One of the greatest concerns of public servants in Peru is to achieve effective public policies, that is, that all the effort and resources invested become real results for the benefit of the people. But being involved in the policy-making process is not a simple task, we must recognize that the problems we seek to solve are not simple problems but rather complex problems, so a high level of complexity is required to address them. But this does not mean that the task is impossible. With the right tools and methods, it is possible to have greater clarity and better handling of complexity.
The last few blog posts have offered various lessons from practice – in Liberia’s 2014 Ebola crisis and Bahrain’s current Covid-19 crisis. I offered these lessons at this point partly because they provide excellent applied narratives on the importance of adopting fast, flat and flexible organizing structures when faced with crises. Regular readers will know that I like the ‘snowflake version’ of such structures (where many satellite teams locate themselves organically around a central coordinating nuclear team). I will offer more detail on various aspects of these in-practice structures in posts to come – including how political leadership relates to the snowflake, what ‘nuclear’ teams could look like, what information flow through structures might be useful, how satellite teams can be identified, how work could be organized, etc.
In this post and the one that follows, however, I want to share the broader idea on why fast, flat and flexible structures are vital in the face of crisis, and offer thoughts on how leaders (or authorized supervisors) might see their role in such a system, and how leaders might navigate the public value concerns organizations face in crisis situations.
To offer these thoughts, I’d like to introduce readers (and viewers) to Mark Moore, a Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School whose work on public management is legendary. His work on Public Value has had a significant impact on public policy education and thinking across the globe. He participated in a Zoom interview with me, and I am breaking it into two parts (one in this post and the other in the next post).
This part of the post reflects on Mark’s comments about the importance of leaders mobilizing work and learning through the crisis, even if it seems chaotic. Here is the video; my thoughts follow, with (as usual) a set of questions at the end for your reflection.
I began this discussion by asking Mark for thoughts on how to organize in chaos (often what crises pose for us), and particularly about the challenge of getting bureaucratic leaders to let go of controls and allow flexible coordination. Mark responded by reflecting on the difficulties encountered during crisis: resources are overwhelmed and not in the right places, gaps persist, [my addition] people face a direct threat, and lack knowledge on exactly what to do.
Given this perspective, Mark notes, “the idea that we can manage our way out of crisis using plan and control is misplaced.” Existing organizing structures—and the controls they provide—were not created for the crisis, are over-stressed by the crisis, and do not allow the learning you need to deal with the crisis.
Mark opines, however, that you have an unusual asset in crises: “the urgency to do tasks”. He notes that, “During crises you can’t forget about the task [as organizations sometimes do]” … “The tasks are staring you in the face all the time.”
Mark suggests that the goal of leadership in times of crisis should be to leverage this urgency and promote learning through the creative action of ‘your people’. “Can you depend on your people to just start acting, [and] report on what they do, so that information can be recorded and you as an organization can learn?”
The PDIA team has been working in Sri Lanka for the past six months with five talented and motivated government teams. This work is challenging and demands hard work by government officials and yet through short, repeated iterations, real progress is achieved. The teams update a facilitator every two weeks while also preparing for their next two week ‘sprint’. Once a month, the teams meet together at a ‘Launchpad’ session to update each other, evaluate their progress, adapt their action plans accordingly and set out for the next month of hard work. I have the privilege of sitting in on team meetings every week. This work takes time, it takes perseverance and it requires trust, and the task of attacking some of the most challenging areas in government is frustrating but absolutely worth it with each breakthrough. While impossible to articulate completely, this post attempts to reflect the ground reality of practicing PDIA in order to build state capability.
Emergence, in complexity theory, is the process by which lessons learned from new engagements and activities lead to a unique recombination of ideas and capabilities that result in unpredictable solutions. Emergence is evident in each PDIA team. For example, as one team made progress on their problem, they identified a constraint that needed to be addressed if they were to succeed. Another team had a similar realization and eventually the idea for a potential solution cropped up and an entire team was formed around it. As one of the team members noted, the more we engage, the more opportunities arise and connections are made and we will get lucky soon!
As the teams prepare for their lucky moment and produce tangible products, the individual capability built is the true success of this work. As one team leader said, ‘We haven’t done something like this in the 30 years I have been [working] here!’ At the first launchpad session, a team member told me about experiences they had had at similar workshops. ‘We meet and discuss various topics and then leave. But I think this will be different, we must actually do something.’ Faced with a new challenge, undertaking a task he had no experience in, this member is now an expert and motivates the others along. From the onset, he has been determined to achieve his targets and has proven to the rest in that team, that hard work and genuine interest can lead to unexpected, impressive learning and results.
Another team member, an experienced yet skeptical team leader, did not leave the first launchpad session quite as confident. She didn’t believe this work would lead to real results and doubted they would have the necessary political backing. A few months later, she is now the most motivated, engaged, focused member on his team. ‘So many people come to collect information, then they put down their ideas in a document and give it to us to act on. This just ends up on a shelf. It’s better not to talk, but to do something – so we are happy! Especially the support from the higher-level authorizers has given us confidence to keep working’. This team embarked on a journey from confusion to clarity. They had to trust this approach, take action and gradually fill the information gaps they did not even know existed a few months before. It has been frustrating, and yet they continue in good faith that with each piece of information gathered they are closer to a clear, achievable vision for their project. The capability to create project profiles like this has grown in this team and will be useful to their colleagues across government. These capabilities are the results of hard work, intentional engagement, and consistent expansion of authority.
