Introducing The PDIA in Practice Series

written by Matt Andrews

We have a small team in Pretoria this week for the second year of PDIA work with the Collaborative African Budget Initiative (CABRI). The work with CABRI will see us working with 6 more African countries on public financial management reform problems.

This experience will increase the number of teams that we have directly worked with, over multiple month engagements, to over 50 in the last 9 years. We have also engaged with two to three times this number of teams in our online work during this time.

All of this has been in the name of experimenting with a new way to do development that we believe is needed in the face of complex and context specific challenges, and when the goal of engagement is both to build local capability ‘to do’ new things and to actually do those new things.

As many of you  know, this approach is called problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), and involves engaging local agents in identifying their problems, encouraging these agents to determine where they have entry points to start tackling these problems, supporting these agents to nominate ideas to experiment with in these entry point areas, helping the agents try and test the ideas out in the field, facilitating learning from this experience, and mobilizing the agents to try their ideas again. And again. And again.

Through the many experiments over the last decade, we have been PDIA’ing PDIA itself, to develop practical and replicable methods and processes. To put it mildly, we are thrilled and excited at where all of this work has led. We have seen a new method of engaging that is emerging in countries across the developing world, where local officials are being mobilized to address challenges that have eluded them for ages: in arenas as varied as public financial management, private sector development, judicial reform, health care and education, and more. Teams working across domains have made progress in addressing their problems and building their own capabilities ‘to do’ what is needed to run their countries more effectively.

In this process, we at BSC have settled on a number of methods of engaging, and tools to work with. The work with CABRI employs most of these tools in a structured engagement we call the ‘PDIA Sandwich’. This ‘sandwich’ involves convening multiple teams in a time-bound PDIA exercise that:

  1. begins with a framing workshop where problems are identified and ‘next steps’ determined,
  2. the teams then move to rapid action and learning phase which we call the action-push period, where the teams take their ‘next steps’ and stop regularly to learn about their experience, iterating repeatedly for months, and
  3. draws the teams together in a final workshop at which results and lessons are shared and the teams are encouraged to employ their learnings independently in their home countries.

We honed the ‘sandwich approach’ in our past work in Albania and Sri Lanka, and saw it work well to structure the CABRI PDIA engagement last year. As noted, this approach is one of the methods we employ to help users use PDIA in practical ways (the others include things like our black belt team interactions, online modalities, and various course offerings). All these methods combine tools and processes that have emerged from our own practice of experiments in the last decade—including things like the problem construction and deconstruction process, change space analysis, push period iteration, PDIA check-in methods, and more.

We have tried and tested these tools across the globe and seen so many variations in so many places (see our small set of fishbone diagrams from teams representing places as varied as Mozambique, Albania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Honduras, and Liberia).

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 9.44.34 PM

We are now releasing ‘PDIA in Practice’ notes that describe the engagements we have learned from, where PDIA tools and ideas emerged from, and how these ideas have taken shape. Here is the first of these notes. It recounts a short story of the first PDIA experiment we conducted in Mozambique in 2009, and the ‘adaptation window’ idea and practice it inspired. A longer working paper on the experience is also available.

We will be producing more of these notes (and some with supporting working papers) in the coming weeks, and by fall we will also have a Dynamic PDIA Glossary that helps those interested to navigate the many ideas and tools that are now in play. Our final goal in this next period is to also release a PDIA Toolkit, where various tools are presented in practical and useable ways for anyone wanting to use them in their work.

We are excited about these new developments, and committed to democratizing management know-how across the world: making this available for everyone to use as they try to build capability and solve the world’s problems.

A final word: Our thanks and admiration go out to all the friends and colleagues and brave and caring development practitioners we have worked with in the last decade—including our local coaches in Mozambique, Albania, Sri Lanka, the CABRI coaches and CABRI country team members. You guys are the real difference makers in this development odyssey, and we are convinced that the legacy of your work will be amazing!




Using PDIA to Decode Growth in Honduras


From left to right: Jose Arocha, Matt Andrews, Marco Midence and Jorge Jimenez.

Over the past 10 weeks, Matt Andrews has been working with a team of three mid-career students from Latin America on a project applying the problem analysis in PDIA to the challenge of growth in Honduras. We had shared their fishbone diagram in a previous post. The team used growth diagnostics, product space analysis, and PDIA to find practical entry points for moving forward. We are proud of them and wish them the best on their PDIA adventure!

Watch the video of their presentation. You can also follow along with their Powerpoint Presentation

Continue reading Using PDIA to Decode Growth in Honduras

Watch our new PDIA video!

We have been told many times that the acronym PDIA is clunky and that it doesn’t easily roll off the tongue. Matt Andrews’ response to that has been, “it doesn’t matter what you call it, it matters that you do it.” BUT in order to do it, you need to first understand what it is.

We are delighted to share with you our latest video to help explain what PDIA is and is not.

This video was created by the talented Peter Durand at who was an absolute pleasure to work with. We are thrilled with how it turned out and hope that you find it useful.

Feel free to share the video. You can also tag us on Twitter using @HarvardBSC or #PDIA.



PDIA Course: Taking the classroom to the field and the field to the classroom

written by Salimah Samji

When we launched the first PDIA online course in November 2015, we had a burning question: Is it possible to teach PDIA in an online environment?  To answer this question, we essentially PDIA-ed our way forward by learning, iterating, and adapting our online course – and the answer is a resounding YES!

As of the end of last year, 804 development practitioners in 75 countries have successfully completed a version of our free PDIA online course.

PDIA online course poster Dec 2017

Continue reading PDIA Course: Taking the classroom to the field and the field to the classroom

We recently ran a PDIA course on climate change adaptation. Why?

written by Tim O’Brien


Leader of farming cooperative in central Sri Lanka that diversified into ginger production as drought increasingly hurt rice cultivation.

If you live in a developed country, odds are that you think about climate change as something that will harm future generations — your children or your grandchildren perhaps. But if you live in a poor country, chances are much higher that you think of climate change as a source of problems that are affecting you and your family today. Climate change may not be the most important problem for you if you live in a developing country, but odds are that it is making your problems worse.

The climate is changing globally, but vulnerabilities are faced locally, usually in ways that exacerbate existing development challenges. For most poor farmers, when and how the rain falls matters a great deal. But climate change is tending to affect seasonal patterns on which many farmers rely, paradoxically increasing the frequency and severity of both droughts and floods, often in the same places. In many poor cities, climate change is increasing water scarcity, flooding, landslides and overall risk of extreme weather events. For people without electricity in tropical countries, heat waves are increasingly deadly events. For communities that depend on fishing as a means of both income and food, ocean acidification is both an economic and health issue. For countries with weak infrastructure, limited budgets and undiversified economies, macroeconomic vulnerability to weather shocks continues to grow more severe. Continue reading We recently ran a PDIA course on climate change adaptation. Why?

PDIA for growth in Honduras: A student project with major promise

written by Matt Andrews

We at the Building State Capability program have the good fortune of working with amazing practitioners from all over the world, and on topics of real importance. This semester, for instance, I am working with a team of three mid-career students from Latin America on a project applying the problem analysis in PDIA to the challenge of growth in Honduras. Marco Midence is from Honduras, Jorge Jimenez is from Mexico, and Jose Arocha is from Venezuela.

In keeping with the PDIA approach, their work started with ‘problem construction’—identifying a problem statement to draw attention to the problem. It goes something like this: Honduras has struggled to achieve the economic progress needed to pull many of its people out of poverty or to create jobs for those people moving into middle income categories. Continue reading PDIA for growth in Honduras: A student project with major promise