Guest blog by Pamela Byrne
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.
Reflecting back on my implementing public policy learning journey, three elements stand out. Implementing public policy takes time; it requires a highly functional team and; tenacity is essential for success. So let me explain these “T”s in some more detail.
When presented with a complex problem, your automatic reflex could be that you need to solve the problem quickly…. That was my tendency. But you need to resist that innate tendency to jump to the solution or to apply a solution that has worked in another place, for another purpose or under a different set of circumstances. Because to truly solve complex problems and achieve the right outcomes from public policy initiatives – outcomes that make a difference in people’s lives – you must take the time to construct and deconstruct the problem you are facing at the outset. So many times, policy initiatives have failed because we have not taken the time to really understand what the problem is or have not spent enough time gathering the information, the insight, the intelligence to bring us to a deep understanding of what the real issues are that need to be resolved.
Taking the time at the beginning also allows you to realise that you cannot solve complex problems on your own….despite the fact that you may think you can. I learned this early on in my journey but unfortunately not early enough – I thought I could do it myself and even though I recognised my challenge as a complex one, I jumped straight to the solution. And when I was required to reflect on my first attempt, I still didn’t get it and jumped again to what I thought the solution was. As they say…. third time lucky and this is when I realised that I needed to engage with others – to spend time talking to people, getting their perspectives, listening to their ideas, trying to answer their questions and this brings me on to my next “T”. But before I do, time spent at the beginning can result in you progressing much further and much faster as you work through the process of PDIA (Performance Driven Iterative Adaptation). The PDIA process has a time component embedded within it – short bursts of activity that allow you to gain momentum and deliver outputs – outputs that can be used to reinforce the narrative and to demonstrate that value is being generated – value that gives you the authorisation to continue. Time is critical because you can’t buy it, you can’t make it, you think you can manage it but let’s be honest…. we never seem to have enough of it. So, we need to use it wisely and this is another learning from applying the PDIA process.
So on to Teams….
Engaging with people is a key factor in successful implementation of public policy initiatives. Failure to engage will lead to failure in achieving outcomes that make a difference in people’s lives. I appreciate I am repeating myself, but this is why we have policy – it is why we need policy, but we need good strong robust public policy. We have to make a difference – it is why I have worked in the public sector for most of my career. I want to make a difference in people’s lives. But to go it alone is futile. You need to engage with multiple agents, with people who will provide you with different perspectives, people who will challenge your narrative, people who will challenge your process and support it but ultimately people who
want to also make a difference in people’s lives. When I engaged with others, I begun to realise the real value that could be created and the endless opportunities to learn – learn about other perspectives, learn about myself, learn how to listen better, and learn a new skill – how to apply the PDIA process to work towards solving a complex problem. Working in a team also expands your network and let’s be honest, solving complex problems requires access to many different subject matter experts, and importantly it allows you to demonstrate value through quick wins – your network is key. Through working in a team I also applied the concepts of the 4Ps of strategic leadership. I can’t say I have mastered any one of them but I am now aware of them – perception, people, process, and projection. Having these concepts in the back of your mind when leading a team can really help you get the best out of all the knowledge, skills and experience around you. Leading a team requires you to be adaptive – to be flexible – to be vulnerable. What I mean by the latter is that you don’t always have to feel that you are required to have the answer and letting people in your team know this can really enable an open and trusting environment to develop and embed within a team. And this leads me to my last “T”
Implementing public policy requires you to be determined, to be persistent – and it relies on you being tenacious. Because the other aspect of implementing public policy that I learned is that it is not easy! It is hard and despite practice and more practice, even in the use of the PDIA process it will always be hard. Getting public policy right is difficult and because your motivation is to make a different in peoples lives, you have to keep going. You can’t be derailed by challenges or the speed bumps you meet along thee way
– they have to be overcome and they can be overcome if you take the time to work through them with others on your team – a team of motivated people who also want to make a difference. The PDIA process itself requires you to be tenacious – it expects you to inquire, it requires you to iterate. It even includes the word “driven” in the title – if nothing else, you need to be driven to push on, to progress, to keep going and to work with others to find feasible and workable solutions. Being tenacious also requires you to embrace new information – information you will need to progress towards the right solution. PDIA requires you to learn – to identify problems, to try things out, to be courageous to change curse – to iterate. It is through learning and failing after all that we become better at doing what motivates us to keep going. Being tenacious is not being stubborn – in fact it is the opposite in many respects – if you are determined in the pursuit of your goals, and you apply the 4Ps in that pursuit, you need to recognize that you have to be persistent but in a way that brings your team with you. Afterall, being on the top of the mountain on your own is no fun – it is much more enjoyable to be surrounded by people who have all worked together and in this respect the Everest case study will always stick with me…..for many reasons.
To close out, throughout this learning journey, I have met and worked closely with great people, learned a new skill – one that I rented out to begin with 😊; progressed to applying PDIA in solving a complex problem – I am now in the crawl space!; recognised new expertise in my own team; and developed a deeper appreciation of what it takes to truly and effectively implement public policy. I still have a long way to go but I now have the tools; new knowledge and a bigger network to help me get there.
Thank you Matt Andrews and the HKS team, Katia, Sam, Kevin and Linda – it has been inspirational learning from you all and “renting” out the concept of PDIA.