Engaging youth in sustainable development in Barbados

4 mins read

Guest blog written by Arpita Tiwari, Diana Ly, Emma Catalfamo, Hina Musa, Katherina Hruskovec Gonzalez, Morgan Benson 

Early Days 

The first PDIA meeting for the KEYS to Success team focused on one goal: getting to know each other. Our team members came from different backgrounds, different programs within HKS, even different countries, and each of us was curious about what the team dynamic would look like. We built our team Constitution – a critical trust-building exercise for the PDIA process – which guaranteed enough psychological safety for each of us to freely participate and contribute. Over the next six weeks, each team member grew in our ability to think critically about our problem, propose creative solutions, and ensure that these ideas were most useful for our authorizer and ultimately for Barbados.  

Importance of Iteration 

One of the most challenging aspects of our work, and one of our biggest lessons learned, was the importance of constant, persistent iteration. Over the course of six weeks, we iterated through three different versions of our problem statement. We began with a broad problem statement that focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Thanks to the psychological safety within our team, team members felt encouraged to speak up about the issues they saw with this initial problem statement. Namely, it seemed to place the blame of the problem on youth, rather than on the systems that either empower or disempower them in their communities. This discourse led us to our second problem statement, but upon further team discussion, as well as encouragement from our professors, our team finally landed on our final problem statement: one that we felt tackled the issues facing youth and Barbados within the scope of our authorizer’s organization. 

Our original problem statement had been so broad that it seemed like everything could be a contributing factor to its cause, which made it extremely difficult to find a starting point to address the problem. By trying to do everything, we couldn’t be specific enough to get people outside of our team to care about the problem.  

As we dug into the root causes of the problem, we were struck both by how much there was to learn and by how quickly we could learn through continuous engagement with our authorizer and other stakeholders who we spoke to on a weekly basis. Settling on the final problem statement less than two weeks before the culmination of the courses was overwhelming – we would have to redo so much work: the fishbone diagram, idea generation, even just getting buy-in from our authorizer. However, the depth of the existing background information we were able to generate allowed us to move even faster in sorting through the complexity and the “noise” of the problem.  

Original Fishbone 

Final Fishbone 

Lessons Learned 

After working with the PDIA process, the KEYS to Success came away with three key lessons learned: 

  1. Engaging with Stakeholders 

PDIA requires us to connect with stakeholders throughout the process: from problem deconstruction to designing and testing solutions. Moreover, none of the KEYS to Success team members were familiar with the Barbados or broader Caribbean region context. Conversations with a wide variety of stakeholders – youth development experts from other NGOs, students in Barbados, principals and teachers in Barbados – expedited our learning process and provided insights on what is valued by the people who will be directly impacted by the work. We were able to explore the problem from multiple angles, which in turn helped us engage meaningfully with our authorizer. Obtaining these insights allowed us to remove our focus from providing the “ideal” solutions, but ideas that were most valuable to our authorizer as she begins to take steps toward her goal. 

2. Embracing Iteration 

Iterating in the PDIA process can be scary and intimidating. It’s hard to admit your ideas weren’t perfect the first time around. It’s challenging to feel like you’re starting over, that you might run out of time or disappoint your authorizer. However, the iteration process is one of the most critical in the whole PDIA approach. Ultimately, it gets easier with time, and it’s important to remember that the work conducted prior isn’t “lost,” but ends up being used in an even more effective way upon iterating. 

3. Establishing a Relationship with the Authorizer 

The relationship between team and authorizer in PDIA can be complex. On the one hand, it is critical to soak up their expertise: they have significantly more background information than the team likely does, and they know the problem on a much deeper level. On the other hand, much of the value from the PDIA team comes from its fresh perspective; not being experts on the issue allows for the challenging of assumptions. It is extremely important to have a collaborative relationship with the authorizer, to allow for speaking up, sharing ideas, and disagreeing when necessary. At the same time, maintaining your authorizer’s voice in the solutions is critical, as their buy-in is vital to transform ideas into action. 

Advice for Future Students/Practitioners 

Aside from all of the lessons already mentioned, team members engaging in PDIA should ensure that psychological safety is built during team meetings and all interactions with team members. This course encouraged acts of kindness – to both team members and yourself – throughout the process. Getting to know team members on a personal level – understanding what may constrain them throughout the process, what the realities of their lives are outside of the classroom, and what they hope to gain personally and professionally from the process – can help build a much more productive team dynamic. 


This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2022. These are their learning journey stories.

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