Time, Teams and Tenacity

Guest blog by Pamela Byrne

Reflecting back on my implementing public policy learning journey, three elements stand out. Implementing public policy takes time; it requires a highly functional team and; tenacity is essential for success. So let me explain these “T”s in some more detail.


When presented with a complex problem, your automatic reflex could be that you need to solve the problem quickly…. That was my tendency. But you need to resist that innate tendency to jump to the solution or to apply a solution that has worked in another place, for another purpose or under a different set of circumstances. Because to truly solve complex problems and achieve the right outcomes from public policy initiatives – outcomes that make a difference in people’s lives – you must take the time to construct and deconstruct the problem you are facing at the outset. So many times, policy initiatives have failed because we have not taken the time to really understand what the problem is or have not spent enough time gathering the information, the insight, the intelligence to bring us to a deep understanding of what the real issues are that need to be resolved.

Continue reading Time, Teams and Tenacity

Reassessing what it means to problem-solve in Laos

Guest blog by Samantha Blake Rudick

When I was in middle school, I was part of a program called “Problem Solving.” The concept was one big problem would be presented and then, in a group, students would break this problem down into twenty smaller problems. They would then select one of these smaller issues and come up with 20 solutions to this smaller problem. They would analyze their solutions, pick the best one and present it in a creative way to the larger group, with the winners getting a prize.

The Implementing Public Policy course and taking us through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) was similar to this idea, in some senses, except that in working with adults they can break the news to us: we can’t just stop at addressing one small issue.

Continue reading Reassessing what it means to problem-solve in Laos

Countering Radicalization in France

Guest blog written by Mer Carattini, Sasha Mathew, Imara Salas, Kishan Shah, Katie Wesdyk

The PDIA process taught us how to turn a ‘wicked problem’—a highly complex tangle of many problems with high uncertainty—into manageable components that we can begin to address. We learned a strategy for how to deconstruct an abstract problem with the fishbone framework. Most importantly, we learned that complex problems in unfamiliar contexts can be addressed through a structured approach. We had the chance to put theory into practice by working on radicalization in France.

There was a lot to unpack for the problem of radicalization in France. We had the opportunity to work with our authorizer, Raphaël, whom currently serves as a cyber security expert to the BNP Paribas Bank and Board members of think tank “Les Jeunes IHEDN.” His initial problem statement was to detect, react to, and prevent radicalization within private companies. However, it is very difficult for private companies to play a constructive role in the radicalization debate because of how sensitive the issue is and because there is a lack of dialogue even at a community level. But before we could start a conversation, we had to zoom out on the big picture to grasp the full complexity of radicalization. 

Continue reading Countering Radicalization in France

Public Leadership Through Crisis 6: Know your role, Empower others to play their roles and Stay in your lane.

written by Matt Andrews

So far this series has focused on ideas to equip the individual to lead through crisis. This is because real people struggle during crises and need to ready and steady themselves to take leadership. Before you start trying to lead others, you need to have some basics in place to prepare yourself, and that’s what we have focused  on.

We will soon move beyond talking about you, and offer ideas on mobilizing  your organization(s) to tackle the crisis. But remember that self-leadership is crucial when you are leading through crises, and come back to some of these ‘basics to remember’ if needed.

For this post, however, I want you to still think about yourself, and another ‘basic to remember’ as you lead in this crisis: Know your role. Empower others to play their roles. Stay in your lane. 


You’re not alone in this crisis. But how do you think of everyone’s roles?

The message is simple: your personal leadership is crucial right now, but insufficient in the face of crisis (and at most times, in fact). You must work with others who also provide leadership. Put differently, borrowing  from the NPLI; ‘you  are it’ but ‘others are it, too’. So, you must identify what your role is, find others to play other roles, and stay in your lane to let them play those roles. I know this may be difficult for many, but it is imperative.

As you reflect on this idea, remember how I suggest we think about leading through crisis (from the first blog post), drawing on David Foster Wallace’s view that “leaders help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Now, consider this: “Where are you and who are the people you are ‘helping overcome’?” You could be in a family (where you are helping your kids through crisis), or the front desk at a hospital (where you are helping a few staff members), or an entire hospital (where you are helping hundreds of staff members and thousands of patients), or a community, or a nation.

