Reassessing what it means to problem-solve

Guest blog by Samantha Blake Rudick

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.

When I was in middle school, I was part of a program called “Problem Solving.” The concept was one big problem would be presented and then, in a group, students would break this problem down into twenty smaller problems. They would then select one of these smaller issues and come up with 20 solutions to this smaller problem. They would analyze their solutions, pick the best one and present it in a creative way to the larger group, with the winners getting a prize.

The Implementing Public Policy course and taking us through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) was similar to this idea, in some senses, except that in working with adults they can break the news to us: we can’t just stop at addressing one small issue.

 Breaking with convention can make you feel like a fish(bone) out of water

Typical planning models, as we discussed in this course, spend an awful lot of time and resources on explaining the problem, making a plan, getting approval and then reporting on progress towards pre-determined goals. There is not much room left for taking an iterative approach, which includes gathering more information and refining the problem throughout implementation.

By breaking down our problems into the sub-problems, it helps to unravel what can oftentimes be a simplified yet overwhelming issue. It can help to find new ways to try and reach results; give us a way to think through our ways of acting and visualize different approaches. You have to break with convention when it is not serving the end goal.

PDIA as the Anti-Autopilot

My first problem statement was about national nutrition plans, which I deal with a lot as a country liaison officer covering a portfolio of 9 countries. There are sometimes mid-term reviews of national plans built into planning, which shows just a hint of appreciation for the fact that things change. However, reviews are only done after a number of years, and not regularly according to when new information is gathered and solutions are applied and results can begin to be seen and understood.  

The importance of repositioning, when you receive new information and not to remain stubborn in our original plans, is often overlooked.

Our image of leaders is wrong: The importance of team building

When you visualize a great leader in a field, for example Darwin, we may picture him alone, on a boat, watching birds and having an epiphany. We do not picture his team of experts and researchers, or his vast correspondence and consultations with great thinkers from around the world. We often think of leaders as solitary figures, even if we know that they have a support system.

I realized through this course to challenge my vision of a leader. A leader is not just someone with certain assertive personality types or communication styles, but someone who considers the best ideas, leads with them, and helps define the ways to reach goals. I have seen the importance of changemakers in different countries, those who are passionate about finding solutions to malnutrition, and I realize some of my best work is done when I support them and their efforts.

Conducting stakeholder interviews in Lao PDR (discussions in the pre-COVID 19 days)

Talk to strangers: Those who will be affected need to be in the room, and holding the pen

This course got me rethinking who I am working with. Oftentimes, in bureaucratic roles, the hierarchical structure is laid out, the way of doing things is set. Not so for the PDIA method, where cross team collaboration is encouraged. Teams should get people talking to the right people for a specific project, instead of just staying within their teams for the sake of propriety.

As well, it is often the case in development work and policy processes that those holding the pen are not those who will be affected by the projects or policies. Even in stakeholder consultations for nutrition policies and programmes, many important people – for example, child caregivers, pediatricians, farmers, supermarket owners, community health workers, educators, etc. – are left out of conversations.

My incomparable online learning group (what discussions look like during COVID-19 times)

Taking it forward

This course was a bit philosophical in the sense that its lessons had to be applicable for over 100 students/policy implementers at once – and yet we all walked away with new reflections on our ways of working, our roles, and our abilities. We learned to keep questioning, keep pushing boundaries, and to keep aiming to solve the right issues (even and especially if those issues were complex). I was lucky to be part of a learning group where we bounced our ideas and reflections off once another, to come to the conclusion that we all work better if we try not to make assumptions about what people think, establish an environment of exploration, and understand the difference between leaders and leadership.

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

Leave a Reply