BSC 2020: The Year in Review

written by Salimah Samji

2020 was a challenging year. The Covid-19 pandemic and other crises highlighted the failures of governance and the large economic disparities that exist around the globe. The need to build public sector capability to meet these increasingly complex challenges has never been greater.

Our response to these challenges included convening and training policymakers, as well as practitioners, around critical issues of leading through crises, implementing public policies, inclusive growth, and budgeting in times of uncertainty. Drawing on BSC’s past experience running both online programs and blended learning programs, we put our knowhow into action and pivoted two executive education programs to online. We also provided our students opportunities to work on real-world problems as a way to help them build the muscle memory of solving complex problems.

Some highlights of 2020 include:

  • Trained and engaged with 875 practitioners around the globe (incl. degree programs, online executive education, and direct policy engagements with governments); 
  • Published 89 blog posts; 
  • Recorded 17 podcasts, including a new 4-part series on the 4P model of strategic leadership; and
  • Activated our HKS IPP community of practice.

Here’s a month by month playback of 2020.


BSC collaborated with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative on their Cross-Boundary Collaboration Program, by developing three problem exploratory online modules as part of the pre-work to be completed by participants in advance of their training in New York City. 72 participants across 9 City teams completed these exercises. 

BSC Faculty Director Matt Andrews chaired the executive education program entitled, Public Financial Management (PFM) in a Changing World at the Harvard Kennedy School. 36 PFM practitioners participated in this program.

Matt Andrews and Salimah Samji, co-taught the class entitled, PDIA in Action: Development through Facilitated Emergence at the Harvard Kennedy School. This year we invited alumni of our IPP Executive Education program to nominate real-world problems that the students could work on. You can read more about what student’s learned about dealing with uncertainty, the bias towards finding solutions, the importance of different perspectives, iteration, and team-work.

Class photo taken after final presentations in March 2020.

The process of implementing public policies and solving complex development problems requires working in teams. We released a podcast on building effective teams recorded by BSC Faculty Associate, Professor Monica Higgins, Kathleen McCartney Professor of Education Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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PDIA and Coordination Challenges within Government

Guest blog written by Nevena Bosnic, Mehdi El Boukhari, Ama Peiris, Matthew Welchert

Over the past seven weeks, our group embarked on the learning journey of problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) as it applies to coordination challenges facing the various levels of government as well as civil society in addressing homelessness in Tarrant County, Texas. We had the great pleasure to work with an authorizer, Maggie Jones, who serves as the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development. Our team – comprised of graduate students from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government – provided a diversity of perspectives and richness of insights. Together, we confronted and struggled through the challenges that come with working in complex adaptive challenges as we constructed and deconstructed the problem, sought potential entry points, developed and acted on ideas for interventions, and finally, reflected and iterated with yet another round of the process. Through this blog post, we hope to share with readers: (1) our key learnings from the course, (2) insights we gained about the problem we sought to address, and (3) words of wisdom for other students and practitioners.


  • The ecosystem is large and not all actors have a clear picture of how they fit within the larger system. Thus, they do not strategize well how they as an individual organization can encourage better coordination. It can be helpful to think of a metaphor of topographical map wherein your key organization is in a valley. You may see other related organizations and actors in some nearby hills and bluffs, but you might be blind to what exists beyond those heights. PDIA requires you to venture forth beyond the hills to get a sense of the total ecosystem. 
  • There are a lot of different stakeholders who are working independently to fight homelessness. There is little to no capitalizing on each other’s strengths because each stakeholder is bound by short term objectives and constraints. Coordination inherently requires compromising a degree of control to others, but asking organizations to share or give up some of their autonomy is a difficult ask. Constructing a problem that matters helps rally and galvanize support. 
  • It is alright to not have a big idea which might theoretically have a large impact. It is often better to try multiple small, achievable actions to shift towards greater change. Complexity is daunting, but by deconstructing the problem and identifying where there is sufficient authority, acceptance, and ability to act you can begin to take action. Rather than focusing all of your efforts on a big solution, removed from potential feasibility, taking immediate, fast action where possible provides lessons and begins the process of change. 
  • Huge challenge in understanding all of the many moving parts. Interactions and causal relationships are unlikely to reveal themselves without first pushing at the problem from multiple angles. By taking many different, small, independent actions pathways and connections might become more visible. 
  • The wonderful world of positive deviants. Do not reinvent the wheel. It sounds simple enough, but if you do not explore, ask around, look for the small successes already underway, then you risk missing solutions already in action. 
  • Deconstructing the problem is an endless process. You will always go back to redefining the problem and uncovering new root causes (rather than manifestations of the problem). Iteration can be trying, even frustrating, but the process of purposeful repetition building on what has been learned is critical to uncovering new solutions, and taking meaningful next steps.
  • Un-learning’ or learning you were wrong is still learning. Through the process of iteration and adaptation, you will likely be wrong. Indeed, you should be wrong. Embrace the potential for an idea not panning out, or an action not producing the desired result. By hitting a wall, you now know there is a wall there. In dealing with complex problems, even learning the boundaries of action is an important step. But be sure to learn and adapt. Why is the wall there? Where is a backdoor? It is in asking these deeper questions that PDIA’s repetition allows us to overcome hurdles. 
  • Examining change space is something most people don’t think about outside of PDIA. This results in a lot of efforts being made, sometimes to no avail. Crawl around the design space; which means to explore and make use of other success being done elsewhere. Perhaps a best practice has been implemented with success elsewhere. How would it be applicable to my situation? But remember to reflect inwardly as well. There is likely a great deal of latent potential within your own organization which can be brought to bear. Change will require many kinds of actions, from both without and within. 
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Becoming Comfortable with Complexity

