Can PDIA become a regular part of how a government works?

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

Recently I have been engaging with a government in a middle-income country which is using PDIA methods to tackle some of their thorniest public problems. As one would expect there have been successes and failures, and lots of learning. But in addition to this, leaders in the government want to ‘embed’ PDIA permanently into the way their government works. This raises some interesting questions for PDIA – can the methodology be institutionalised as part of the way a government works? If so, what does this look like? And what is required to make that successful and sustainable?

The government has decided that it wants to embrace more innovative methods of getting things done, and governments through the ages have had similar ambitions. There has been a recognition that existing ways of working leave some problems unsolved, and a good place to start is to understand why this might be.

Governments by their nature function in routines. These are established pathways which, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the government’s capability, serve a range of functions in maintaining the operations of the state. These functions are well established but can also change, adapting to new conditions and new social or economic needs through shifts in policy, legislation, new services and new ways of working. As such governments can be understood as complex adaptive eco-systems which are themselves embedded in and interacting with a larger complex adaptive system: wider society.

As functioning (or dysfunctioning) systems, governments get an awful lot of things done. To borrow an analogy used by Matt Andrews, the amount of coordination it takes to make a streetlight switch on at a specific time each day is actually quite extraordinary. But as systems whose configuration is a response to and reflection of their societal context, governments are by their nature unable to solve every problem through their regular operation. Some problems are complex, and/or emergent, and require different types of know-how to solve. Some of these problems may arise directly because the machine of the state is configured in such a way as to neglect, exacerbate or even cause that particular issue. Think of a robot vacuum cleaner: they are pretty smart these days, programmed to trundle around your house hoovering the floor space and capturing a lot of dirt. When it’s done the floor looks pretty clean, but anyone with a Roomba knows that it can’t catch dirt gathering in the hard to reach corners, and it may have even pushed extra dirt into some of those corners. Getting into those nooks and crannies requires something different – probably a human, using a different tool.

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PDIAtoolkit now available in Spanish!

At Building State Capability, we are excited to see the PDIA methodology being tested and adapted in many countries around the world. In order to make our videos and materials more accessible, we have started translating them into other languages, most recently in Spanish.

In January this year, we were approached by a former HKS student, Marco Midence, who was teaching a course for master’s degree students at UNITEC in Honduras. The purpose of the course is to advise students on their applied research graduation projects. He was interested in using the PDIA approach as a main part of the course. We had a draft version of our PDIAtoolkit translated in Spanish and thought this would be a great opportunity to test it out.

So … for the past two months, the 15 students have been using the PDIA tools to break down their problems, take action, and continuously learn more about the root causes of the problems. The projects are diverse, covering topics such as Honduras’ coffee sector, an entrepreneurship hub, and solar energy.

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PDIA Course: 1,000+ alumni in 3 years

written by Salimah Samji

Wow – I can’t believe that we’ve trained 1,112 development practitioners in 86 countries through our free PDIA online course! When we first launched this course in November 2015, we thought that training 50 people would be wildly successful. So my friends – the state of the PDIA course is strong!

I want to pick up where I left off, exactly a year ago, when I shared what we had learned.

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10 new things we did in 2018

written by Salimah Samji

It’s February and 2018 feels like a long time ago!

Last year, I wrote my first annual stock taking blog and I’ve been meaning to write a follow up since early January, but 2019 has been off to an incredibly busy start.

As you may know, we are small team of doers who are constantly testing, learning, reflecting, and adapting our approach – essentially PDIAing our way forward, often while charting new waters. The year 2018 was very productive and rather than tell you everything we did, I thought I would highlight the 10 new things we did. Without further ado … Continue reading 10 new things we did in 2018

Introducing the PDIA Toolkit

written by Salimah Samji

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In 2009, we began to explore how to do PDIA in the real world. Our early engagements helped us learn, develop and refine our tools – some of our key ideas (problem construction, problem driven convening, problem deconstruction, sequencing, action pushes etc.) emerged from this process.

In 2012, the Building State Capability program was created to house the action research, learning and experimentation of the PDIA approach. Since then, we have tried, tested, iterated and adapted our tools in our direct work with 349 government officials, across 45 teams, in 12 countries (Africa, Sri Lanka and Albania). In addition, 970 development practitioners in 83 countries (47% in Africa and 22% in Asia) have used these tools in our free PDIA online courses and have found them useful.

