Developing a Strategy for the Border Region between Australia and PNG

Guest blog written by Geoff King

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Having worked as a development professional for the better part of two decades, I was hoping Leading Economic Development would deliver a few additional tools I could add to my well worn tool belt. However, in several fundamental ways it has led to the evolution of my thinking and changed my practice.  

Growth diagnostics informed by complexity analysis, have changed the way I view the challenge of economic development.  The method, presented using accessible analogies, are powerful analytical tools that can help identify points of entry for further diagnosis/analysis informing economic development strategy.  I will never think of monkeys in trees the same!  

I was broadly familiar with PDIA thinking. However, applying the approach to a case I am currently working on brought the theory to life. From my experience, project/ program documents have become littered with claims of adaptation, iteration and learning as you go, but the rhetoric rarely translates into reality. 

PDIA uses an accessible conceptual vocabulary to provide a systemic, yet flexible, approach to complex (often meta) problems supported by practical tools and processes. While individual case studies demonstrate its success, a meta-study demonstrating its efficacy in a larger population of cases would help in gaining the support of skeptical decision makers questioning case selection bias (picking winners).

Working for the Australian Government in PNG, I lead a team that in week two of the course was tasked with developing a development strategy for the border region between Australia’s Torres Strait and PNG’s South Fly district of PNG. 

At its closest point, PNG and Australia are only four km of open water apart. Australia’s per capita GNP is 21 times that of PNG. One of if not the largest disparity in the world for any two countries sharing a border.  The gross regional product of the Far North Queensland region, comprised of 260,000 people, is one third of the GDP of PNG, with a population exceeding 8 million.  Life expectancy in South Fly is estimated to be around 60 years and maternal and child mortality is extremely high. In comparison, Australia ranks sixth on the global Human Development Index league table.

The region is ethnically and linguistically diverse, but has english as the lingua franca spoken by the vast majority of residents and taught in schools. This common language, to a degree, shapes a regional identity.  

Continue reading Developing a Strategy for the Border Region between Australia and PNG

Using the PDIA Toolkit to Help a Nonprofit in Philadelphia

Guest blog written by Jamison Hicks

The PDIA toolkit has yet again proven to be both useful and effective in providing organizations with the structural means to continually monitor and evaluate programmatic and organizational success. From a usage perspective, even though the toolkit was created in the US, the majority of PDIA blog posts on implementation seemed to be focused on out-of-country nations. With this simple observation, I thought it right to take advantage of the opportunity to implement the toolkit for a nonprofit organization in the US, namely, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Before I get too far ahead of myself, I think it is important to briefly note how I came to learn about PDIA since I am not a conventional student of the program. While interning at World Vision, the Executive Advisor on Fragile States and my personal mentor Jonathan Papoulidis, introduced me to the toolkit. By reading the free online textbook and watching many videos, I was able to gain a sufficient grasp of the concepts and in turn convert theory to an “empiric”.

One Day At A Time (ODAAT), the nonprofit organization where I implemented the toolkit focuses on substance addiction and homelessness in North Philadelphia. This region has some of the highest rates of opioid use and homelessness in the US. The first step taken was gathering all program or team supervisors into one room to diagnose problems using the Fishbone Diagram. One lesson learned; understanding the language of the organization was a necessity. Terms and questions used were not easily understood by the organization. This resulted in having to continuously adjust the approach.

For example, when trying to figure out the overarching problem the community faced, and the causes of those problems, I found it extremely helpful to use the power of stories. To explain the main problems and their causes, I offered the example of murder. Generally, individuals do not murder others without reason. The motive behind the individual’s actions could be childhood traumatic experiences, pain, loneliness, etc. This analogy helped the organization draw comparisons between the example and the initial question asked. Their main or overarching problem was equated to the hypothetical murder, and their related causes were the equivalents to the reasons behind “said” murder. Stories increased the fluidity and effectiveness of the Fishbone Diagram.

