Formin’ Normin’ and Stormin’ – My IPP Journey Through Pandemics and Hurricanes

Guest blog written by Liana Elliott

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

When I began this executive education course – in the middle of a pandemic, while still recovering from a cyberattack – I was expecting to get some dry, Harvard-y lectures and maybe some good business-speak tools, and join the network of HKS practitioners around the world. 

I was NOT expecting to work my ass off for 6 months. I did NOT expect to try and tackle one of the most insidious problems of New Orleans’s economy – again in the middle of a pandemic, cyberattack, and now fiscal crisis – and I did NOT expect to actually get traction or buy-in from any of my non-wonky colleagues. 

I expected a refresher course to revisit the basics of public policy that I learned in graduate school, now fading from muscle memory as the pace of life quickens, the stakes rise, and the crises compound. What I received from this course was intellectually stimulating, thought provoking, and practical policy support – but I also received professional coaching, therapy, a support group, and a whole new vocabulary and perspective on how I approach my work. 

The work that I do is invisible, it doesn’t have a photo op or ribbon cutting at the end. Since no one really knows what I do, it feels like my efforts are inconsequential and unimportant. I was feeling frustrated at work – I was FULL of great ideas, processes, and policies but they always seemed to get stuck on paper, and I felt like I was failing to ever get anything launched that could survive beyond my own massive investment of time, energy, and focus. I felt my colleagues become similarly frustrated with yet another “good idea” they would get roped into, and nothing would come of it after a few weeks or months. Other colleagues seemed to breeze through projects, make things happen with the wave of some magic wand that I just didn’t have. I attributed this to my own deficits as a leader and policymaker, and I wanted to do better – for myself, but more importantly for the people of New Orleans. 

The Universe of Complexity

Within the first readings, the distinction was drawn between the complex and the complicated – a fundamental difference that is often confused, or too mind-boggling to face. This completely changed my perspective. I recognized that my universe is one of complexity and the vast universe of unknowns.

The colleagues that I was comparing myself to aren’t smarter or more effective than I am, they just work with things that are complicated. I don’t know how to build drainage infrastructure projects, administer billions of dollars in FEMA money, or set up an emergency shelter in 2 hours. I could probably figure it out, but that’s not what my job is. And I am incredibly grateful for my colleagues that keep those roads getting built and those dollars getting spent, because I don’t think I would be happy in that role. Instead, my universe is everything else that’s too nebulous or too massive for anyone to tackle. I don’t know where I am going or what I am doing, and that’s actually a strength – I’m comfortable wandering into the mist of a policy fog. If I knew where I was going, this would be just complicated and I would be bored and unfulfilled. I accepted that I don’t know what I’m doing – not succumbing to imposter syndrome – but taking ownership of the inherent vast lack of clarity or direction.

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