Flexibility and Learning in Times of Global Uncertainty

Guest blog written by Nahuel Arenas-García

Nahuel and his team from Costa Rica successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2017.

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Between January and May 2017, authorities and technical staff of the Costa Rican National Risk Prevention and Emergency Management Commission (CNE, for its acronym in Spanish) joined staff of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), Regional Office for the Americas & the Caribbean, to analyze gaps in disaster loss and damages data-collection system using the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach under Harvard University’s Building State Capability (BSC) program. The goal was to analyze challenges in the national data-collection system as a basis for the design of a capacity-building strategy for the implementation and monitoring of the National Disaster Risk Management Strategy, developed in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the global blueprint for addressing disaster risk. Counting with reliable information about the impact of disasters is fundamental to understand risk, and understanding risk is a pre-requisite to address it effectively.

Among the many challenges involved in the development of disaster loss and damages databases are the criteria for data-collection, the quality of the data collected, the capacity of data collectors and the definition of roles and responsibilities for those involved in the process, including defining the institution that will consolidate and report the information. The PDIA methodology enabled the identification of crucial bottlenecks in these different dimensions and stages of the process and enabled the formalization of a multi-sectorial data collection system. As it was revealed in the exercise, an effective and accurate disaster loss and damages data collection system needs to result from a multi-sectorial effort at all levels, in this case led by the disaster management authorities. The capacity of one institution of government to lead such a multi-sectorial effort faces multiple institutional challenges, even when the normative framework in place assigns that institution the necessary mandate.

The nature of risk in the world has changed and is increasingly systemic, with complex interactions between the human, political and economic systems (e.g. international finance system, urbanization, global supply chains) and the natural systems.[1] Thus, to avoid fragmented responses to systemic problems, reducing disaster risk can only be achieved through a multi-sectorial, multi-actor effort. In this vein, Costa Rica’s institutional response to the COVID-19 pandemic has become an example of the role that disaster management authorities can play to bring different stakeholders together in the face of risk.

The multi-sectorial data collection system, alongside a solid normative framework, were steps in the right direction for Costa Rica. The collaboration between UNDRR and CNE to build data-collection capabilities has evolved since the application of the PDIA. The leadership of the CNE coordinating the response to COVID-19 has enabled and strengthened the multi-sectorial approach to disaster risk (of natural, anthropogenic or biological nature). Costa Rica will be the first country in the world to pilot the UNDRR-led Global Risk Assessment Framework (GRAF), an initiative to analyze the complexity and interconnectedness of risk in a determined country and bring together global expertise to synchronize data, methods, models, insights, practical tools and incentives in open collaboration. In this context of systemic risk and complexity, approaches to implement solutions to problems in small steps and learn in quick feedback loops are crucial to deal with uncertainty. As the Global Risk Assessment Report puts it, “Our flexibility must be as dynamic as the change we hope to survive”.


[1] Global Risk Assessment Report 2019, UNDRR.

PDIA Course Journey: Lagos Beats Plastic

Guest blog written by Emmanuel Adedeji Animashaun, Sedoten Agosa-Anikwe, Olumide Gregory Adeboye and Eriifeoluwa Fiyin Mofoluwawo

This is a team of development practitioners who work for the Lagos State Ministry of Environment and the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

The 15-week long PDIA course has finally come to an end. And it has been a time of multiple discoveries and intensive learning for Team Lagos Beat’s Plastic.

Emmanuel had learned about the course from course alumni, who explained the many advantages the course holds for practitioners in the public sector. He discussed this information with other people and selected individuals who displayed interest in learning a new approach. Together we formed Team Lagos Beat’s Plastic. Selecting a team of like-minded individuals is partially responsible for the team’s success. And this is one of the important lessons we learnt in the earlier weeks of the course.

Our team consists of 4 individuals from different backgrounds, but who are directly involved with work related to the environment. Thus, agreeing on a problem to solve was quite easy because waste management, and especially indiscriminate plastic disposal in Lagos waterways, was an issue that already ‘stared us in the face’. Hence, we started the course with the mindset of learning what is different about the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, and what role it can play in solving the challenge we selected: plastic waste management in Lagos state, Nigeria. Plastic waste pollution/management is an issue that had not received the necessary attention from agents tasked with waste management. About 20% of total waste generated in Lagos is plastic, which suggests to us the (potential and) need for increased attention either for achieving a cleaner city or economic reasons (or both) if this problem is solved.

