PDIA: It doesn’t matter what you call it, it matters that you do it

written by Matt Andrews

It is nearly two years since we at the Building State Capability (BSC) program combined with various other groups across the developing world to create an umbrella movement called Doing Development Differently (DDD). The new acronym was meant to provide a convening body for all those entities and people trying to use new methods to achieve development’s goals. We were part of this group with our own approach, which many know as Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). 

Interestingly, a few of the DDD folks thought we should change this acronym and call PDIA something fresher, cooler, and more interesting; it was too clunky, they said, to ever really catch on, and needed to be called something like ‘agile’ or ‘lean’ (to borrow from approaches we see as influential cousins in the private domain).

The DDD movement has grown quite a bit in the last few years, with many donor organizations embracing the acronym in its work, and some even advocating for doing PDIA in their projects and interventions. A number of aid organizations and development consultancies have developed other, fresher terms to represent their approaches to DDD as well; the most common word we see now is ‘adaptive’, with various organizations creating ‘adaptive’ units or drawing up processes for doing ‘adaptive’ work.

‘Adaptive programming’ certainly rolls off the tongue easier than ‘Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation’!

Some have asked me why we don’t change our approach to call it Adaptive as well, others have asked where we have been while all the discussions about names and titles and acronyms have been going on, and while organizations in the aid world have been developing proposals for adaptive projects and the like (some of which are now turned into large tenders for consulting opportunities).  My answer is simple: I’ve made peace with the fact that we are much more interested in trying to work out how to do this work in the places it is needed the most (in implementing entities within governments that struggle to get stuff done). 

So, we have been working out how to do our PDIA work (where the acronym really reflects what we believe—that complex issues in development can only be addressed through problem driven, iterative, and adaptive processes). Our observation, from taking an action research approach to over twenty policy and reform engagements, a light-touch teaching intervention with over 40 government officials, an online teaching program, and more, is clear: the people we work with (and who actually do the work) in governments don’t really care for the catchy name or acronym, or if PDIA is clunky or novel or old and mainstream. The people we are working with are simply interested in finding help: to empower their organizations by building real capability through the successful achievement of results.

We thus seldom even talk about PDIA, or adaptive programming, or DDD, or agile or lean, or whatever else we talk about in our classrooms and seminar venues back at Harvard (and in many of our blog posts and tweets). Indeed, we find that a key dimension of this work—that makes it work—is not being flashy and cool and cutting edge. It’s about being real and applied, and organic, and relational. And actually quite nodescript and mundane; even boringly focused on helping people do the everyday things that have eluded them.

So, PDIA’s lack of ‘flash’ and ‘coolness’ may be its greatest asset (and one we never knew about), because it does not matter what PDIA is called…what matters is whether it is being done.

Rising to the challenge: Supporting PDIA in Nigeria

The importance of thinking and working politically in programs concerned with governance and institutional reform is widely recognized – but shifting from thinking politically to working politically is proving a major challenge. The State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI), a governance reform program in Nigeria, supports local partners and stakeholders not through the usual accountable grants, but through mentoring, capacity building, relationship brokering and seed funding. This approach is making headway in enabling local partners and stakeholders to think and work in politically savvy ways around locally agreed problems – and its success is demonstrated in tangible examples of more responsive state governance in all the states where the program works. Read more here.

The SAVI program in Nigeria, a DFID-funded Empowerment and Accountability program operating in ten states, is included as a case study, among others, in ODI’s new report Adapting Development.

The DDD Manifesto finds a new home

written by Salimah Samji

Since we published The DDD Manifesto on November 21, it has been viewed over 5,000 times all around the world (in 100+ countries). It currently has over 400 signatories from 60 countries. It is an eclectic community with people from bilateral organizations, multilaterals, governments, academia, NGOs, private sector, as well as independent development practitioners. These are the founding members of The DDD Manifesto Community.