Continue reading Using the PDIA Toolkit to Help a Nonprofit in Philadelphia

PDIA and Coordination Challenges within Government

Guest blog written by Nevena Bosnic, Mehdi El Boukhari, Ama Peiris, Matthew Welchert

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Over the past seven weeks, our group embarked on the learning journey of problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) as it applies to coordination challenges facing the various levels of government as well as civil society in addressing homelessness in Tarrant County, Texas. We had the great pleasure to work with an authorizer, Maggie Jones, who serves as the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development. Our team – comprised of graduate students from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government – provided a diversity of perspectives and richness of insights. Together, we confronted and struggled through the challenges that come with working in complex adaptive challenges as we constructed and deconstructed the problem, sought potential entry points, developed and acted on ideas for interventions, and finally, reflected and iterated with yet another round of the process. Through this blog post, we hope to share with readers: (1) our key learnings from the course, (2) insights we gained about the problem we sought to address, and (3) words of wisdom for other students and practitioners.


  • The ecosystem is large and not all actors have a clear picture of how they fit within the larger system. Thus, they do not strategize well how they as an individual organization can encourage better coordination. It can be helpful to think of a metaphor of topographical map wherein your key organization is in a valley. You may see other related organizations and actors in some nearby hills and bluffs, but you might be blind to what exists beyond those heights. PDIA requires you to venture forth beyond the hills to get a sense of the total ecosystem. 
  • There are a lot of different stakeholders who are working independently to fight homelessness. There is little to no capitalizing on each other’s strengths because each stakeholder is bound by short term objectives and constraints. Coordination inherently requires compromising a degree of control to others, but asking organizations to share or give up some of their autonomy is a difficult ask. Constructing a problem that matters helps rally and galvanize support. 
  • It is alright to not have a big idea which might theoretically have a large impact. It is often better to try multiple small, achievable actions to shift towards greater change. Complexity is daunting, but by deconstructing the problem and identifying where there is sufficient authority, acceptance, and ability to act you can begin to take action. Rather than focusing all of your efforts on a big solution, removed from potential feasibility, taking immediate, fast action where possible provides lessons and begins the process of change. 
  • Huge challenge in understanding all of the many moving parts. Interactions and causal relationships are unlikely to reveal themselves without first pushing at the problem from multiple angles. By taking many different, small, independent actions pathways and connections might become more visible. 
  • The wonderful world of positive deviants. Do not reinvent the wheel. It sounds simple enough, but if you do not explore, ask around, look for the small successes already underway, then you risk missing solutions already in action. 
  • Deconstructing the problem is an endless process. You will always go back to redefining the problem and uncovering new root causes (rather than manifestations of the problem). Iteration can be trying, even frustrating, but the process of purposeful repetition building on what has been learned is critical to uncovering new solutions, and taking meaningful next steps.
  • Un-learning’ or learning you were wrong is still learning. Through the process of iteration and adaptation, you will likely be wrong. Indeed, you should be wrong. Embrace the potential for an idea not panning out, or an action not producing the desired result. By hitting a wall, you now know there is a wall there. In dealing with complex problems, even learning the boundaries of action is an important step. But be sure to learn and adapt. Why is the wall there? Where is a backdoor? It is in asking these deeper questions that PDIA’s repetition allows us to overcome hurdles. 
  • Examining change space is something most people don’t think about outside of PDIA. This results in a lot of efforts being made, sometimes to no avail. Crawl around the design space; which means to explore and make use of other success being done elsewhere. Perhaps a best practice has been implemented with success elsewhere. How would it be applicable to my situation? But remember to reflect inwardly as well. There is likely a great deal of latent potential within your own organization which can be brought to bear. Change will require many kinds of actions, from both without and within. 
Continue reading PDIA and Coordination Challenges within Government

Becoming Comfortable with Complexity

Guest blog written by Rebecca Trupin, Prateek Mittal

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Our PDIA journey began with our authorizer, a senior bureaucrat in the State Government of Meghalaya, sharing a document with us about his vision to build capability of the state administration to deal with complex problems. We had been working with him on local governance-related projects and were keen on institutionalizing adaptive problem-solving processes. We suggested that he try a few pilot projects in different sectors to understand and document how a PDIA approach could work in the state. At that time, he had recently taken over the health department and improving maternal and child health indicators had become one of his priorities. We decided to focus on the complex problem of high maternal mortality in the state.