Guest blog written by Rebecca Trupin, Prateek Mittal

Our PDIA journey began with our authorizer, a senior bureaucrat in the State Government of Meghalaya, sharing a document with us about his vision to build capability of the state administration to deal with complex problems. We had been working with him on local governance-related projects and were keen on institutionalizing adaptive problem-solving processes. We suggested that he try a few pilot projects in different sectors to understand and document how a PDIA approach could work in the state. At that time, he had recently taken over the health department and improving maternal and child health indicators had become one of his priorities. We decided to focus on the complex problem of high maternal mortality in the state.

We had several late night/early morning interviews, courtesy of the 10-hour time difference, with different stakeholders and had weekly check-ins with our authorizer. Through this process, we mapped the various causes of maternal deaths in a fishbone diagram that helped us visualize the complexity of the problem.

Based on this, we generated some ideas that could be useful in learning more about the problem and help the health department better prioritize resources towards issues that can give them some strong gains in the short-term. We used this work to make a case for building a PDIA team in Meghalaya that could build on this and make some tangible progress on improving maternal health outcomes in the state. 

As we reflect on the process, we want to share three things about three things that capture our key learnings and takeaways for anyone who is interested in doing PDIA.

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PDIA and Dementia in the Workplace

Guest blog written by Tamsir Cham, Andrea Hayes, Fateme Najafi, Aysha Valery

Overall, we learned that the PDIA process is about being patient, digging deep into a problem, continuing to iterate, and engaging both the stakeholders and the authorizers.  We also learned how to dig deep into problems.  Digging deep requires discovering the underlying or root causes of a problem. To discover these causes, we kept asking ourselves: “Why is this a problem?” In PDIA terms, we call this “The Five Whys.”  In our case, our dialogue went somewhat like this:

  • Why is it a problem that the state of Massachusetts is not equipped to handle dementia in the workplace?  
  • Because there is lack of awareness.
  • But why is there lack of awareness? 

Once we dug deeper into the problem, or deconstructed the problem in PDIA language, we drew the bones on our fishbone diagram.  In the words of Tamsir Cham, “Just like all the bones make up the fish, if you don’t have all those bones together, you won’t have a fish.”

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Strengthening Collaboration to Tackle Increasing Homicides in Charlotte, North Carolina

Guest blog written by Simone D’Abreu, Smriti Iyer, Sofia Salas, Hafou Toure, Annie White

PDIA can simultaneously hold the complexity of being exciting and frustrating; challenging and inspiring; harder and easier than you think. If we could choose one phrase to define PDIA, it would probably be iterative learning. In the next few lines, we want to share some of the main things we learnt in this process, both about doing PDIA and about working with a team.

Bring on the problems, not the solutions

We have been trained to jump to solutions and answers and not spend enough time diagnosing the problem. Through this process we learned that asking the right questions and defining the problem -over and over again- is often more productive than finding the “right” solution. This understanding and learning stems from the idea that often problems are complex in nature and understanding the levers within the problem we can operate in is more important that jumping to a solution immediately.

Problems have many explanations as they are people involved

Everyone has a different view of the problem and the factors driving it. It’s hard to explain how knowing more about a problem makes it even harder to articulate it in one sentence and honor the conflict and ambiguity that exists in its definition. Problems, as well as problem definitions are not static and evolve over time. Different people have different views and explanations that must be listened to. As such, we should constantly evaluate our definitions of the problem.