Today, we are delighted to launch the online platform of the DDD Manifesto Community which is the new home of the manifesto. We hope that this will be a place where you can come to share ideas, have conversations, question your assumptions, learn from others, offer support and be inspired. It includes a forum for discussion, blog posts written by community members and features video presentations from the recent DDD workshop (#differentdev).

To sign the manifesto and to participate in the forum, you can register here. Please contribute actively – this is a community website and you are the community. 

If you want to Do Development Differently but it sounds too hard…

written by Matt Andrews

Arnaldo Pellini recently wrote an interesting personal blog post about the Doing Development Differently workshop and manifesto. He concludes with, “I agree with these ideas and  I can share and discuss these ideas with the team with whom I work  but what difference can it make if the systems around us due to organizational culture, history, circumstances, and traditions struggle to embrace flexibility, uncertainty,  untested experimentation, and slow incremental changes?”

This is an honest reflection from a practitioner in the field; and one that I hear often–from folks working in multilateral and bilateral agencies, as contractors, and beyond. It captures a concern that the development machinery (organizations, monitoring and reporting devices, profession-alliances, government counterparts, etc.) is structurally opposed to doing the kind of work one might call DDD or PDIA.

It’s like this cartoon…where our organizations say “let’s innovate but stay the same.”


I have been thinking about this a lot in the last few years, ever since I wrote chapter ten of my book…which asked whether the development community was capable of changing. In that chapter I was not especially confident but (I hope) I was still hopeful.

Since then, I think I’m more hopeful. Partly because,

  • we have found many folks in the multilaterals, bilaterals, contractors etc. who are doing development in this more flexible way. We invited a range of them to the DDD Workshop and over 330 signed on to the DDD Manifesto. One of the goals of our work in the next while is to learn from these folks about HOW they do development differently even with the constraints they face. How do they get funders to embrace uncertainty? How do they get ministers in-country to buy-into flexibility and give up on straight isomorphism?
  • I am also working on research projects that tackle this question; doing PDIA in real time, in places where development is predominantly done through the incumbent mechanisms. It is hard work, but I am finding various strategies to get buy-in to a new approach (including showing how problematic the old approach is, by working in the hardest areas where one has a counterfactual of failed past attempts, and more). I am also finding strategies to keep the process alive and buy more and more space for flexibility (by iterating tightly at first, for instance, and showing quick wins…and telling the story of learning and of increased engagement and empowerment). So far, I have not experienced complete success with what I have done, but I have certainly not struggled in getting support from the practitioners and authorisers we work with. (In my world it is harder to get support from academics, who think action research on implementation is a hobby and consultancy work… indeed, anything that does not say ‘RCT’ is considered less than academic. Sigh.)

All this is to say that I think Arnaldo is emphasizing a really important constraint on those working in development agencies. But a constraint that we should work through if we really do agree that these more problem driven, flexible approaches are what is needed. To Arnaldo and others I would suggest the following:

  • Separate the conversation about which way we should do development from the conversation about how much our organizational realities ALLOW us to do it. The first conversation is: “Should we do DDD/PDIA?” The second conversation is: “How do we DDD/PDIA?” If we conflate the conversations we never move ahead. If we separate them then we can develop strategies to gradually introduce PDIA/DDD into what we do (in essence, I’m suggesting doing PDIA ourselves, to help change the way we do development…see an earlier blog).
  • I also constantly remind myself that we (external folks in development organizations) are not the only ones facing a challenge of doing new stuff in existing contexts–with all the constraints of such. This is what we are asking of our counterparts and colleagues in the developing countries where we work. Dramatic and uncomfortable and impossible change is in the air every time we are introducing and facilitating and supporting and sponsoring work in developing countries. I always tell myself: “If we can’t work it out in our own organizations–when we think that our own organizational missions depend on such change–then we have no place asking folks in developing countries to work it out.”
  • So, it’s a challenge. But a worthy one. And if we care about doing development with impact, I think it behooves us to face up to this challenge.

Good luck, Arnaldo, thanks for your honesty and for the obvious commitment that causes you to share your reality. It is really appreciated!