and team assignments. Even after delivering their final presentation on March 11, 2021, the students willingly continued their action learning  to complete remaining interviews. When providing anonymous feedback, one of the team members even noted: 

“At first, I thought, this is kind of an abstract topic that I never really had any explicit interest in. But honestly, I really enjoyed using the PDIA process to explore this topic and learn more about Ukraine and the context in which challenges present themselves. [I]t was great to get into it as much as possible. I would be happy to support this USAID effort in the future.”

The application of the PDIA methodology is a team sport. Thus, in my work with the students, we started by turning a group of students into a team by talking though mutual expectations, common objectives, desired attitudes and designing a team charter with vowed-in PDIA principles: (a) local solutions for local problems, (b) pushing problem driven positive deviance, (c) experiential, experimental learning and real-time adaptation, and (c) engaging multiple agents across sectors and organizations. This joint effort helped build rapport and allowed the group of students to evolve into a team to effectively put their in-class learning into practice. As students reflected on their experience in the anonymous feedback: 

“[Authorizer] took the time to connect with us and made me feel part of the team. The point that I believe exceeded my expectations was the fact that [he] was always open to hearing new ideas and talking through them with us all.”

We set up robust communication channels enabling continuous, two-way flow of information. Through weekly Zoom check-ins, exchange of emails to transmit formal messages and share assignments, and day-to-day WhatsApp messaging to share ideas and keep everyone updated, it was an honor to provide the students direction, guidance, mentoring, and other support in their work on the policy challenge by answering their questions, giving access to resources the students needed for their work, and facilitating their rapid action learning as well as constantly learning from them. One of the team members in the anonymous survey reflected on this:

“The authorizer guided us every step of the way. He tried his best to conveniently be available in the meetings with the stakeholders and support the team. He provided essential materials in a timely fashion, and followed up with the stakeholders nudging the reluctant ones to have the meeting with us. [He] also did well in managing the team’s work, pointing out next steps, reminding us when we miss any task and push us in a loveable manner when we needed to work harder.”

It was an absolute pleasure working with such a diverse, interdisciplinary team and each of its seasoned, resourceful members, namely Ilhom Aliyev, Yousif Folathi Alkhoori, Manoj Kumar, Mike Ramirez, and Frederick Tarantino. Even though each team member had accumulated extensive public service and/or business experience before they were admitted to HKS, none of them had previous experience in legal education policy. However, it was their strength, not a weakness, as they brought in their fresh perspectives and could see what practitioners working on the problem for a long time could not see

Me and the team of students at the final presentation on March 11, 2021. 

We discussed various types of policy challenges, paying special attention to the difference between complicated and complex development problems. I asked the team to do the policy unknowns exercise, an analytical tool developed by HKS for reflecting on and determining the complexity of a given policy challenge, resulting in the policy challenge scoring 32 out of 40 points. This helped the team to come to their own, more nuanced understanding of  complexity pertaining to the policy challenge they were assigned to work on. Besides, this exercise was also instrumental for the team to understand that the PDIA methodology was the right match for the development problem at hand and that there was a need to exercise leadership roles that would work best for complex adaptive systems, paying special attention to sense making, relationship building, and looking out for emergent directions. Team members when reflecting on their experiences in their anonymous feedback highlighted: 

It was very intellectually  stimulating, as the topic in itself is complex and our authorizer always kept us challenged.”

Authorizer challenged us to dig deeper using each PDIA tool our assignments called for. He also demanded incremental improvements to each of our products which was good because it made us sharpen our pencils before finalizing a product.”

By applying the PDIA methodology and delivering on their commitment to addressing the policy challenge, the team within a short period of time digested numerous sources of information, and constructed the development problem. Further, it designed a problem narrative, deconstructed the problem by drilling down into its root causes, conducted the triple-A change space analysis. The team then identified potential entry points and probed them through interviews with stakeholders and iterations of action learning. In preparation for the team’s interaction with local stakeholders, we discussed key strategies for stakeholder engagement and the benefits of inquiry as opposed to advocacy, considered approaches to thinking in systems and navigating through different layers of local big “P” and small “p” politics. As one of the students noted in the anonymous feedback: Managing expectations across the power map is paramount.”

With the individual, the team, and multi-agent leadership being a cross-cutting consideration in my continuous dialogue with the team, I drew on HKS Professor Rob Wilkinson’s 4Ps Model of Strategic Leadership aimed at enabling change under conditions of uncertainty.  These efforts were instrumental to ensuring effectiveness of numerous interviews with Ukraine’s senior government officials, leaders of the bar, law schools, student unions, international donors, and other stakeholders in the course of the team’s action learning. In this respect, one of the team members highlighted the following takeaway in the anonymous feedback form: 

“I have learned a lot […] using the tools of PDIA one at a time. Contacting stakeholders early on and rigorously following up while showing interest in the stakeholders work, getting them to meet. [The authorizer] also showed us how to create space for change multiple times.”

