On being and becoming a “development expert”

written by Michael Woolcock

The Three Stages of Expertise by Simon Wardley

Half-way through my HKS course on ‘Social Institutions and Economic Development’ I host a class, usually timed to be given on the eve of spring break, on what it means to be a “development expert”, especially as it pertains to engaging with social institutions. For better or worse, I now have enough grey hair and professional visibility to often have that awkward title bestowed upon me, but while I like to think I have come to know a little about development processes, and probably know more now than I did 25 years ago, the notion of being deemed a development “expert” is a label I try to wear lightly, if I must wear it at all. In this class, I stress that technical expertise is real, rare, its application deeply necessary and consequential, and for certain kinds of development problems, exactly what you need. For other kinds of development problems, however – and certainly the bulk of those problems associated with building state capability – routinely prioritizing the singular deployment of a narrow form of technical expertise as the optimal solution is itself part of the problem (in the sense articulated in the “Solutions when the solution is the problem” paper I wrote with Lant Pritchett back in 2004). 

These days, my preferred metaphorical, ideal-type juxtaposition is between expertise that fills a space and expertise that creates and protects space; this distinction roughly corresponds to, respectively, Theory X and Y in the management literature (as famously articulated by Douglas McGregor in 1960). I like this distinction expressed in the terms of ‘filling’ versus ‘protecting’ space because it broadly reflects the different skills and sensibilities that, to me, are so readily on display in development decision-making – whether in the board room, the online seminar, the policy forum, the diplomatic table, or the village meeting hall. The space-fillers primarily perceive their job, and their kindred colleagues’ job, as one of “controlling” (empirically, epistemologically, managerially) the extraneous “noisy” factors intruding on the space they’ve carefully “identified” so that, into this space, their particular, somewhere-verified “solution” can be deftly but decisively inserted. It’s what Atul Gawande calls the savior doctor model, in which one provides “a definitive intervention at a critical moment… with a clear, calculable, frequently transformative outcome.” I’ve checked the key indicators (‘vital signs’), asked my go-to questions, diligently eliminated various possibilities; I’ve scanned the decision-tree as I understand it, and determined that the highest-probability solution to this problem is X. The faster and more “cleanly” I can do this, the more genuinely ‘expert’ (and efficient and effective) I believe myself to be. Providing such decisive input into this space is emotionally thrilling; it vindicates all my years of elite education and hard work, pays me real money, yields the tantalizing allure of future successes at grander scales with higher stakes, and bestows upon me tangible professional accolades and high social status. Like nature, I abhor a vacuum, so I’ve confidently stepped in where the “less rigorous” fear to tread. I’m trained and socialized to think counterfactually, so I can’t help but indulge my vainglorious ceteris paribus fantasy that, but for my presence at that moment, things would have turned out so differently… Heck, I’ve changed history!

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Introducing our new Practice of PDIA Podcast Series

written by Salimah Samji

One of the core values of the Building State Capability (BSC) program is to make our tools and approach publicly available for use by development practitioners who are in the weeds of implementing public policies and programs.

In the same vein, we have:

  • Enabled an open access title of our Building State Capability book, published by Oxford University Press, and is available as a free downloadable pdf. Over the past two and half year, the book has been downloaded 15,000 times across 176 countries.
  • Developed a PDIA Toolkit which is a DIY guide for teams who want to use PDIA to solve their own complex problems. Our Toolkit has been released under a creative commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) and is currently available in English and Spanish (with French and Portuguese titles being developed).
  • Offered our flagship PDIA online course, a free course for teams looking to solve complex problems. 1,264 development practitioners in 87 countries have successfully completed our online courses.

We are pleased to announce our new 12-part Practice of PDIA Podcast series which will walk you through the PDIA approach to solving complex problems. This series is based on a video series we use in our online course. We hope that you find it useful!

Part 1: The Big Stuck and Capability for Policy Implementation. In many developing countries the capability of the state to implement its policies and programs is a key constraint to improving human development.

https://harvardbsc.simplecast.com/episodes/pdia-in-practice-1

 

Part 2: Techniques of Successful Failure. Many reform initiatives fail to achieve sustained improvements in performance because organizations pretend to reform by changing what policies and organizational structures look like rather than what they actually do.

https://harvardbsc.simplecast.com/episodes/pdia-in-practice-2-techniques-of-successful-failure

 

Continue reading Introducing our new Practice of PDIA Podcast Series

Views of public policy implementation success and failure: Sharing my thoughts

written by Matt Andrews

There are many views on what constitutes success and failure in public policy implementation. I have been chewing on these a lot over the last couple of years as I try to make sense of the challenges of implementation and of knowing when implementation is going well or not.