The Building State Capability book and other essential readings have been wonderful companions for our team. The first five weeks of the course involved individual work (assignments, reflections and graded discussions) in laying a foundation for the course and future teamwork. In those weeks, we all filled huge gaps in our knowledge of how change works. We also learnt about the big stuck faced by countries.

In those first few weeks, we learnt terms like administrative fact-fiction, isomorphic mimicry, transplantation, and premature load bearing. While these terminologies were new to us, their manifestations were not uncommon in our experience. And when we had completed the modules, we could easily identify these manifestations in various public sector interventions in our country, and outside (in literature). We also learnt that externally designed interventions cannot solve internal problems, where internal capabilities to implement and manage the solutions were low or absent. It was very surprising for us to discover that many of these (external) interventions were actually failing and the lesson for us was that throwing (only) money at a problem does not solve the problem (as we saw in the case of new country South Sudan which was a multi-billion dollar and multi-international agency intervention). And for our problem, we found an example of failed transplantation and isomorphic mimicry in existing waste management systems. Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Lagos Beats Plastic

PDIA Course Journey: Local Problems, Local Solutions to the Indonesian Education Sector

Guest blog written by George Adam Sukoco Sikatan, Lanny Octavia, Sarah Ayu, Wahyu Setioko

This is a team of development practitioners who work for INOVASI and DFAT in Indonesia. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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It is at last the final week of the course, and we say this full of gratitude and relief. None of us had anticipated just how intense and demanding this course was going to be, from the essential (and optional) reading, individual and groups assignments, to reflection exercises and graded discussions; needless to say they were onerous! At the same time, the abundance of knowledge was exciting and overwhelming.

Working in the public/development sector, in a large, populous country such as Indonesia, the 4 of us often come across bewildering, deeply rooted problems that seem just impossible to resolve. The PDIA approach shines a positive light on this situation and more importantly, confidence to overcome them. We learned to deconstruct a problem into smaller pieces and find the root cause using a relatively simple, yet powerful, tool namely the 3A analysis (Authority, Acceptance and Ability).

Another key takeaway from our group is the importance of reflective process to help us look into failures, challenges and feedback as opportunity to grow and construct (or when necessary, deconstruct all over). This methodology taught us to become better listeners, to arrive in a situation with an open mind instead of a will to impose external practices. These reflections and adaptations to the local context, allow us to remain relevant both to the problem that we are trying to solve and towards our beneficiaries.

This course also reminded us of the importance of collaboration and coordination with a broad range of stakeholders. We understand now that multiple perspectives, incentives and even interests are actually useful in defining problems and formulating solutions. Sharing a common goal at the beginning of the work had founded a sense of belonging and motivation for all team members, even when the time is hard and problem becomes more challenging.

Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Local Problems, Local Solutions to the Indonesian Education Sector

PDIA Course Journey: The Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN)

Guest blog written by Abiodun Samson Oladipo, Adeola Busola Olayinka, Camilla Esther Araoye, Ibikunle Peter Olalekan, Emmanuel Oluwatosin Oke, Titi Oyeola.

This is a team of development practitioners who work for the Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN) Commission in Nigeria. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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Journeying through the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) course could be likened to an adapted 1804 challenge, we simply sailed out with great expectations of learning new concepts within the development space. We knew the course was going to be educative but we never knew what would evolve. Today, we can categorically say the 15 weeks journey was worth it;

‘the course content; the critical thinking; the debates full of diverse insights; the guides, the weekly deadlines clashing with job demands, and all the fun derived interacting on each modules will be greatly missed.’

PDIA has given us a story to tell in our career progress, the story of six people in six different disciplines and expertise with two members in different locations, but working together to solve a problem – an amazing team building tool the PDIA process is, amalgamating a pool of ideas to solve a complex problem. Agreeing on a problem to work on wasn’t difficult, the team members had concerns about why our organisation wasn’t achieving its stated mandates beyond cultural affinities binding the Southwest region of Nigeria. Our organisation was established by the six States governments of the region to enact a development paradigm that would accelerate socioeconomic development across the States in the geopolitical region, thus, we were regarded as the development think tank of the region. However, a problem lingered! For over 5 years, the six states governments were not adopting the policy/program recommendations coming from their think tank. Based on this, we set out on the PDIA journey with the expectation that the process would help us to change the status quo.