We had several late night/early morning interviews, courtesy of the 10-hour time difference, with different stakeholders and had weekly check-ins with our authorizer. Through this process, we mapped the various causes of maternal deaths in a fishbone diagram that helped us visualize the complexity of the problem.

Based on this, we generated some ideas that could be useful in learning more about the problem and help the health department better prioritize resources towards issues that can give them some strong gains in the short-term. We used this work to make a case for building a PDIA team in Meghalaya that could build on this and make some tangible progress on improving maternal health outcomes in the state. 

As we reflect on the process, we want to share three things about three things that capture our key learnings and takeaways for anyone who is interested in doing PDIA.

Continue reading Becoming Comfortable with Complexity

PDIA and Dementia in the Workplace

Guest blog written by Tamsir Cham, Andrea Hayes, Fateme Najafi, Aysha Valery

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Overall, we learned that the PDIA process is about being patient, digging deep into a problem, continuing to iterate, and engaging both the stakeholders and the authorizers.  We also learned how to dig deep into problems.  Digging deep requires discovering the underlying or root causes of a problem. To discover these causes, we kept asking ourselves: “Why is this a problem?” In PDIA terms, we call this “The Five Whys.”  In our case, our dialogue went somewhat like this:

  • Why is it a problem that the state of Massachusetts is not equipped to handle dementia in the workplace?  
  • Because there is lack of awareness.
  • But why is there lack of awareness? 

Once we dug deeper into the problem, or deconstructed the problem in PDIA language, we drew the bones on our fishbone diagram.  In the words of Tamsir Cham, “Just like all the bones make up the fish, if you don’t have all those bones together, you won’t have a fish.”

Continue reading PDIA and Dementia in the Workplace

Strengthening Collaboration to Tackle Increasing Homicides in Charlotte, North Carolina

Guest blog written by Simone D’Abreu, Smriti Iyer, Sofia Salas, Hafou Toure, Annie White

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

PDIA can simultaneously hold the complexity of being exciting and frustrating; challenging and inspiring; harder and easier than you think. If we could choose one phrase to define PDIA, it would probably be iterative learning. In the next few lines, we want to share some of the main things we learnt in this process, both about doing PDIA and about working with a team.

Bring on the problems, not the solutions

We have been trained to jump to solutions and answers and not spend enough time diagnosing the problem. Through this process we learned that asking the right questions and defining the problem -over and over again- is often more productive than finding the “right” solution. This understanding and learning stems from the idea that often problems are complex in nature and understanding the levers within the problem we can operate in is more important that jumping to a solution immediately.

Problems have many explanations as they are people involved

Everyone has a different view of the problem and the factors driving it. It’s hard to explain how knowing more about a problem makes it even harder to articulate it in one sentence and honor the conflict and ambiguity that exists in its definition. Problems, as well as problem definitions are not static and evolve over time. Different people have different views and explanations that must be listened to. As such, we should constantly evaluate our definitions of the problem.

The problem we were trying to delve into was that of coordination between the city and the county in order to tackle the increasing rates of homicides better in the city of Charlotte. We went back and forth on what to define the problem as and in our initial discussions our fishbone analysis which looks at root causes resembled the diagram below.

As time progressed our problem definition continuously evolved and we found that each stakeholder we spoke to had a different perspective on what the problem was and what were the root causes that led to symptoms such as high homicide rates. We mapped the root causes against the three dimensions that PDIA framework provides us, that is; Authority, Acceptance and Ability of the authoriser of our work to affect change in the problem of lack of coordination between different agencies. On the basis of this framework, we narrowed the causes and the areas we could intervene in, to Competing Priorities and Trust Deficit. We chose these two because they rated highest on the parameters of acceptance, authority and ability and were not problems that we felt were necessarily structural in nature.

