Follow “Getting Things Done” at the Harvard Kennedy School

Matt Andrews teaches a course entitled “Getting Things Done: Management in the Development Context,” at the Harvard Kennedy School. He often gets asked about what he teaches in his course. So, he has decided to experiment with blogging about his course after every class. Each blog entry will include his powerpoint presentation, his syllabus, required readings/videos as well as a summary of what happened in class.

He already has two blogs up. The first class was about the need to understand the bureaucracy better, and second class was on classical management theory, bureaucracy and scientific management. You can see the entire syllabus here. This is your opportunity to follow the class and learn more about “getting things done in development.” Let us know what you think.


The role of PDIA in fragile states

The coherence and effectiveness of engagement with the world’s ‘fragile and conflict-affected states’—beyond ethical imperatives and geo-strategic considerations—turns on answers to two vexing questions. First, on what defensible basis is any given country, at any given historical moment, deemed to be (or not to be) ‘fragile’? Second, if a defining characteristic of state fragility is low levels of capability to implement core responsibilities, how can international agencies best support domestic public organizations to acquire capability?

The first issue may appear to be a methodological one (wherein more and better data would provide a firmer empirical foundation on which to base key decisions) but any determination, especially of marginal cases, must also be grounded in a correspondingly comprehensive theory of change. Similarly, the optimal response to the second issue may appear to be importing technical and rigorously verified (‘best practice’) solutions, but in fact it is more likely to require a qualitatively different strategy, one able to experiment with alternative design specifications and adapt in real time to changing contextual realities (thereby iterating towards customized ‘best fit’ solutions).

In his new paper, Engaging with Fragile and Conflict-Affected States, Michael Woolcock argues that an evolving approach known as Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) could be used to answer the second question. PDIA offers a coherent basis on which to distinguish between different types of development problems, and to help craft a more appropriate match between types of problems and types of solutions. It works by gathering real time input from many actors on the ground in order to continually inform the adaptive planning process.

Work along these lines has already been conducted in the fragile states of Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone, where teams of local researchers have been actively engaged in documenting changes in the nature and extent of conflict as a basis for contributing to a national policy dialogue. Policy debate about these issues would otherwise largely be conducted on an anecdotal basis, but using local researchers to generate local knowledge using local indicators has been central to identifying forms and source of local variation, in crafting a credible basis for reforms, and to enhancing the legitimacy of international actors, whose role in these matters has been to facilitate rather than pre-determine what might be done.

This paper was featured on the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) website today. You can view the article here. For more information, please read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or watch our Vimeo Channel.

BSC Paper wins ASA award

We are proud to announce that Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation co-authored by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock won the Faculty Article Award from the Sociology of Development Section of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The award ceremony was held in San Francisco on August 16, 2014. This seminal paper is the foundation of the Building State Capability (BSC) program and the precursor to PDIA. For more information, please read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or watch our Vimeo Channel.

Helping REAL Capacity Emerge in Rwanda using PDIA

written by Matt Andrews

What do you do if your government has been pursuing reforms for years, with apparent success, but your economy is still not growing? What do you do if the constraint seems to be the limited capacity of government organizations? What do you do if this capacity remains stubbornly low even after years of public sector reforms sponsored by outside partners and based on promising best practice ideas of fly-in-fly-out specialists?

A recent case study of work suported by the Africa Governance Initiative suggests an approach to just such a situation, faced by Rwanda in 2010. The approach is simple.

  1. Force your own people to look at festering problems in an up-close-and-personal manner, focusing on ‘why’ the problems persist instead of ‘what’ easy solutions outsiders might propose for the problems.
  2. Swarm the problems with new ideas emerging from those inside your government and from trusted outsiders committed to spending time adapting and translating their ideas to your context (instead of one-size-fits-all solutions coming from short-stay outsiders).
  3. Experiment in a step-by-step manner, actively, with the ideas, trying them out and seeing what works, why and with what kinds of nips and tucks.
  4. Learn. Yes, simply learn. Let people reflect on what they have done and absorb what made the difference and what they take from the experiences to carry to other tasks.

This is what I understand the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative (SCBI) was and is about. It is an approach to doing development that seems to have yielded some dynamic results in a relatively short period. The results are substantive, procedural, organizational, and personal. Farmer incomes are up after some of the experiments in the ‘pilot sites initiative’, for instance. The Energy Investment Unit has emerged as the focal point of a new process to increase energy generation and drive energy costs down. Perhaps more important, to me at least, is the fact that talented civil servants have done things they probably never dreamed they could. In my own language, they have become more adaptive—realizing that you can make a difference if you purposefully address real problems you face in an active, experiential and iterative manner. These young policy entrepreneurs and implementers will be in Rwanda for years to come, and hopefully long after SCBI ceases to exist as a program. They are the real success and legacy of the program.

I find this story line appealing. It tells of an approach to development that reflects the principles of problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). This SCBI approach is full of common sense but is also oddly revolutionary because it is such a contrast to the way development is commonly done (and, it seems, was done in some of these areas in Rwanda previously). The case shows that a locally problem driven, adaptive process works in complex developing country reform contexts and for this reason should be of interest to anyone working in development.

Not all is rosy and sweet in the story, however, which is true in all narratives on change and real functional reform—including all development narratives I think reflect the general principles of PDIA. There are a number of reflections on how hard it is to develop a real problem driven approach and allow flexibility in finding and fitting new solutions. The case notes that high level leaders demanded results particularly rapidly in some instances, for example, and this led to hurried action, mistakes and tension. The case suggests that this can be overcome with some common-sense ideas, like getting political authorizers to prioritize and ask policy people how long something will take and then agree on realistic time frames. In this respect, it also comments on the importance of focusing attention on a few key issues for deep dive attention rather than a slew of issues that ultimately only get a shallow look. As one Permanent Secretary notes, “Trying to do everything at the same time doesn’t work.” (Seems basic, doesn’t it, but this kind of mundane observation is one I see overlooked across the development agenda).