Here are some approaches I find useful in this work.

First, a large literature on project success is relevant in this discussionbecause many public policies are implemented through project-like processes (with some studies even referring to the ‘projectization‘ of various policy domains, especially in international development). The project management literature tends to emphasize different types of ‘success’ in the implementation process (if you want to read more detail,  I advise this article on the topic by Paul Bannerman):

(i) Process or project management success: the immediate performance of a project against its main design parameters—schedule (time), budget (cost), scope, and quality.

(ii) Product success: the extent to which a project delivered promised ‘products’, and if those products were used and considered useful by intended users (or beneficiaries).

(iii) Business or Strategy (or impact) success:  whether a project solved the particular problem that warranted it in the first place, and—even more expansively—if the project better positions the community  affected to address future problems or take future opportunities and benefits.

Another large literature on policy implementation offers related but also different ideas about ‘success’. A key article in this literature (by Bovens, ’t Hart and Peters 2001, which I cite below for those with interest) refers to two key dimensions of success: Continue reading Views of public policy implementation success and failure: Sharing my thoughts

PDIAtoolkit now available in Spanish!

At Building State Capability, we are excited to see the PDIA methodology being tested and adapted in many countries around the world. In order to make our videos and materials more accessible, we have started translating them into other languages, most recently in Spanish.

In January this year, we were approached by a former HKS student, Marco Midence, who was teaching a course for master’s degree students at UNITEC in Honduras. The purpose of the course is to advise students on their applied research graduation projects. He was interested in using the PDIA approach as a main part of the course. We had a draft version of our PDIAtoolkit translated in Spanish and thought this would be a great opportunity to test it out.

So … for the past two months, the 15 students have been using the PDIA tools to break down their problems, take action, and continuously learn more about the root causes of the problems. The projects are diverse, covering topics such as Honduras’ coffee sector, an entrepreneurship hub, and solar energy.

Continue reading PDIAtoolkit now available in Spanish!

Introducing the PDIA Toolkit

written by Salimah Samji

Screen Shot 2018-10-25 at 2.42.24 PM

In 2009, we began to explore how to do PDIA in the real world. Our early engagements helped us learn, develop and refine our tools – some of our key ideas (problem construction, problem driven convening, problem deconstruction, sequencing, action pushes etc.) emerged from this process.

In 2012, the Building State Capability program was created to house the action research, learning and experimentation of the PDIA approach. Since then, we have tried, tested, iterated and adapted our tools in our direct work with 349 government officials, across 45 teams, in 12 countries (Africa, Sri Lanka and Albania). In addition, 970 development practitioners in 83 countries (47% in Africa and 22% in Asia) have used these tools in our free PDIA online courses and have found them useful.

In keeping with our commitment to democratize PDIA knowledge, and to make it freely accessible to those who are in the trenches of implementing development policies and programs, we are proud to release the PDIAtoolkit : A DIY approach to Solving Complex Problems (Version 1.0). It is an open access publication, available online and distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution –Non Commercial –No Derivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Continue reading Introducing the PDIA Toolkit

Knowing through doing, and learning

written by Matt Andrews

In 2010, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock and I started writing about PDIA (problem driven iterative adaptation) as a potential approach to do development differently.

We had been observing that many development initiatives were not yielding anticipated results, and more importantly not building any kind of capability in developing country governments.

We managed to describe the situation by referring to ‘capability traps’ like isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing—‘successful strategies for continued failure’ that characterized much of the development landscape. We were able, further, to identify that the development community was especially susceptible to fall into these traps because projects tended to be solution-driven, linearly structured, and top-down, expert dominated.

Given this ‘observe, describe and identify’ research, we posited that an alternative approach might yield different results. Hence we came up with the principles of PDIA—start with problems, iterate to experiment with many ideas and learn the way towards contextually fitted solutions, in large and diffused groups. Continue reading Knowing through doing, and learning

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 alphachimp.com 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.

 

 

Democratizing PDIA knowledge one practitioner at a time

written by Salimah Samji

We now have 569 development practitioners in 64 countries who have successfully completed a version of our free PDIA course.

Since we began our online journey in November 2015, we have learned, iterated and adapted our course three times, essentially PDIA-ing our way forward. More than 80% of each cohort has completed our course evaluation, which has enriched our understanding of how our content was received, as well as helped us identify learning gaps. To address some of these gaps, we went against conventional MOOC wisdom and increased the length of our courses in our last offering, by adding 2 weeks to Principles and 4 weeks to Practice. As we had hoped, this change did improve the learning and did not significantly change the attrition rates or the overall rating of the course. Continue reading Democratizing PDIA knowledge one practitioner at a time