Continue reading Strengthening Collaboration to Tackle Increasing Homicides in Charlotte, North Carolina

A Reflection on PDIA in Action: Homelessness in Tarrant County

Guest blog written by Akbar Ahmadzai, Emma Davies, Renzo LavinFernando Marquez

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Six weeks ago, the class counted off numbers: One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. Some of us were fortunate enough to have been assigned to group 2. Others convinced classmates to switch with them. Regardless of how we got there, all of us in group 2 would be working on Homelessness in Tarrant County. Had any of us been to Texas? No. Had any of us worked on homelessness issues in the past? No. Yet, in the next six weeks, through reading numerous documents and reaching out to people knowledgeable about the issue, we too would learn about the problem of homelessness in Tarrant County. 

On our first day, our group was inclined to think that access to affordable housing was the main driver of homelessness. An obvious solution to this problem seemed to be increasing the number of available units. After our first call with our authorizer, Maggie Jones, the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development, we quickly realized we were wrong in two key ways. First, the problem was much more complex than just the lack of housing and we would have to dive deeper to understand it better. Second, there were no obvious solutions to addressing homelessness and, given that homelessness is a multidimensional problem, several measures would be required to tackle sub-areas contributing to homelessness. 

We were introduced to a large network of people, agencies, and community organizations working on addressing homelessness in Tarrant County. Within the first week, we learned that “more than 2,000 individuals experience homelessness on any given night in Tarrant County” and, during the point in time count, there were 560 unsheltered homeless people despite 602 available beds throughout the system. Furthermore, there were many people at risk of losing their housing and becoming homeless in the near future. Armed with this information, we defined (constructed) the problem as follows:

Continuing to engage with people working on homelessness in Tarrant County and reading several documents related to the issue of homelessness helped us identify various subproblems and factors that contribute to homelessness in Tarrant County. The question “why” proved extremely helpful when deconstructing our problem. For instance,

Continue reading A Reflection on PDIA in Action: Homelessness in Tarrant County

IPP Program Journey: From South Africa To Boston and Back

Guest blog written by Nkere Skosana

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

From the moment I saw the advert on Twitter and read through the content provided, something just told me this is the real deal. I felt there was no way I could not find more about the course. It has always been my approach not to do any academic course for the sake of just obtaining a qualification but to engage in a course that speaks to real issues that we get confronted with as Public Servants on a daily basis.

The initial assignment already gave a hint of what was to come and the approach in terms of policy analysis and implementation. Breaking down the policy challenge in terms of who the critical stakeholders are, determining upfront what meaning of success one has to attach to its implementation was key. 

Getting to HKS, one was struck by the diversity of participants in the course from all walks of life and different continents. Amazingly, there were lots of similarities in terms of the challenges we encounter in our policy environments. The course turned out to be more than what I had expected. It was more interactive and practical and the wealth of experience and knowledge from the team of experts presenting was exceptional.

The course leader provided insights into experiences from different continents and the examples of real life situations and the kind of challenges encountered helped to us to realise that PDIA is not a theoretical but practical approach to policy implementation.

Some key learnings

One of the key insights from the course was the distinction between the Plan and Control policies which most institutions use and PDIA. The former may be useful in ensuring the achievement of policy products on time and within budget and this becomes the drill. PDIA on the other hand seeks to drill down to the heart of the problem, explore a variety of options and ensures that policy impacts are achieved which is what people mostly are looking for. 

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: From South Africa To Boston and Back

IPP Program Journey: Re-Enforcement of Passion for Public Service

Guest blog written by Idiat Adebule

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

At some points in one’s life, certain decisions are made without necessarily knowing the outcome, such was my experience whilst on the Implementing Public Policy Programme. Having worked at the heart of government at the state level for eight consecutive years; first, as the Secretary to the State Government (2011-2015) and later as the Deputy Governor of Lagos State (2015-2019); I have witnessed different cycles of public policy formulation which are usually targeted at addressing societal challenges. Many have been very successful, a few have failed to meet its objectives, whilst some are still at different stages of policy development which include the State Policy on Civic Engagement whose implementation office was under my supervision up until May 2019. 