Now, consider that there are other people in every place you find yourself leading. Some are in positions of authority above you, some are under your authority, others are operating at your side, inside or outside your personal sphere of influence.

I find that the kind of leadership required to help people through crisis requires contributions from many of these people, playing different roles and allowing each other to play their role as effectively as possible. 

I first saw this when conducting research on leadership in 12 cases where major achievements followed crisis-like periods (mostly related to conflict). I was interested in who had led these achievements, and interviewed people who had been involved to better understand this. I expected to hear the names of one or two prominent individuals in each case, but was surprised when I heard an average of over 7 names in each case. It was the first time that I realized leadership is not about one person on her or his own.

Following up with the interviewees, I asked why each person identified specific individuals as a ‘leader’. This led to the identification of a specific set of roles I now see played in all important change processes (like the kind required when you lead through crises). These roles are played by individuals working together in what I call multi-agent leadership engagements. The roles include:

    • Authorizers,
    • Motivators,
    • Conveners,
    • Connectors,
    • Problem identifiers,
    • Idea generators,
    • Encouragers (or empowerers),
    • Resource people, and
    • Implementers.

Interestingly, my research suggests that leaders who really help their people ‘do better, harder things’ seldom play more than three roles. Even the people we sometimes call ‘champions’ (or, perhaps, supervisors or Tzars give responsibility for overseeing crises responses) hold to this rule-of-thumb. When most effective, I see these champions or supervisors authorizing, convening, and motivating to facilitate effective decision making and communication, but requiring and empowering others to play the other roles.

If you are interested to learn more, see research on the topic here and here and watch this video.

I think this kind of leadership matters so much when facing crises and other stressful challenges because multiple agents leading together helps to spread decision-making risk, fosters creativity, and starves off burn out (among  other things). And this kind of leadership gives more agents the chance to exercise their leadership muscle and be part of helping people through crisis.

This is why you should consider, very seriously, identifying what roles you plan to play and letting others play their roles. Which brings me to key questions you might want to reflect on:

  1. Do you agree that there are many roles to play in leading through crisis?
    • How would you define your role? (use your own words)
    • If you are forced to choose just three roles you will play in this list, which would they be? (i) Authorizers, (ii) Motivator, (iii) Convener, (iv) Connector, (v) Problem identifier, (vi) Idea generator, (vii) Encourager (or empowerer), (viii) Resource provider, and (ix) Implementer
  2. Do you agree that many people in your context are available to play their role with you?
    • Think of who you would look to play roles with you?
    • Write names down next to the following roles, so you have a good idea of who you have playing what roles in your multi-agent engagement: (i) Authorizers, (ii) Motivator, (iii) Convener, (iv) Connector, (v) Problem identifier, (vi) Idea generator, (vii) Encourager (or empowerer), (viii) Resource provider, and (ix) Implementer.

For multi-agent leadership to work, you and other leaders need to identify your role and stick to it, letting others play their roles too. Leonard Marcus from NPLI calls this ‘staying in your lane’ (in describing ‘swarm leadership’ which is a great description of how multi-agent leadership works). He notes that a key to successful leadership in the face of crises is to “Stay in your lanes, do your job, and help others to succeed in theirs. [always ask ] How can I make you a success?”

‘Staying in your lane’ proves to be difficult in many crisis situations, however, especially for those leaders playing champion or supervisory roles. In this video (make sure English subtitles are on and ‘listen’ to his comments in referring to disaster response experiences) Norwegian psychiatrist Lars Weisaeth finds that  champions (or supervisors) often interfere with others and take on  too many roles. He comments that [for leaders] “Forcing yourself to restrain from doing things yourself [or playing all the roles] requires a lot of self-control.” This is especially the case when the supervisor feels like she or he is not doing enough, and he or she gives in to “The urge  to act  [and take over all the roles].” Unfortunately this can lead to you ‘spreading  yourself too thin’, ‘overpromising’ and disempowering others to ‘do better, harder things’ themselves.

Be careful not to fall into this trap, by staying in your lane. To help you reflect on this, consider the following  questions:

  1. What will cause you to want to ‘leave your lane’ and take others’ roles from them?
  2. What disciplines can you adopt to ensure you have enough self-control to stay in your lane?

For some inspiration, watch this video by Gregory Ciottone, on crisis leadership in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. It is nearly twenty minutes long, but very much worth watching—especially if you are currently feeling overwhelmed by crisis. At moment 2:02, Ciottone says he was asking “what will my role be here”. One of our key questions in  this blog. He then refers to being  ‘a little piece in a big machine’ (around 8:04) which you can only say if you realize that others are working alongside you (playing other roles).

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

If you are interested in reading more, click here for part 7of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website

Solving Complex Problems in Albany

Guest blog written by David Galin

Coming into this course, I was under the impression it was going to help me better understand the nuances of implementing policy from a roadmap that was created for every situation.  I was a bit nervous we would be taught a rigid set of procedures on how to implement policy – something that was made for every situation but really only worked for maybe one out of every ten, if we were all lucky.  Thankfully I was very wrong.  I learned about a theory that works for those situations that aren’t rigid and need meaningful analytical evaluation.  Situations where you need to think outside the box, need support from your authorizers, but also need to continually build a team.  Situations where you are not only implementing policy but in fact problem solving.  Read: messy, confusing, complex situations.

I learned there truly are a variety of issues – complex and complicated and everything in-between.  I think this is a principle that sometimes you think about in the back of your head but start to say to yourself you’ve overcomplicating the issue and that can’t be.  Turns out, it is.  I learned that you need to see things for what they are but also be willing to look past the first layer of the issue.  You need to unpack the problem.  People are very quick to hear what they think the issue is, and immediately try to come up with solutions.  Sometimes the issue isn’t complicated and that type of problem solving can work.  But sometimes the issue is so complex that you need to spend a significant amount of time unpacking the problem.  Taking the time to understand the hurdles in front of you and the hurdles that may be hidden beneath the surface, before developing a game plan. 

The other thing I learned is that PDIA is as much about relationships as it is about process.  Building relationships – before, during, and after iteration and implementation – is very important.  Having established relationships can cut down on the time needed to build them when trying to solve a complex problem, and helps foster a sense of trust – not only with your authorizers, but with your peers.

The entire process is designed to create a constant feedback loophelping you to review whether your potential solutions are working or not, but also to getting you working with other people, obtaining and re-affirming authorization from your superiors, and brainstorming additional methods to tackling an issue.  When it comes to our problem, we were able to learn that data-driven decision-making is optimal to use as part of PDIA.  Having data and being able to evaluate it before and after the feedback review helps to determine whether that iteration was successful or not.  We made progress narrowing down some of the core issues behind the perceived sub-optimal performance of See Click Fix, including no consistent methodology of using “acknowledged” vs. “closed,” and have also seen a decline in days to acknowledge and days to close as part of the expanded use of ipads as part of our improvements.

Continue reading Solving Complex Problems in Albany

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 Lagos Beats Plastic

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 Lack of Student Engagement in Bastar District, India

Reform and Rebuild Nigeria

Guest blog written by Adepeju Francis-Abu, Beatrice Izeagbe Okpara, Kennamdi Charles Onwuliri, Lami Wendy Adams, Pemwa Danbaba.

This is a team from Nigeria working for the Federal Ministry of Justice, Government Agencies and the private sector. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in December 2018. This is their story.

rrnnigeria_44975_223239_Team RRN discussing Group Assignment 12-1

Our team is an interesting mix of people from different organizations within and outside the Nigerian public service and was peculiar because only one of us had prior experience in development work. However, we were all driven by an interest to make a difference within our environment with the hope that the effect would eventually cascade to the entire public service, hence the group name Team RRN (Reform and Rebuild Nigeria).

In the past 15 weeks we’ve expanded our perspective, network, acquired some vital skills in problem solving through PDIA and gained an entirely new perspective on designing solutions by learning to take little and realistic iterative steps towards small & quick wins.

A major takeaway for us individually and as a team was learning to construct and deconstruct our problem using analytical tools like the 5-whys, fishbone diagram, and triple A change space analysis which enabled us to properly assess our problem and determine its true nature and components. Unsurprisingly, during the deconstruction exercises, our team’s initial problem morphed into the streamlined problem statement we eventually focused our engagement on.

In addition, we gained an important lesson “crawling the design space” that we could combine best practices with other practices (latent practice, existing practices, and positive deviance) to achieve desired results. We surprisingly found out that the emergence of ideas could come from latent and positive deviance space, like our serendipitous discovery in the second week of iteration. Continue reading Reform and Rebuild Nigeria

AgriFinance in Kenya

Guest blog written by Agnes ManthiBeatrice GithinjiConstance Gichovi, Peter Onguka

This is a team from Kenya working in the private sector. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in December 2018. This is their story.

The course was quite eye-opening to the dynamics in play when it comes to solving problems. Working as a team in this course resulted in a lot of learning from the different modules at every level of the PDIA problem solving approach. Some of these key takeways include:

  • Problem construction – the team was able to understand and appreciate the importance of clearly defining our problem, why it matters, to whom it matters and who else it should care. This helped to be able to start preparing our approach by identifying the people we need in order to solve the problem.
  • Problem deconstruction through the fish bone diagram by asking ourselves several why’s made us begin to understand the complexity of the problem and realization that there are more underlying causes than we had earlier thought.
  • Change Space identification and finding entry points– this step was more critical for us since it set the wheels in motion and helped us start working on coming up with a strategy with which to start working on finding a solution to our problem. This is because we learnt how to analyze the authorization, capabilities and ability requirements around our sub causes (identified through problem deconstruction) and identified where we had change space and what we had to do to create some change space if need be.

Continue reading AgriFinance in Kenya

Family Farming in Colombia

Guest blog written by Alejandro Rueda, and Sonia M

This is a team from Colombia. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in December 2018. This is their story.

Throughout 15 weeks, our team was able to identify the causes behind our problem, to elaborate on them, to design strategies, to iterate, and, not less important, to discuss, debate, and engage as a group during the whole process. Although the primary objective of our team is to generate recommendations for public policy to overcome the problem of inefficient market access for family farmers, we were able to constantly work to make our strategies implementable for any public officer. We also had the good fortune of having one of our team members working for the Ministry of Agriculture directly involved in generating public policy for family farming. The course was very important to articulate a better, more centered, and methodologically stronger proposal as well as to guide a course of action taking into account the above.

The course left us various key takeaways.

  • The first one has to do with the importance of working as a team. This includes the whole process of defining who will be in the group, why, and what are the clear roles and tasks each one had to perform. It also includes the need to be periodically communicating and discussing, to be listening to the other points of view, and articulating it to the whole PDIA process. During the past months, we engaged in very serious as well as enriching discussions that shape the strategies that today we are articulating.
  • A second takeaway, which we consider is the key to action, is the process of identification of the main problem and its sub causes in a logic that denies pre-set solutions. This helped us to better understand what we were doing and how we should be doing it. The fishbone was a key element in our group since one of our authorizers is now using it (with some modifications) to strengthen our proposal.
  • A third takeaway of the course is the constant reminder to direct your efforts towards action. This is essential not only for the outcome, but for the whole process. If you start focusing on the more realistic and basic tasks your team can manage to do in a week, your are definitively approaching to the problem solved scenario. The latest not meaning that is a direct highway to the solution but, as you encounter difficulties in the way, manage to solve them and move along with what you’ve learned, you are a step closer to solving it.
  • A fourth takeaway is to engage fully to the process. A team that is active, that discusses and acts accordingly, that is constantly evaluating the process, reporting on the progress, bringing ideas of action and strategies for improvement, is a team that in engaged. Also, the engagement of team members will result in a more efficient engagement of third parties.

Continue reading Family Farming in Colombia