Some people ask, ‘So what makes a good team? What departments should they come from or what expertise should they have?’ My answer to that is simple: a successful team comprises of people who are willing to work; government officials willing to trust a completely new approach and work hard. Hard working teams are essential to the success of PDIA and while expertise, seniority, and experience may be considered necessary, without genuine hard work, any team, no matter how talented, will fail. Here in Sri Lanka, each team is unique, with varying weaknesses and strengths they have learned to work around. Some teams lack strong leadership which forces team members to take greater responsibility and ownership in decision making and motivation. Other teams have strong leadership so some members took on less responsibility and at points didn’t contribute at all to achieving the teams’ goals. Some teams have capable workers frustrated by their lack of authority, and others have the authority but lack capability. There are teams that perform well with organized deadlines and targets, while others struggle to set deadlines beyond the coming week. Each team’s composition has adapted as the work evolved, and each team has achieved great things through their diverse skill sets, past experience, commitment to real work and time-bound action.
I hope these field notes help give a sense of what PDIA is like on the ground and how this approach, although difficult and emotionally draining, can lead to new, or make use of latent, capabilities within government.
Anisha Poobalan worked with us on the PDIA Sri Lanka project from September 2016 to September 2017. This is part of a blog series that is tagged “PDIA Journey,” written by people who have participated in a PDIA process.
One of the criticisms of the big picture discussion on governance that’s been going on in networks such as Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically is that it’s all very helicopter-ish. ‘What do I do differently on Monday morning?’, comes the frustrated cry of the practitioner. Now some really useful answers are starting to come onstream, and I’ll review a few of them.
First up is ‘Doing Problem Driven Work’, a paper by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock. It turns previous work on PDIA – ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’ – into a toolkit, aimed primarily at those involved in reforming governance from the inside, whether government reformers, or big bilateral and World Bank donors with access to the corridors of power. However, there are clear parallels with and lessons for the work of more ‘outsider’ NGOs and campaigners.
It starts by noting that while many reform projects have failed in the past, those that succeeded often involved a ‘problem focus’. Problems ‘force policymakers and would-be reformers to ask questions about the incumbent ways of doing things’ and ‘provide a rallying point for coordinating distributed agents who might otherwise clash in the change process’. ‘Good’ problems are urgent and can be easily addressed by those in the room. They often spring from crises or other ‘critical junctures’.
The first step for a would-be reformer is ‘problem construction’, which ‘involves gathering key change agents to answer four questions: ‘What is the problem?’, ‘Why does it matter?’, ‘To whom does it matter?’, ‘Who needs to care more?’ and ‘How do we get them to give it more attention?’’ Defining the problem is key: it’s no good having a woffly ‘corruption is a problem’ type statement – you need ‘a real performance deficiency that cannot be ignored’, like ‘we can’t get education and health care to these communities, because the municipal officials keep nicking the money’.
Once you have a problem, you can get started, with your doughty band of reformers:
What is the problem? (and how would we measure it or tell stories about it?)
Why does it matter? (and how do we measure this or tell stories about it?) Ask this question until you are at the point where you can effectively answer the question below, with more names than just your own.
To whom does it matter? (In other words, ‘who cares? other than me?) Who needs to care more? How do we get them to give it more attention? What will the problem look like when it is solved? Can we think of what progress might look like in a year, or 6 months?
The authors stress the importance of ‘authority’. For insider reformers like them, the key is to get political backing for the reform, preferably from the president or similar, which opens doors and aligns incentives.
Authority forms part of a ‘triple A change space analysis’, together with ‘acceptance’ and ‘ability’:
Authority to engage
Who has the authority to engage: Legal? Procedural? Informal? Which of the authorizer(s) might support engagement now? Which probably would not support engagement now? Overall, how much acceptance do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?
Which agents (person/organization) has interest in this work?
For each agent, on a scale of 1-10, think about how much they are likely to support engagement?
On a scale of 1-10, think about how much influence each agent has over potential engagement?
What proportion of ‘strong acceptance’ agents do you have (with above 5 on both estimates)?
What proportion of ‘low acceptance’ agents do you have (with below 5 on both estimates)?
Overall, how much acceptance do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?
What is your personnel ability?
Who are the key (smallest group of) agents you need to ‘work’ on any opening engagement?
How much time would you need from these agents? What is your resource ability?
How much money would you need to engage?
What other resources do you need to engage? Overall, how much ability do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?
The questions also highlight some of the weaknesses of PDIA – there’s no power analysis here, for example, whether some people who are currently not involved in decision-making could become so, and what might enable them to do so; who are the blockers, and do they operate through the exercise of visible or hidden power? A good power analysis would definitely lead to more refined tactics. There’s also a lack of a real systems approach, for example looking for positive deviants that are already working, or emergent hybrid institutions that combine new and traditional approaches. It all feels quite top down and traditional.
On the other hand, I like the bottom-up construction of problem and solution, and the authors have been out there, doing this kind of work for years, so the paper is full of practical examples.