What Scrabble-playing Monkeys Have to Do with Contractors in Texas: Lessons from Leading Economic Growth

Guest blog by Maggie Jones

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 65 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in May 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

Finding contractors in Texas right now is hard. Really hard. Finding contractors to work on a niche federally-funded home repair program with lots of red tape and paperwork is nearly impossible. Or so we thought. Fortunately for us, the many lessons from Leading Economic Growth over the last 10 weeks have been and will be put to work over the months and years (and then some) to come, not only for this particular challenge, but for future obstacles as well.

Society knows more, not because individuals know more, but because individuals know different.

What a relief! We do not have to know all the things! Want even better news? It is probably better that we don’t. This point resonates when thinking about the game of Scrabble. Imagine everyone on your team or in your community has the following letters: A, B, and C. There aren’t many words you can spell (or points you can get). But let’s say everyone on your team or in your community has different letters – perhaps 10, or 15, or more – then you can build longer words (and get more points). The same applies to productivity and ultimately economic growth.

Copying best practice helps you play, but it does not help you compete. Creating gives you the competitive edge.

It is so easy to dip into the trap of “best practice.” How shiny. How known. But the truth is, we often leave our specific context in the rearview and then wonder six months later why our shiny best practice isn’t working as sold. The concept of crawling into the design space helps with this as practitioners are encouraged to not only look at external best practice, but also at their current practice, latent possibilities, and, my personal favorite, positive deviance. At the end of the day, we will likely use some useful hybrid of all of these concepts to address the complex challenge at hand.

Changing the language can be difficult, but we learned how to compete there, too. Rather than saying, “best practice,” choose “relevant practice.” Do not be afraid to ask more questions like, “Tell me about those best practices you’ve tried. How did they work out for you?” The solution not only has to function in some space, it has to function in your space. Encouraging questions to dig in deeper will help create a much more fruitful discussion and ultimately identify feasible entry points that work.

Change doesn’t happen as implementation by edict. It happens when groups of people take risks as a group to further things and to make change happen.

Authorizers. Motivators. Conveners. Connectors. Problem identifiers. Ideas people. Operational empowerers. Implementers. Resource providers. You need every single one of them – and not just as participants – but as leaders in each realm.

I worked in restaurants in college. Easily the hardest – and in some ways – one of the most satisfying jobs I ever had. But early on I made a fatal mistake. My manager noticed I was trying to do everything by myself: take orders, run food, clean up stations, and help my co-workers. It was impossible. She told me that if I didn’t learn to work alongside my co-workers, share the load, and ask for help as well as offer it, I wouldn’t be able to succeed – not to mention, I would be exhausted. And she was absolutely right. The same logic applies here. Further, how can you manage your authorizing environment when you’re working alone? How can you objectively learn from your losses? Or share in the joys of success?

Over the last 10 weeks, we constructed (and deconstructed) our challenge, identified entry points, developed relationships with new partners (and fostered relationships with old ones), and empowered others to do the same. One of the biggest learnings from this was the fact that what we are experiencing is a symptom of a much larger issue – and one that we cannot solve alone.  We discovered this after moving beyond our own internal program data to regional workforce data. We are still exploring the best data points we need (and what trends we should look out for) so this acknowledgement is certainly a step in the right direction.

Most recently in the last couple of weeks, we established weekly 30-minute meetings where we convene and answer the check-in questions: What did you do? What did you learn? What are you struggling with? What’s next? We created a safe space to share ideas and talk about our growth challenge as something we could do something about. To do that, we needed to change how we talked about it, including having some very real conversations about what might happen if we didn’t solve it: How could we justify funding without performance? Would we lose our existing contractors? Would staff lose their jobs? As dark as some of these realizations were, it was the reality, and we needed to reframe the conversation in a way that would not only acknowledge our challenge, but motivate us to do something about it.

Leading Economic Growth brought a fresh perspective to a challenge I worked on previously during Implementing Public Policy nearly two (!) years ago around our federally-funded home repair program that was not performing as it should be. One of the early entry points from that challenge was a shortage of contractors and, through Leading Economic Growth, I discovered how truly complex this question was. It was no longer a matter of having enough contractors, but rather attempting to manage (and failing at managing) a combination of marketing challenges, capacity, rising costs of doing business, competition, bureaucracy, and the status quo.

The Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) toolkit serves as an excellent resource guide, complete with step-by-step guides and worksheets that simplify working through the PDIA process. I have referenced this toolkit regularly, and a hard copy sits conveniently on my desk for easy access. These methods are so practical, I have found they apply not only to complex challenges, but life itself.

Crawling into the design space has not only added opportunity, but optimism. When looking for “Best Practice,” we often came up empty as many jurisdictions are struggling in the same ways we are. Broadening our scope to include a review of what we are currently doing, latent practice, and searching for positive deviants in other communities via our networks gave us new insights and ideas to try.

Most importantly, this course has changed the way I see the world and made it a little brighter along the way. How wonderful it is to think that anything that is worth doing is worth doing better? How fortunate we are to view problems as opportunities rather than burdens?

As our 10-week journey comes to a close, one of the things I am most excited (and perhaps a bit envious) about is following the next cohort on their voyage. What questions will they ask? What relationships will they forge? What problems will they collectively solve? I wish the past and future cohorts the best of luck – or perhaps I should wish them good opportunity and preparation instead!

It seems appropriate that today’s 10-week sprint would conclude on Mother’s Day. My two young boys have often listened in on the recorded lectures, finished their homework alongside me while I worked on mine, or asked me to read out loud whatever I was currently reading for class that week. Although they never dug in to binding constraints, indirect costs of traffic, or multi-agent leadership, I feel they did grasp these concepts in their own way. From “Mom needs coffee to function,” “Traffic is heavy and now we will be late to swimming,” and “It is Tuesday so Mom needs Dad to take us to school,” but perhaps one stands alone as my favorite of all – a love for learning in hopes of making their world a better place.

To learn more about Leading Economic Growth (LEG) watch the faculty video, and visit the course website.

Leave a Reply