Though with a pre-identified problem statement, one outstanding insight from the PDIA process was the need to reconstruct the problem in a manner that wasn’t biased towards a pre-conceived solution, and deconstruct to identify root-causes. This process reformed our thought process, we started seeing the intrinsic issues with solution entry points easier than the problem statement itself. This understanding of multiple entry points for resolving the root-causes and the process of iteration opened our minds to actions required to solve the problems; we spent about eight weeks interrogating/learning more about our problem. Thus, we developed a flexible mindset to the problem and became more convinced we are on the right path of finding the appropriate route to our solution, this energized our spirits to push through: Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: The Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN)

PDIA Course Journey: Solving the Problem of Unemployment in Jordan

Guest blog written by Lara Khaled Abdullah Hussein, Mai Aziz Shafiq Elian, Rana Riad Al-Ansari

This is a team of development practitioners who work as strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation specialists for the Ministry of Labour (MoL) in Jordan. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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We were encouraged to enroll in this course by the Growth Lab who was providing technical assistance to the Royal Court in Jordan. We didn’t know at that time what was required and needed to complete this course.

We agreed on the group norms; that helped our team function well over the course journey. We constructed our problem “Increase of the Unemployment Rates in Jordan”. This issue is crucial on the National and international levels; it affects poverty levels, hunger, health, and social aspects. The Increase of Unemployment Rates is linked to the stability of political situation and economic growth where workers produce goods and services, and in turn receive wages which can be spent on buying goods produced. Nowadays this problem is the most important one for MoL and its stakeholders; government institutions, civil society, private sector and donors.

We learnt a lot from the course videos, readings, individual reflections, online group discussions and our team discussions. The process of building our capabilities was through the learning-by-doing approach. We constructed the problem, deconstructed it into causal strands (‘fishbone’ (or Ishikawa) diagram), and then scored each of the strands in terms of their importance and accessibility yielding ‘entry-point’ problems where they could start to work (change space). We identified the actions that could be taken to start addressing each of the selected ‘entry points’, we carried two iterations and designed the third one.

Figure 1 below shows our fishbone diagram that was first constructed and then deconstructed and analyzed, given the change space we had, we preferred to focus on one sub-cause of our main problem, that is, limited professions for foreign labour. Then we defined suitable entry points and authorizing environment. Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Solving the Problem of Unemployment in Jordan

PDIA Course Journey: Girls and Poverty in Kenya

Guest blog written by Jaynnie K Mulle, Meital Tzobotaro, Rosemary Okello-Orale, Stephen Brager, Warren Harrity.

This is a team of five development practitioners who work for USAID and Strathmore University in Kenya. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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The course provided a number of valuable tools, principles, and practices that are already being put to use.  Additionally, a great takeaway is our team that was formed for this course, I am not sure how if it all we would have come together to work on something in a way that this course brought us together,  but we are glad for this opportunity to create this team.  Specific key takeaways include the emphasis on defining and deconstructing a problem rather that “applying solutions”;  assessing the AAA’s and including the development of the authorization space as part of the activity; crawling the design; and appreciating that this practice is hard but rewarding.   In many regards this course was a gift that enriched our thinking, refueled our enthusiasm, and helped us to look at our problem in a new and exciting way.  Allow us to offer you a gift in return, if you’ve not done so already, read about one of the earliest PDIA practitioners in the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.”

Other take-aways from the course include:

  1. Instead of adopting the solution that other people have to solve a problem, the course helped us to learn how to search for solutions to our problem,
  2. The 1804 metaphor of taking small steps to solve complex problems,
  3. The use of the fishbone to identify the cause and effects in problems and how they are interconnected. Most importantly how fishbone allows for prioritizing relevant cause so that the underlying root cause is addressed first,
  4. The importance of using iteration, and,
  5. How people are at the center of all PDIA elements

Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Girls and Poverty in Kenya

PDIA Course Journey: Coordinating the National HIV Response in Nigeria

Guest blog written by Ime Michael Mukolu, Oluwaseun David Oshagbami, Rashidat Jogbojogbo, Sodipe Oluwaseun Oluwasegun.

This is a team of four development practitioners who work for the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) in Nigeria. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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With the processes and strategies learned from PDIA as well as anticipated support from critical stakeholders, we can say we are on the right track towards achieving effective coordination of the National HIV response.

