Dissecting challenges, mapping entry points & building teams: My IPP learnings

Guest blog by Laney Stone

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.

This has been an interesting year, to say the least, and when it became clear that I would need to stay at home for some time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I considered how I might use my time in a constructive way. I was excited to see that the HKS 2020 course on Implementing Public Policy (IPP) had been moved online for accessibility during the pandemic. I quickly applied, hoping to gain insights into how best to design and implement public policies and what pitfalls should be avoided, but was not sure what exactly to expect from six months of Harvard via Zoom and Canvas. I was pleasantly surprised by how much we covered and worked through every week, and by the depth of interpersonal, leadership, and management strategies that we explored. Our Zoom sessions were not so different from in-person sessions, and six months of engagement let us put our learning into practice and exchange ideas on a consistent basis. 

Some of the key concepts and strategies that I have taken away from this course include:

  1. Complexities do not necessitate delays

We went over a straightforward scoring approach to determine whether a policy challenge is simple, complicated, or complex, to assess the best approach to taking a challenge forward. Understanding first if a challenge is simple and therefore suitable for a “plan and control” approach, or if a challenge has a significant level of unknowns and therefore requires a Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, helps in quickly framing how to move forward. Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to focus on what we do not know, and want to understand everything about a challenge before considering how to address it. That pursuit of comprehensive precision, however, can delay progress and decouple learning from the implementation process. 

The PDIA approach provides a structure for combating perfectionism-fueled delays by allowing us to begin even in the face of unknowns and uncertainty and “learning while doing.” The approaches that we practiced daily in this course offered a

methodical way of breaking down challenges to begin quickly while continuously incorporating new information and feedback. PDIA encourages us to identify what we do and do not know, define the challenge, break down the challenge, and then jump into action, with the reassurance of tight iteration loops to support and revise the implementation journey. 

2. Dissect a challenge and map “entry points”

Bureaucracies often execute efforts and policies under an assumption that the currently offered solutions must address the challenge without assessing and uncovering the many root causes of an issue. Considering problems and their causes in a way that is separate from the currently offered solutions – rather than defining them as “a lack of” something that we offer – allows us to identify potential causes and contributors to the issue that we may not have previously seen. Therefore, focusing on the problem definition is a key foundation, as this assessment allows us to step back and to see where exactly we have inserted our own assumptions about the needed solution(s). 

Mapping the reasons for each of the “sub” challenges through the “fishbone” (or “Ishikawa”) diagram helps us to next illustrate an array of options for different causes that can be addressed. By asking “why?” at least five times to break down small contributors to each challenge and analyze the “change spaces” for each, we can identify clear “entry points” for immediate action. This approach reveals options for where to start in addressing a complex challenge. As we discover and address the entry points, we make advances in engaging new sources of knowledge and increasing our understanding of the unknowns. This enables us to continuously unlock new entry points until we are able to tackle a challenge through multiple areas that contribute to the challenge (the “bones” of our fishbone diagram). 

3. Effective teams bring motivation and momentum

The approaches taught in this course underscore not only the importance of regularly engaging new sources of knowledge and expertise, but also the need to actively build teams and share risks, exercising leadership by motivating many actors instead of by directing a group. Complex policy challenges can present us with so many unknowns that we must engage people with a variety of different perspectives and roles in order to ask the right questions and cultivate the change space needed. Engaging and coordinating many agents allows everyone playing a role in addressing the challenge to get on the same page early and to address any concerns before large-scale issues arise.

Measuring and tracking incremental progress through regular check-ins enables challenges to be addressed and navigated regularly, and can significantly mitigate delays. These check-ins can include reviewing “learning” and “leads,” which helps to turn weeks of seemingly disappointing work in which the goal has not been achieved into clear progress. Celebrating the “small wins” is also an important way to build longterm support and motivation among team members.

4. Organizations are made up of people

In bureaucracies, we often focus on our roles and work plans and can forget that there are a variety of interpersonal factors that shape how individuals come together to achieve, or not achieve, an organization’s goals. Wilkinson’s “4P” model for effective leadership (which considers “perception,” “projection,” “people,” and “process”) provides a useful lens for how we can best understand and examine the way we engage others. Our teams and colleagues are not robots but are people, who, as such, are always impacted by emotions. This means that managing and getting the most out of a team requires EQ as much as IQ, and we must recognize and practice how to avoid “triggering,” demotivating, and undermining people (as well as recognizing how this works within ourselves). Each person has their own perception, and interprets, absorbs, and understands things differently. We frame things in our minds and make assumptions and narratives based on our own projections. Finally, while it may not seem to be of core significance, the process that we use in any system impacts whether people are successful or not and encourages or discourages behaviors, with every step of a process shaping discussions and advantaging and disadvantaging different individuals. 

In the Building State Capability podcast episode on projection, Wilkinson discusses “Inform, Consult, or Negotiate” or ICN, which articulates the importance of being clear about what an engagement is about. For example, are we letting colleagues know that we have made a decision (informing)? Are we consulting them, requesting their input before making a decision? Or, are we negotiating, and asking for them to jointly agree where unilateral action or decisions are not practical or appropriate? Defining and discussing these expectations can avoid negative emotions that arise when we have mismatched expectations (i.e., informing a colleague of a decision when the colleague thinks the decision required negotiation.) By exercising leadership using this model, which acknowledges people as emotional beings that can experience the same situation differently, we can avoid issues that set back our work.

What I have learned in this course, particularly from these four areas, has proven invaluable not only in my work but also in my personal life. I now break down many of the challenges that I encounter using a fishbone diagram, and I consider the factors that might affect others using the 4P model. I also find myself considering questions that we have discussed in this course – such as “Am I approaching this from a place of genuine inquiry?” – when discussing different viewpoints with friends and family.

From June through December 2020, our IPP cohort has engaged with each other through this course every week. There has been nothing straightforward or simple about this year, so I could not imagine a better time to join a group of PDIA practitioners to exchange ideas and experiences on moving forward in the face of uncertainty.

I would tell my fellow PDIA practitioners to remember that no level of unknowns or complexities can prevent us from breaking down and addressing a challenge. PDIA is designed for exactly these challenges. The process can build authorization, motivation, and momentum, and can inform adaptations and pivots, empowering us to begin without delay. We are not alone, and can always find others who can be mobilized to tackle a challenge with us. Better still, we also have our IPP Community of Practice, where we will be able to consult with and support each other as we navigate tomorrow’s policy challenges.

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

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