In my work with the team we had at least several moments of unexpected good luck. One of them brought us to a conversation with Calvin Chong, Singapore’s former Deputy Director for Education, who happened to be a neighbor of Manoj Kumar, a team member residing on HKS campus. The team used Calvin’s insights into Singapore’s policies on legal education and police training to develop and submit a policy memo to Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Interior Anton Gerashchenko, who is known for his admiration for Singapore’s development success and his strong opposition to legal education reform in Ukraine. 

Another example of serendipity on this course comes from the world of business. Ilhom Aliyev, a team member who previously served as executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Tajikistan, encouraged the team to explore opportunities for private sector engagement in legal education reform in Ukraine. As a result, the team met with Andy Hunder, President of AmCham in Ukraine, reaching a mutual understanding that quality legal education is of critical and strategic importance for ensuring the rule of law in Ukraine and that AmCham should be one of the agents in the multi-agent leadership solution emerging to facilitate positive transformations in Ukraine’s legal education system.  

It was very useful to discuss with the team the snow-flake model of mobilizing a network of teams, discuss considerations beyond reason, such as human emotions, while working on a policy challenge and how to harness positive emotions by practicing and sharing acts of kindness, and so much more. I was humbled by how much the team accomplished and pleased to read, reflect on, and learn from the team’s weekly assignments where they would share their learning, insights, acts of kindness to others and to themselves, progress made, and their next steps. They would also share the things that they were struggling with and I felt relieved when I could help the team cope with such difficulties. As one of the team members noted in the anonymous feedback: 

[Authorizer] closely engaged with the team, provided timely feedback and advice, connected us to relevant stakeholders, shared some great articles and documents. He was flexible to our ideas.

As a result, the team generated a lot of learning and leads that we did not envisage at the start of the teamwork.  Further, the team provided insightful, actionable policy recommendations aimed at delivering development impact. This journey of learning and development was full of new ideas, discoveries, lessons learned, and takeaways. I learned a lot in the course of my work with the team and have the following key insights to share

  • The method of teaching PDIA by applying it to a real-life problem when a team of students effectively has two streams of work – (a) one with professors and (b) the other one with a consulting practitioner serving as an authorizer – is a promising international development tool that should be promoted.
  • This method is also a powerful learning tool as it offers students an opportunity to immediately apply their newly-gained knowledge and skills to a real-world policy challenge, iterate, receive instant feedback, and adapt accordingly. This is a good example of “just in time” as opposed to “just in case” learning, leading to high levels of retention of new knowledge and skills. 
  • Successful implementation of this method to teach PDIA requires intellectual humbleness and the learner’s mindset on the part of all parties involved in the process as well willingness to borrow ideas, experiment with them, learn from experiments, and adapt as action learning progresses. 
  • Such a learning setting with the authorizer providing direction, guidance, and support throughout the learning and development process is a good example of guided learning as opposed to just training at specific intervals, providing a safe yet challenging space for students to rapidly learn, unlearn, and relearn as they apply the PDIA methodology to a complex problem fitted in the local context that continues to evolve.
  • Facilitated emergence to some extent relies on serendipity. Thus, to work smart on a policy challenge, we need to learn to work towards serendipity and be ready to invest our time and efforts in unexpected, promising encounters to fully capitalize on serendipity when the time comes.
  • Even though all the students in the anonymous survey indicated that the authorizer exceeded their expectations, that my support and guidance were very intellectually stimulating and helpful to better understand and apply PDIA, there are several things that I would do differently in my work with students next time, including the following: (i) Meet the students before the formal start of the class to build an even better rapport; (ii) Create and maintain more useful micro-routines in communications with the students, nudging them to better express themselves; Whenever possible and practical, record the working sessions with students so that the team can go back to what was discussed.
  • Change that is required to solve a complex policy problem oftentimes resembles a sophisticated lock that can be opened using numerous keys inserted from different sides and angles of the lock at the same time. This by nature cannot be accomplished by one (even heroic) individual. Such a task requires a well-coordinated, purposeful, and impact-driven teamwork enabling multi-agent leadership. 

This said, I wish the students and practitioners of international development from all walks of life the best of luck and serendipity in applying PDIA to their complex policy challenges and great success in unlocking their policy locks to solve real-world problems. 

Last, but by no means least, I am deeply grateful to Salimah Samji, Matt Andrews, Ilhom Aliyev, Yousif Folathi Alkhoori, Manoj Kumar, Mike Ramirez, Frederick Tarantino, and the Harvard Kennedy School for this unparalleled opportunity for fruitful collaboration, learning, giving back to the academia, serving the good cause of doing development differently, and advancing international development. 

Read the learning journey blog written by the student team.

Artem Shaipov, task leader for legal education reform for the USAID New Justice Program implemented by Chemonics in Ukraine. He completed the online series “The Practice of PDIA: Building capability by delivering results” from the Building State Capability Program at the Harvard Center for International Development in 2018 and in 2020 – the Implementing Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, Executive Education.

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