Using Inquiry as a Strategy in PDIA to transform Barbados Education System

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Guest blog by Doreen King, IPP 2021

Coming into the program, I had a pretty good sense of what to expect, given that I’d already taken 2 Harvard Kennedy School courses with Matt Andrews, which covered some of the material. What I wasn’t prepared for, was the group dynamic of working on a weekly group assignment. Why? At first I was concerned about how it would work given that we were all doing completely different challenges. I wasn’t sure how productive the weekly exercises would be. But despite and because of the diversity of our challenges, I think this approach was especially successful. It was great to have 4 extra set of eyes, ears and minds exploring each other’s challenges weekly. The diverse insight and engagement were immeasurable.

In the class interactions, I was expecting a discussion forum where the entire class would get a chance to engage and understand perspectives and mindsets of our classmates. The optional sessions provided some opportunities but not as vivid as the ones we would have had in a discussion forum.

A. Key learnings from this course

1. The art of delegation
Delegation has always been difficult for me. It continues to be a work in progress for this type of a challenge and approach. Unlike the plan and control projects I’m usually a part of, there was no set project team with assigned, accepted responsibilities and accountability. I had little authority. Going through the acquiring support stage of the process really complicated my ability to source willing and able agents. I frankly thought that it was an almost impractical task. But I did believe that with the right team of agents, addressing this problem would be more effective.  

Having to intentionally do it in small steps as part of this program, once traction and some authority was gained, it was resourceful. The amount of ground covered, information gathered, contacts made would not have been accomplished in the same amount of time, working solo.

2. Using Learning and Leading indicators
In previous projects, I have created logs which documented issues and learnings but did not specifically captured leads. This concept of learning and leads as key progress indicators to report on, is very practical; particularly when progress is not so evident, and realizing that utilizing learning and leads to communicate wins and buys time.

It was evident from the beginning of my challenge, that there were many unknowns. While, it’s by no means solved or advanced in a way that authorizers would want to see, in terms of said “big and immediate results with quick and ambitious solutions”, what I have learned and the leads gained are invaluable and have advanced moving towards solutioning.  There’s definite value in building authorization and support by communicating learning and leads gains to authorizers and peers.  Communicating learnings and leads  demonstrates that you are getting somewhere, making inroads towards a solution, so to speak. Once authorizers had this knowledge, both support and authorization increased.

3. Using inquiry as a strategy
I found that ‘inquiry’ was a better strategy to use in persuading people to work with me than ‘advocacy’. Persons don’t take too keenly to the ethno and ego-centric practice of shoving ideas and beliefs down their throats. Rather, they want an opportunity to share their own experiences, concerns and ideas. Often times, this opportunity comes through  inquiry, organically. Persons tend to be more open to engaging, sharing pertinent information and “open to influence” when they feel like they’ve been included and their voice matters.

B. Implementation challenges I’m currently working on

I’m currently working on Barbados’ inefficient education system.

The fishbone diagram shown below is the initial one I created at the start of the program. I’m sharing this one so that it’s easier to demonstrate the evolution of my insights and progress as the program progressed.

Barbados Education System Education System Breakdown

Even though in my mind I was seeing that the problem was the inefficient education system, I think to me that seemed to simple. I was, therefore, complicating it with a very roundabout description. Despite the simplicity of my fishbone title, I still started off with a long, rambling problem statement of, “The lack of access to quality education and the ever growing achievement gap has long been an issue, especially for certain Barbadian demographics; many Barbadian secondary school students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not performing as well as their peers from higher socioeconomic brackets as indicated by the CXC, CSEC, CAPE results, the disproportionate number of scholarships received, enrollment into local and global university and entrance into professional disciplines. For already underserved youth, this limits/prevents them from reaching their full potential thus increasing the drop-out rate, proliferating poverty, placing additional burden on society, and slowing the country’s economic development. Rather than meeting students where they are and designing a progressive education system that caters to their interests, strengths and needs, so as to aptly prepare them for current and future societal “trends”, the ineffective outdated education system remains.”

Having recognized this, it was very important for me to solicit the input of diverse individuals from both within and outside of Barbados, to address this risk of driving to an irrelevant solution.  The more stakeholders I engaged with, the clearer the problem became. Therefore, constantly revisiting and refining the problem statement throughout the program, was very necessary and helpful. Same goes for revisiting and refining the fishbone diagram.

As I got into the challenge, I realized that a very important bone was missing; awareness. I spent an inordinate amount of time on building awareness and am still doing so. As an Insider Outsider, I was in a precarious position. I had to be very mindful of how I interacted and communicated, as my message was received very differently by different individuals and organizations. I, therefore, leaned very heavily on my project management experience to ensure that the solution I’m working towards is rooted in a true problem solving process. I tailored the stakeholder engagement through identification, classification, strategy development, and communications planning and execution.

C. Motivation for future

A major motivator for my embarking on addressing this problem, is my own experience growing up in Barbados and coming through its education system. I think that being more aware, earlier on and acknowledging the risk of my “blinders’ impairing my vision, my problem narrative suffering from solution confirmation pitfall and having a flawed problem definition, are very vital.

D. Using the learnings

I will continue to use this course learnings to address this problem, but I’ve also started applying it to my life and other problems. For example, I’m taking a class right now, Contemporary Developing Countries: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Intractable Problems, where the challenge I’ve selected for the semester is another space where it can be applied. Additionally, I’m applying them to my NGO and its programs.   

E. Advice for fellow PDIA Practitioners across the world

I have summarised my insights into the acronym ITERATIVE.

I – Identify entry points and ideas for action
T – Build a supportive Team
E – Empower others by giving them control over work and involvement in ideation and decision making
R – Reset Norms to manage time more efficiently
A – Build Authorization by communicating your learnings and leads
T – Trust building in your team and yourself is vital
E – Engage in a strategic, synergistic manner

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 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

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