There are also hints at the importance of getting collaborative relationships right—with high-level authorizers and development partners engaging patiently and yet also expectantly with those in the policy and reform trenches. It seems there are real rewards when those at the top give those in the middle and even lower down the organization some structured space to prove their value. (Again, this seems basic, noting that ‘people’ really matter; but it is a vital observation in development where I thinking ‘policy’ is often seen as more important than people.) The importance of political coalitions and teams, incorporating outsiders and insiders, is also implicit and explicit and a vital take-away for those designing reforms and interventions. These coalitions and teams allowed natural coordination across boundaries (without having to change rigid organizational rules) and cross fertilization that is vital for the emergence of creative new policy ideas.

Beyond these ideas I was perhaps most struck by the lesson that this work is only achieved if people stick to it. It proved challenging and even uncomfortable to force politicians to prioritize, for instance, but this did not lead to the program falling apart. Instead, as the case notes, the SCBI team exerted “push back” on the system and made sure the prioritization was done. It proved hard to get the right people as well, but the SCBI team pivoted around this issue to get at least some of the right people and build on what they had. It proved tough to get disparate distributed agencies to work together and to even understand the importance of linkages, but the challenge was met with more determination. It was hard to take people through the uncomfortable process of problem analysis, where they interrogated existing processes to look for gaps (without jumping to quick but unlikely to work solutions). But the gap analyses went on nonetheless.

The literature on organizational change has a really academic term to describe the quality I think helped the SCBI reformers to stick to their guns when things got tough. It is ‘grit’ and it is vital for effective reform and change. It is the intangible thing that I think the SCBI story is really all about. It helped to keep the reforms going in the starting months that seemed slow and difficult, and it was what kept the growing SCBI team motivated when the actions they were taking were hard and constantly questioned as time consuming, demanding, politically uncomfortable, and (maybe even) downright impossible. Grit is what helps reformers turn setbacks into lessons, and what keeps reformers looking for the ‘right’ people needed to make something happen. It keeps people engaged in capacity building experiences that take time, personal sacrifice, and political capital. It is the magic ingredient behind real capacity building and change and is the one thing I hope other readers see in this case study, even with the other great practical ideas and embedded advice. The SCBI design and strategy was great, but it was the gritty commitment to make it work that really seems to have made the difference.

The lesson: Cultivate grit, don’t overlook it, as it is the key to capacity building success.

BSC video 35: Functional indicators as a way to build capacity

Data is an important part of state functionality. If states want to be capable they need to know where people are, how many people there are, etc. in order to deliver basic services. They need to measure functionality and ends rather than forms.

In this video, Matt Andrews, uses child registration to illustrate what a functional indicator means and how it has the potential to build the capacity to deliver services to its people. You can watch this video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Getting real about governance and governance indicators and measuring success: means or ends?

BSC video 34: Measuring success – means or ends?

Do appearances matter as much as action does? We often forget that governments exist to do and not just to be. We thus focus on the means of being rather than the product of doing. This bias leads to governance indicators and reforms that emphasize perfection of means, often failing to make a connection to the ends or even clarifying which ends matter.
To address the fact that different ends might matter in different places at different times, and different ends might warrant different means, Matt Andrews, offers an ends-means approach, which begins by asking what governments do rather than how they do them. This approach of looking at the multi-dimensional nature of governance could be very useful in the current discussions about including a governance indicator in the post 2015 development goals. You can watch this video below or on YouTube.

BSC video 33: Multi-agent leadership in action

Who leads? How do they lead? When do they lead? Why do they lead? Answers to these questions are very important in understanding how change happens. Change is about people and people need to be led.

In this video, Matt Andrews, uses the story of Singapore to illustrate how true champions are the ones who convene, motivate, authorize and unleash multi-agent leadership. Leadership is about getting the right people to do the right things at the right time. You can watch this video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more about multi-agent leadership read going beyond heroic leaders in development, and watch who is the leader?

BSC video 32: Who is the leader?

In a study of successful change, we interviewed 150 people in 12 different places and asked them “who is the leader?” Instead of the listing the 12 champions, they responded with 107 names.

In this video, Matt Andrews, highlights that successful change requires someone to authorize the change, motivate, provide money, empower the people, define problems, suggest ideas for solutions, convene people, connect to others and to implement. All these things cannot be (and usually are not) done by one person. Change does not happen as implementation by edict it happens when groups of people take risks and make change happen. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more about multi-agent leadership read who really leads development? and going beyond heroic leaders in development.

BSC video 31: Crawling together in Cambodia

Everyone agrees that building the rule of law is important. But building the capability of a justice system is a long and difficult process, often susceptible to isomorphic mimicry. In this video, Michael Woolcock, uses an example of legal systems in Cambodia to illustrate how the arbitration council had to learn how to negotiate together through a process that built collective capability and legitimacy. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

You can learn more about the Cambodia Arbitration Council here, and read more about opening spaces for reform in Cambodia and Indonesia here.

BSC video 30: Learning by crawling

In development, external best practice is almost always used as a solution. In reality, however, finding solutions to tough problems is not so simple. In this video, Matt Andrews, illustrates that if you crawl the design space, you might end up with a hybrid solution that is possible and also works in your context. You do not have to limit yourself to one or two options only. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, watch learn, iterate, adapt, and iteration is research in action.