Initiating PDIA: Start by running…and then run some more

written by Matt Andrews

“Once there is interest, how do you start a PDIA project?”

Many people have asked me this question. They are often in consulting firms or donor agencies thinking about working on PDIA with host governments, or in some central bureau in the government itself.

“We have an authorizer, know the itch that needs scratching (the problem), and have a team convened to address it,” they say. “But we don’t know what to do to get the work off the ground.”

I ask what they would think of doing, and they typically provide one of the following answers:

“We should do research on the problem (the itch)” or “We should hold a multi-day workshop where people get to analyze the problem and really used to a problem driven approach.”

I have tried starting PDIA with both strategies. Neither is effective in getting the process going.

  • When outsiders (donors, academics, or even central agencies responsible for making but not implementing policy) do the primary research on ‘the problem’, their product is usually a report that sits on shelves. If you start with such a product it is hard to reorient people to change their learned behavior and actually use the report.
  • When you hold an elaborate workshop, using design thinking, fancy analysis, or the like, it is very easy to get stuck in performance—or in a fun and exciting new activity. We find people in governments do attend such events and have fun in them, but often get lost in the discussion or analysis and stay stuck in that place.

Having tried these and other strategies to initiate PDIA interventions, we at Harvard BSC have learned (by doing, reflection, and trying again…) some basic principles about what does not work in getting started, and what does work. Here are a few of these findings:

  • It does not work when outsiders analyze the problem on behalf of those who will act to solve it. It works when those in the insider PDIA teams construct and deconstruct the problem (whether they do this ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). The insiders must own the process, and the outsiders must ‘give the work back’ to the rightful owners.
  • It does not work to stage long introductory workshops to launch PDIA processes, as participants either get frustrated with the time away from work or distracted by the workshop itself. Either way they get stuck and the workshop does not mobilize their action. It works if you convene teams for short ‘launchpad-type events’ where they engage rapidly and move as rapidly to action (beyond talk). We are always anxious to move internal PDIA teams to action. The meetings are simply staging events: they are not what ‘doing PDIA’ is actually about.

Acting on these principles, we now always start PDIA running.

We bring internal teams together, and in a day (or at most a day and a half) we ‘launch’ through a series of sessions that (i) introduce them to the PDIA method, (ii) have them construct and (iii) deconstruct their problems, (iv) identify entry points for action, and (v) specify three or more initial practical steps they can take to start addressing these entry points. At the end of the session they go away with their problem analysis and their next step action commitments, as well as a date when they will again meet a facilitator to discuss their action, and learn by reflection.

This is a lot to get done in a short period. This is intentional, as we are trying to model upfront the importance of acting quickly to create the basis of progress and learning. We use time limits on every activity to establish this kind of pressure, and push all team members to ‘do something’, then ‘stop and reflect’, and then do the next thing.

When we get to the end of each Launchpad event, the internal teams have their own ‘next step’ strategies, and a clear view that the PDIA process has now started: they are already running, and acting, and engaging in a new and difficult space. And they know what they need to do next, and what date in the near future they will account for their progress, be asked about their learning, and pushed to identify more ‘next steps’.

When I tell interested parties in donor agencies, consulting firms, etc. about our ‘start by running’ approach, they have a number of common responses:

“It does not sound like anyone is doing a proper diagnosis of the problem: what happens if the team gets it wrong?”

“What happens if the team identifies next steps that make no sense?”

“This strategy could be a disaster if you have the wrong people in the room—who don’t know what they are doing or who have a biased view on what they are doing…”

These concerns are real, but really don’t matter much in the PDIA process:

  • We don’t believe that initial problem diagnostics are commonly correct when one starts a program (no matter how smart the researchers doing the analysis).
  • We also don’t believe that you commonly identify the right ‘next steps’ from a study or a discussion.
  • And we also don’t believe that these kinds of processes are ever unbiased, or that you commonly get the right people in the room at the start of a process.

We don’t believe you address these concerns by doing great up front research. Rather, we aim to get the teams into action as quickly as possible, where the action creates opportunity for reflection, and reflection informs constant experiential learning—about the problem, past and next steps, and who should be involved in the process. This learning resides in the actors involved in the doing, and prompts their adaptation. Which leads to greater capability and constant improvement in how they see the problem, think of potential solutions, and engage others to make these solutions happen.

A final note:

When I discussed this strategy with a friend charged with ‘doing PDIA’ as part of a contract with a well-known bilateral donor, he lamented: “You are telling me the workshop is but a launching event for the real PDIA process of acting, reflecting, learning and adapting….but I was hired to do a workshop as if it was DOING PDIA. No one spoke of getting into action after the workshop.”