The following were progress made thus far:

  1. We conducted a fishbone analysis of our problem and that gave us a better understanding of what we are dealing with.
  2. We also conducted two iterations under which we accomplished the following:
    1. We finalized a concept note to review the National Policy on HIV/AIDS and got the approval of our Authorizer to hold a two day Policy Dialogue meeting.
    2. We brought critical stakeholders together for a Policy Dialogue meeting, where we had discussions towards providing a clear direction to the HIV response.
    3. We documented policy recommendations required to improve funding and coordination of the HIV response and shared same with all critical stakeholders.

Overall, PDIA has re-orientated the team to see problems differently. To use problems as a launch pad to build state capability especially in the field of HIV/AIDS coordination in Nigeria. The course helped sharpen our skills on how to approach problems by simply identifying the causes, sub-causes, relevant stakeholders that are critical to solving the identified problem and how to engage them. Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Coordinating the National HIV Response in Nigeria

PDIA Course Journey: Solving the Wicked Hard Problem of Education Quality in Indonesia

Guest blog written by Rina Arlianti, Stephanie Carter, Murni Hoeng, Siti Ubaidah Idrus, Susanti Sufyadi, Aaron W Watson.

This is a team of six development practitioners working for Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture, the Tanoto Foundation, the Australian supported INOVASI program, and Australian Embassy, Jakarta. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

The Harvard BSC’s PDIA course has been an exciting journey for all of us. We began the course full of excitement and hope – with most of group members having not met before. We were one of four groups participating from Indonesia, all focused on the issue of education qualityOver the course of 15 weeks, we navigated the twists and turns of the PDIA process, putting key concepts to the test in the field of basic education in Indonesia.

Early on, once we had settled into our group dynamic, we settled on our problem statement:

Learning outcome quality in Indonesian primary schools is still low (low scores in international standardised student tests)

As we progressed, we gained several key insights and takeaways about our problem and the course. Through group discussion and debate, drawing on perspectives from working both within and outside the government system, we settled on the following six key sub-causes for low learning outcome quality in Indonesian primary schools:

  1. Measures of learning are weak (including the use of formative assessment, due to low teacher knowledge)
  2. Teaching/learning process is ineffective (with teachers lacking inadequate skills and knowledge of how to use learning media, to increase student engagement)
  3. Parents are already satisfied with the status quo (there is often low demand for changes to the system, as parents do not know what good teaching looks like)
  4. Lack of learning books for children (due to cumbersome book supply processes at the national level)
  5. Many teachers don’t use digital technology in classrooms (creating missed opportunity for enhanced learning)
  6. Policies that address education quality are not implemented well (and instead focus on physical infrastructure, or if they do exist, are not socialised well in a decentralised system)

Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Solving the Wicked Hard Problem of Education Quality in Indonesia

PDIA Course Journey: Lack of Student Engagement in Bastar District, India

Guest blog written by Nikhilesh Hari, Poona Verma, Sadashiv N., Vijay Siddharth Pillai

This is a team of four development practitioners working for the PMRDF in India and an M.Phil student in the UK. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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We began the course with a feeling that the approach which we are going to learn is going to be unique. As we progressed through the initial weeks, we realized that it’s a common sensical approach to solve problems. However we realized that the common sensical approach is rarely followed. We also realized while operationalizing the approach that it is not easy at all and requires a lot of perseverance.

Some of the key takeaways from this course are: Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Lack of Student Engagement in Bastar District, India

When is the next PDIA course?

written by Salimah Samji

Over the past several weeks, the most frequently asked question has been, “when is the next PDIA course?”

In the past 4 years, from November 2015 to June 2019, we have offered 11 online courses and trained 1,264 development practitioners in 87 countries!

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Our flagship PDIA online course has been an incredible learning journey for us and for our alumni. You can read some of their stories from Uganda, Nepal, Indonesia, Nigeria, Paraguay, Colombia, India, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, South Africa, Cambodia and many more! We even have some stories from alumni who are using PDIA in their day-to-day work more than a year after they completed our course. A true testament to the learning outcome.

While we have achieved so much in a short time, we strongly feel that it is time for us to take a little break to review our course content, results and impact. We plan to return with a new offering in 2020. In the interim, to ensure that you get your weekly fix of PDIA, we are launching a 12-part podcast series on the Practice of PDIA. We will release a new episode every Wednesday. The first episode is below and you can also subscribe and listen on SimplecastiTunes, Google Play, and Spotify.

Thank you to all the 1,264 alumni who have been real partners in our learning journey. It is your hard work and commitment to making the world a better place that inspires – we could not have done this without you!