In keeping with our commitment to democratize PDIA knowledge, and to make it freely accessible to those who are in the trenches of implementing development policies and programs, we are proud to release the PDIAtoolkit : A DIY approach to Solving Complex Problems (Version 1.0). It is an open access publication, available online and distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution –Non Commercial –No Derivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

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Introducing The PDIA in Practice Series

written by Matt Andrews

We have a small team in Pretoria this week for the second year of PDIA work with the Collaborative African Budget Initiative (CABRI). The work with CABRI will see us working with 6 more African countries on public financial management reform problems.

This experience will increase the number of teams that we have directly worked with, over multiple month engagements, to over 50 in the last 9 years. We have also engaged with two to three times this number of teams in our online work during this time.

All of this has been in the name of experimenting with a new way to do development that we believe is needed in the face of complex and context specific challenges, and when the goal of engagement is both to build local capability ‘to do’ new things and to actually do those new things.

As many of you  know, this approach is called problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), and involves engaging local agents in identifying their problems, encouraging these agents to determine where they have entry points to start tackling these problems, supporting these agents to nominate ideas to experiment with in these entry point areas, helping the agents try and test the ideas out in the field, facilitating learning from this experience, and mobilizing the agents to try their ideas again. And again. And again.

Through the many experiments over the last decade, we have been PDIA’ing PDIA itself, to develop practical and replicable methods and processes. To put it mildly, we are thrilled and excited at where all of this work has led. We have seen a new method of engaging that is emerging in countries across the developing world, where local officials are being mobilized to address challenges that have eluded them for ages: in arenas as varied as public financial management, private sector development, judicial reform, health care and education, and more. Teams working across domains have made progress in addressing their problems and building their own capabilities ‘to do’ what is needed to run their countries more effectively.

In this process, we at BSC have settled on a number of methods of engaging, and tools to work with. The work with CABRI employs most of these tools in a structured engagement we call the ‘PDIA Sandwich’. This ‘sandwich’ involves convening multiple teams in a time-bound PDIA exercise that:

  1. begins with a framing workshop where problems are identified and ‘next steps’ determined,
  2. the teams then move to rapid action and learning phase which we call the action-push period, where the teams take their ‘next steps’ and stop regularly to learn about their experience, iterating repeatedly for months, and
  3. draws the teams together in a final workshop at which results and lessons are shared and the teams are encouraged to employ their learnings independently in their home countries.

We honed the ‘sandwich approach’ in our past work in Albania and Sri Lanka, and saw it work well to structure the CABRI PDIA engagement last year. As noted, this approach is one of the methods we employ to help users use PDIA in practical ways (the others include things like our black belt team interactions, online modalities, and various course offerings). All these methods combine tools and processes that have emerged from our own practice of experiments in the last decade—including things like the problem construction and deconstruction process, change space analysis, push period iteration, PDIA check-in methods, and more.

We have tried and tested these tools across the globe and seen so many variations in so many places (see our small set of fishbone diagrams from teams representing places as varied as Mozambique, Albania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Honduras, and Liberia).

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We are now releasing ‘PDIA in Practice’ notes that describe the engagements we have learned from, where PDIA tools and ideas emerged from, and how these ideas have taken shape. Here is the first of these notes. It recounts a short story of the first PDIA experiment we conducted in Mozambique in 2009, and the ‘adaptation window’ idea and practice it inspired. A longer working paper on the experience is also available.

We will be producing more of these notes (and some with supporting working papers) in the coming weeks, and by fall we will also have a Dynamic PDIA Glossary that helps those interested to navigate the many ideas and tools that are now in play. Our final goal in this next period is to also release a PDIA Toolkit, where various tools are presented in practical and useable ways for anyone wanting to use them in their work.

We are excited about these new developments, and committed to democratizing management know-how across the world: making this available for everyone to use as they try to build capability and solve the world’s problems.

A final word: Our thanks and admiration go out to all the friends and colleagues and brave and caring development practitioners we have worked with in the last decade—including our local coaches in Mozambique, Albania, Sri Lanka, the CABRI coaches and CABRI country team members. You guys are the real difference makers in this development odyssey, and we are convinced that the legacy of your work will be amazing!