To this colleague—and the donors that hired him—I say simply, “PDIA is about getting people involved, and acting, and you always need to get to action fast. PDIA must start by running, and must keep teams running afterwards. Anything that happens one-off, or that promotes slow progress and limited repeated engagement is simply not PDIA.”

Learn more about initiating PDIA in practice in chapters 7 and 9 of our free book, Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action.

PDIA and Authorizers with an itch

written by Matt Andrews

“How do you decide where to work on a PDIA project?”  This is probably the most common question I have been asked with respect to PDIA.

After over 5 years of doing this work in a variety of countries and sectors, I have a simple answer: “When we find authorizers with an itch.”

“That sounds bizarre,” I hear you say. Or maybe you think I’m just being cute to fit in with a playful blogging technique.

No, authorizers with an itch are key to starting any PDIA initiative.

When I say we need counterparts with an itch, I mean that they are very aware of a problem they can’t solve. Like an itch you can’t scratch, or that you scratch again and again but to no avail. This is usually a policy problem that has come to the surface one too many times, usually where various prior reforms or policies or interventions have not provided effective solutions.

Stubborn itches create frustration and even desperation, which can create the space for doing things differently—and taking risks. PDIA needs this kind of space, and this motivating influence. Without it, we have found very little room to focus on the problem, and learn-by-doing towards a new solution.

There are downsides of working to scratch a stubborn itch. The fact that others have tried scratching it, to no avail, means that it is usually going to be ‘wicked hard’ to solve (so don’t expect an easy path to a solution). The fact that it seems to move around (sometimes itching here and sometimes there) reflects the many unseen and even dynamic factors that cause the itch itself (like nasty politics or bureaucratic dysfunction). Don’t expect these factors to go away just because you are tackling the problem with PDIA. You will hit the nastiness soon. Be ready.

When I say we need ‘authorizers’ to start, it is because the PDIA work we do is always in the public domain, where no real work (with action attached) is done without someone’s explicit authorization. The required authorizer is always, in my experience, someone inside the context undergoing change. This means the work cannot be ordered or organized or identified by an external agent (donor, consultant, or even academic).

My team at Harvard found this out the hard way. As you will read in a forthcoming working paper by Stuart Russell, Peter Harrington and I, we have experimented with PDIA initiatives where problems are identified in different ways.  We have had limited success whenever anyone from Harvard or an external entity (like a donor) has been a main identifier of the problem. In contrast, we have almost always had some success when the problem was identified by a domestic authorizer in the place undergoing change.

This is simply because the internal authorizer needs to have internal authority: at the least, to convene a group of internal people to start engaging with the problem, and beyond this to protect the PDIA process from threats and distractions. No external party can do this.

Beyond convening authority, we find that the authorizers need to provide three types of authorization: shareable authorization (where they allow the engagement of other authorizers in the process of scratching the itch), flexible authorization (which allows for an experimental process), and patient (or grit) authorization (where one can expect some continued support in the search for an effective ‘scratch’ solution).

These are big authorization needs, and one does not know if they will be met at the start of the PDIA process. But they tend to come when authorizers face an itch (making them willing to share, adaptive in demands, and patient for a real solution).

We find, therefore, that there is enough space to initiate a PDIA initiative if we find an authorizer with an itch she cannot scratch.  That’s where we start our work, buckling our seat belts and getting ready for a journey of, and to the unexpected.

Are you in a situation where an authorizer is facing a stubborn itch? Maybe you have space to ask, “What’s the problem…and can we mobilize a team to try something different to solve it?”

Learn more about engaging authorizers around problems that matter in chapters 6 and 9 of our free book, Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action.


Download the new PDIA book for free

written by Salimah Samji

We are delighted to inform you that our PDIA book entitled, “Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action” was just published by Oxford University Press. The book presents an evidence-based analysis of development failures and explains how capability traps emerge and persist. It is not just a critique, it also offers a way of doing things differently. It provides you with the tools you need to personalize and apply these new ideas to your own context.

Here is a review written by Francis Fukuyama

“Building State Capability provides anyone interested in promoting development with practical advice on how to proceed—not by copying imported theoretical models, but through an iterative learning process that takes into account the messy reality of the society in question. The authors draw on their collective years of real-world experience as well as abundant data and get to what is truly the essence of the development problem.”

In keeping with our commitment to provide free resources to help diffuse our PDIA approach to practitioners around the world, we have enabled an open access title under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). We hope you find the book useful and that it helps create a PDIA community of change that shares, learns and grows together. Visit the book webpage to download your free copy. Please share your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #PDIABook

Listen to what the authors have to say about the book: