Complexity is Simple with PDIA

Guest blog written by Ahmad Aljazaeri

After many years working in the for-profit private sector, I moved about two years ago into a government-owned company that was set up several year ago to be an execution arm for what used to be called the Ministry of Labor. This company grew to be a huge enabler for the transformation plans for that ministry and several other government entities and even some private companies. After being on the receiving end of public policy, I am now ever closer to influencing and even participating in drafting policies. Having been outside my comfort zone, I thought that nothing would be better than going back to school to learn how to better deal with the new challenges in front of me. I went through several options, but IPP grabbed my attention with its structure and scope. I thought this would be a good start for me to understand policy making and implementation and I honestly thought there would be a lot of theory. I didn’t mind that, but I was very interested in learning what it would take to succeed in the implementation of those policies. By that time, I have already worked on a couple of small policies that saw the light and were implemented successfully, but I wanted to tackle bigger problems and I needed to be well-equipped.


I had some concerns about the program being completely online, but I also knew that this could work although 20 weeks seemed a very long time for a training course. After the second week, I was completely convinced that this set up was going to be way better than a condensed 2-week course as it allows participant to fully digest the content and put what they have learned into real action. The course exceeded my expectations in every measure imagined and I would certainly like to see more of such courses in all disciplines.

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Adding depth and dimension to public policy projects

Guest blog written by Razan Farhan Alaqil

Joining the Implementing Public Policy course started as a “cool” yet very far idea during a ministerial meeting that I was attending. But then, I went back to my team, and we all truly thought “Why not?” Within a matter of weeks, I was registered for the course along with my work colleagues; Dr. Hiba Rajab and Alanoud Al Saud.

While we were submitting our applications during the Holy month of Ramadan, I reflected a lot before answering the question around my long-term career goals, and how this course would help me achieve them. After long thoughts, and while fasting, I wrote the following:

Growing up, I always said that I wanted to ‘change the world.’ Whether that was through my actions, work, or volunteering, I always had that urge to plan a career that would serve this purpose…. I started making that dream of mine a reality.  It was becoming clear because those policy amendments I was working on were influencing not only businesses, but also people’s lives, and each individual was changing their world in their own way.”

That’s how I applied to this course. Confident that the actions we make have a larger butterfly effect on the world, confident that my job was helping me change the world.

My colleagues and I developed our challenge statements together, and we were committed to bringing that knowledge we were about to gain to our wider team in the company, to our stakeholders in the private and public sectors, to individuals working and living while being influenced by the work we were advocating for in policies.

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Constraints faced by MSMEs hindering economic growth in Equatorial Guinea

Guest blog written by Cesar A. Mba Abogo

I signed up for the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) course after having completed Leading Economic Growth (LEG), where my understanding of the economic growth challenges facing my country, Equatorial Guinea, had been literally reset. Attending LEG was a bit of cathartic therapy for me, as I had been Minister of Finance, Economy and Planning in a particularly exceptional period. From April 2019 to October 2020, Equatorial Guinea had closed a bailout programme with the IMF and launched a wide-ranging catalogue of macro-fiscal stabilisation and governance improvement measures. In the midst of these far-reaching reforms, COVID19 had emerged as an existential challenge for which humanity was ill-prepared. LEG helped me to sharpen my understanding of economic complexity, to re-examine my tenure as head of my country’s Ministry of Finance, and to understand a notion that now seems like a no-brainer: the change space, this chessboard where reformers struggle between what is feasible in the local ecosystem versus the legitimacy required by external demands.

Throughout LEG, the growth challenge I focused on was the low productivity of the non-oil sector as an obstacle to inclusive growth. The narrative and available data led me to the thesis that this low productivity was an unintended consequence of Equatorial Guinea’s over dependence on the oil sector for more than two decades. I came to a somewhat stark but hopeful conclusion: Equatorial Guinea was crossing a bridge under turbulent waters on a journey into the unknown that required an adaptive strategy that generates knowledge and facilitates evidence-based, sequential and iterative decision-making.

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Equador’s reliance on fossil fuel exports

Guest blog written by Matthew McNaughton, Gaurav Dutt, Mandy Le Monde, Anjanay Kumar, Yashila Singh

What were some key learnings from this course? (about the PDIA process through addressing your problem)

As we went along the process of PDIA, we learnt a lot about the process of understanding and deconstructing the problem, working in a team and about PDIA itself. A few of these learnings are included below:

Firstly, problem definition is often an underinvested endeavor. PDIA’s methodology for constructing and deconstructing problems, along with the strategic role that a well constructed problem plays in mobilizing actors in the problem space are immensely valuable. Maintaining the discipline to focus on problem definition, instead of jumping to creating solutions can be difficult. Having a team that shares this value can help you to stay on point. Additionally, the starting definition of the problem may really be just a symptom, or it might be someone’s perception of the problem but not really the root cause or shared by other stakeholders. The process of PDIA acknowledges this and emphasizes the importance of spending time to define the problem and socialize it with partners to test and validate your assumptions.

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Reducing plastic pollution into the oceans before it is too late

Guest blog written by Yiming Dong, Nada ElSehemy, Daiana F. Molero, Pedro Ossa, Ena Solorzano 

It was the beginning of the Spring semester. One Monday in late January was our first class of PDIA in action. That day we knew that for the next seven weeks we would be working on a completely unfamiliar topic: municipal solid waste management in China. Moreover, our team was unknown to us. We would have to learn a complex topic from scratch while forging a working bond with new colleagues in that short time.  

“Don’t worry, trust the process, don’t get ahead of yourself. Step by step, you’ll get there.” We heard that advice in class and read it on the feedback of deliverables. However, we had a hard time believing it was true. Finally -spoiler alert- the day of our final presentation arrived, and we could deliver. The process had worked. 

We learned about the circular economy, plastic polluting the ocean, and waste management strategies. But, most importantly, we experienced firsthand ways to make teamwork and solving complex problems easier.  

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Disaster Risk Management in Kenya

Guest blog by Sohee Hyung, Diana del Valle, Najwa Maqbool, Mercedes Sidders, Zeineb ben Yahmed

1. What were some key learnings from this course? (about the PDIA process through addressing your problem)

Over the 7-weeks sprint, our team worked on Kenyaʼ’s disaster risk management. We grouped our key takeaways and learning from the PDIA process into four areas: 1) defining the problem, 2) deconstructing the causes, 3) generating small actionable ideas and 4) working as a team.

Defining the problem

First, we learnt the importance of defining the problem. We are often in the habit of diving straight into the solution, rather than spending time to understand the problem. The PDIA process taught us the importance of developing a clear and concise problem, and breaking it down until it is manageable and actionable. This took us a few iterations as we advanced our discussions with our authorizer. This also taught us the importance of building trust-based partnership with the authorizer early on. After refining and redefining a few times, we arrived at our problem statement: How can the Kenyan government improve its ability to prepare, mitigate, and effectively respond to hazards and disasters in the immediate and the long-term?

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Disruptive innovation is critical – but it is the opposite of what many people think it is

Written by Lant Pritchett

Disruptive innovation is the key to long-term excellence, even though its early results are less glamorous than those of approaches that seek to be at the “cutting edge” of innovation.

The term “disruptive innovation” is thrown around a lot in policy discussions about education system reform. However, it is important to recognise that, when this term was introduced by the late Clay Christensen (The Innovator’s Dilemma, 1997), it had a specific meaning which is diametrically opposite to the meaning that many people now ascribe to it. This is not a purely semantic point; the original idea of “disruptive innovation” is a key concept that can help solve the problems facing low performing education systems.

I briefly recap the way in which Professor Christensen used the term and discuss how this concept relates to current debates in the education sector.

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Increasing the dynamism of the implementation of French public policies

Guest blog written by Kanan Dubal, Jess Redmond, Ankita Panda, Arba Murati

No amount of information or research can and did prepare us for the intensity and unlearning that the Problem Driven Iterative Approach (PDIA) process demands. Theoretically, we knew what the PDIA process was, but the course facilitated an opportunity to learn, implement and receive constant feedback on the application of PDIA to a real policy case.

PDIA provides a blueprint to follow, but it’s not that straightforward. Each time we thought we had defined the problem and then deconstructed it, a new conversation or reading would spark a new idea, and new way of thinking about the problem leading to many versions of a problem definition. The deconstruction of the problem using the ‘fishbone’ approach helped us dive deeper into the problem whilst breaking a big issue down into smaller problems.

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Engaging youth in sustainable development in Barbados

Guest blog written by Arpita Tiwari, Diana Ly, Emma Catalfamo, Hina Musa, Katherina Hruskovec Gonzalez, Morgan Benson 

Early Days 

The first PDIA meeting for the KEYS to Success team focused on one goal: getting to know each other. Our team members came from different backgrounds, different programs within HKS, even different countries, and each of us was curious about what the team dynamic would look like. We built our team Constitution – a critical trust-building exercise for the PDIA process – which guaranteed enough psychological safety for each of us to freely participate and contribute. Over the next six weeks, each team member grew in our ability to think critically about our problem, propose creative solutions, and ensure that these ideas were most useful for our authorizer and ultimately for Barbados.  

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Examining Rising Teacher Shortages in the United States

Guest blog by Razan Alayed, Aleena Ali, Ryan S. Herman, Cecilia Liang, Krizia Lopez

There were many lessons to be extracted from this course and through applying the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach to our concurrently ordinary and extraordinary problem. The issue of teacher shortage has existed for many years and is persisting in the United States, with the pandemic exacerbating and laying bare the public education system. Through iterative thinking and discussions, we as a team were able to narrow and focus our problem to what was relevant to our authorizer and her context, as well as surface the causes that continue to influence the issue at hand. Specifically, the PDIA process has taught us to dig deeper into root causes and distill them into comprehensive understandings; in fact, we discovered along the way that some sub-causes are shared among larger entry points, which was pivotal to defining our ideas and action steps. This process taught us that starting with small ideas and growing them is key to the iterative approach, since we were able to take frequent pauses, reflect, modify and then go back into the solution space. This also allowed us to experiment with our ideas and to obtain timely feedback through stakeholder interviews prior to investing time and resources on ideas that may not work in our context. Suffice to say that this experience has been fruitful for our professional journeys, and we will be taking these learnings as we move forward in our careers.

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