The problem we were trying to delve into was that of coordination between the city and the county in order to tackle the increasing rates of homicides better in the city of Charlotte. We went back and forth on what to define the problem as and in our initial discussions our fishbone analysis which looks at root causes resembled the diagram below.

As time progressed our problem definition continuously evolved and we found that each stakeholder we spoke to had a different perspective on what the problem was and what were the root causes that led to symptoms such as high homicide rates. We mapped the root causes against the three dimensions that PDIA framework provides us, that is; Authority, Acceptance and Ability of the authoriser of our work to affect change in the problem of lack of coordination between different agencies. On the basis of this framework, we narrowed the causes and the areas we could intervene in, to Competing Priorities and Trust Deficit. We chose these two because they rated highest on the parameters of acceptance, authority and ability and were not problems that we felt were necessarily structural in nature.

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A Reflection on PDIA in Action: Homelessness in Tarrant County

Guest blog written by Akbar Ahmadzai, Emma Davies, Renzo LavinFernando Marquez

Six weeks ago, the class counted off numbers: One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. Some of us were fortunate enough to have been assigned to group 2. Others convinced classmates to switch with them. Regardless of how we got there, all of us in group 2 would be working on Homelessness in Tarrant County. Had any of us been to Texas? No. Had any of us worked on homelessness issues in the past? No. Yet, in the next six weeks, through reading numerous documents and reaching out to people knowledgeable about the issue, we too would learn about the problem of homelessness in Tarrant County. 

On our first day, our group was inclined to think that access to affordable housing was the main driver of homelessness. An obvious solution to this problem seemed to be increasing the number of available units. After our first call with our authorizer, Maggie Jones, the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development, we quickly realized we were wrong in two key ways. First, the problem was much more complex than just the lack of housing and we would have to dive deeper to understand it better. Second, there were no obvious solutions to addressing homelessness and, given that homelessness is a multidimensional problem, several measures would be required to tackle sub-areas contributing to homelessness. 

We were introduced to a large network of people, agencies, and community organizations working on addressing homelessness in Tarrant County. Within the first week, we learned that “more than 2,000 individuals experience homelessness on any given night in Tarrant County” and, during the point in time count, there were 560 unsheltered homeless people despite 602 available beds throughout the system. Furthermore, there were many people at risk of losing their housing and becoming homeless in the near future. Armed with this information, we defined (constructed) the problem as follows:

Continuing to engage with people working on homelessness in Tarrant County and reading several documents related to the issue of homelessness helped us identify various subproblems and factors that contribute to homelessness in Tarrant County. The question “why” proved extremely helpful when deconstructing our problem. For instance,

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Bringing the Field to the Classroom: Learning to do PDIA in Practice

written by Salimah Samji

Implementation is hard. It is often the weakest link in the success of a policy or program. Yet, public policy education remains focused on teaching students to design and analyze policies. As Francis Fukuyama aptly wrote, “most programs train students to become capable policy analysts, but with no understanding of how to implement those policies in the real world,” and “the world is littered with optimal policies that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted.”

BSC Faculty Director, Matt Andrews, has been teaching Getting Things Done: Management in a Development Context, at the Harvard Kennedy School for over a decade. In this course, students learn how public policy implementation can be improved and made more effective. They learn how to identify the nature of the implementation problem they are working on and then how to match their challenge to the appropriate management approach: plan and control, adaptive methods, and facilitated emergence. They also learn about blended approaches and how a “blend” would work. 

In the face of complex implementation challenges, we believe that practitioners should be using more facilitated emergence methods, where the focus is on problems (not solutions), follows a step-by-step process (not a rigid long-term plan), and allows for flexible learning and adaptation (instead of control-oriented implementation). While many practitioners agree that more flexible approaches are needed, they do not know “how” to use alternative methods to plan and control. Our experience with direct policy engagements and executive training for development practitioners around the world, has taught us that action learning is crucial for building the muscle memory of solving complex problems: the only way to learn is by doing.

In response to this, we developed a new course module in 2018: PDIA in Action: Development through Facilitated Emergence. Our objective was to allow students to apply a research-oriented version of PDIA – to learn how to incorporate facilitated emergence within a rapidly applied team-based research strategy. 

A key component of this course has been providing the students with an opportunity to work on real-world problems with people who are familiar with the PDIA approach. In the previous years, students have worked with government teams with whom we have had direct policy engagements. This year, we asked the alumni of our Implementing Public Policy (IPP) executive education program if they were interested in providing real-world policy problems they were facing and whether they wanted to be the authorizer or client for our students. 

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