However, as I was preparing to exit office, the obligation and interest to continue to contribute intellectually to the real issues of development of the state motivated me to sign on to the IPP course. Hence, it was a choice made majorly to enhance personal growth and development as well as expand my frontier of learning beyond my field of study, therefore, choosing HKS was an easy call to make considering its global reputation and capacity. Interestingly, the experience has been life changing having encountered new and innovative learning methods that challenges the mind to do more of continuous personal reflection, reassessment and developing sustainable solution to problems.

The main kernel of my work was to interrogate the impact of “Effective Public Participation in the Governance Process”. The intention was to engage members of the public to find agreeable and acceptable modes and platforms of engagement that will open up space for majority of citizens to effectively participate in the electioneering, policy formulation and governance processes, especially for a state with population estimated at 22 million in a way that highly significant number of this population will participate and not only  showing  interest  which are not the same as grasped in the course of the field work.  Of great concern, were figures recorded during the February, 2019 general elections in Lagos State which revealed voter apathy as less than 1.2million out of 6.59million registered voters (18.9%) participated. The implication was that only about 5% of the total population of the State decided those who will govern it at both legislative and executive arms of government leaving out a huge number of eligible citizens that could have increased the data or made a difference.  

Against this background, the IPP programme offered an opportunity to learn from authorities on public policy implementation who have moved away from the traditional project methodology to an innovative approach called the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) in solving the most intransigent policy problems around the world. Indeed, the meeting sessions in Boston were moments of illumination and empowerment for participants that are already dealing with policy design and implementation issues and a good integration for participants who are new to the subject. In summary, it offers genuine prospect for building capability. 

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: Re-Enforcement of Passion for Public Service

IPP Program Journey: You Need to be Brave

Guest blog written by Margaret MacDonald

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

Coming into the Implementing Public Policy course I felt a little nervous. I wasn’t familiar with problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). I think I expected a prescriptive methodology and wasn’t sure if or how I would be able to apply the theory learned to my work. From the first assignments though the course work and theoretical components were obviously grounded in real-world observations because it was easy to think of examples from my own work experience that reflected the theory; for example – the distinction between functional success and legitimacy success really resonated for me. I really appreciated too that the strategies and tactics explored steered us away from searching for elusive “silver bullet” theories, approaches, or best practices and towards digging into a problem with those affected.

Instead modules focused on things like the importance of defining the problem and defining problems in a way that make it clear why they matter. In my experience we waste a lot of effort working on problems that are ill-defined or even implementing solutions because they solved a problem somewhere else. My experience is also that a lot of work is shaped significantly by existing processes or structures rather than by how that work moves us closer to desired outcomes. It can be difficult (and sometimes maybe not reasonably possible) for us to stop a project mid-stream if we are tracking towards project success based on success measures that were poorly defined or describe project markers rather than progress towards outcomes. The course has reinforced for me that complaints are a source of possible improvements rather than a disruptive detour.  

My colleagues on the course really helped to motivate me to push on. Seeing the complexity and enormity of some of the problems they are working on and their perseverance and enthusiasm in the face of that was both humbling and motivating. I really liked being able to connect with some other municipal government employees too. Their experiences were similar to mine and I could see a desire in all of them to make their local environments better places. Encouragement from the course instructors and promptings from Anisha Poobalan were helpful and motivating! PDIA more generally was motivating because it requires you to define your problem clearly and to be clear about why the problem matters – this is not only motivating to authorizers but to implementers as well. Keeping the end in mind helps with day to day motivation when the steps along the way can be a slog and when it is hard to find the time with so many competing priorities.

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: You Need to be Brave