Podcast: Solving Complex Problems with Salimah Samji, Harvard Kennedy School

Posted on March 2, 2021

Salimah Samji 2 - GovLove


Salimah Samji
Director of Building State Capability
Harvard Kennedy School

A new way to solve problems. Salimah Samji, the Director of Building State Capability at the Harvard Kennedy School, joined the podcast to talk about a step by step process that allows for flexible learning and adaptation called Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). She shared how this process allows stakeholders to determine what the problems are rather than outsiders. Salimah also discussed examples of PDIA in local government, training, and how data is used in the process.

Host: Toney Thompson


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Harvard Kennedy School – Building State Capability

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation Toolkit

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation in Practice Podcast

Past Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation Projects 

Building State Capacity Blog 

Episode Transcription

Toney Thompson  00:13

Coming to you from Durham, North Carolina, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. I’m Toney Thompson, your Gov Love co host for today’s episode. On today’s episode, we’ll talk to Salimah Samji, Director of Building State Capability at Harvard Kennedy School. Salimah has more than 15 years of experience working in international development on the delivery of public services, transparency, accountability and strategic planning. Prior to her current role Salimah was an independent consultant, working for the World Bank on issues of governance. Currently, Salimah is the Director of Building State Capability Harvard Kennedy School. Salimah, thank you for joining us today.

Salimah Samji  00:48

Thank you very much.

Toney Thompson  00:51

So we like to start with all of our Gov Love podcast guests to do a lightning round to get to know you a bit better. So I have three questions for you, if you’re ready.

Salimah Samji  01:00

I’m ready. 

Toney Thompson  01:01

Okay, so as a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Salimah Samji  01:06

A lawyer. It was really surprising. I wanted to be a lawyer, I loved to argue and, and that’s what I wanted to be. Clearly I didn’t I didn’t do that.

Toney Thompson  01:18

Did your parents appreciate your love of arguing?

Salimah Samji  01:20

No. They definitely did not.

Toney Thompson  01:26

I can imagine. So what are you currently reading?

Salimah Samji  01:32

I’m currently reading leadership in turbulent times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And it’s really wonderful to see how she you know, she’s a presidential historian that is just incredible. But she weaves the stories of four presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and Lyndon Johnson, and kind of shows the story of how they went from good leaders to becoming great leaders and how adversity played into it. So I’m really loving that kind of synthesis of looking across several presidents in different time periods of American history.

Toney Thompson  02:07

That is a really good book, I hear it is currently sitting on my bookshelf, collecting dust. I’ve been planning on getting to it at some point. I read her other book, team of rivals a couple years back. Yeah. I really enjoyed that. So I was like, Oh, I should read leadership. But it’s just, I’ve never gotten to it. So thank you for the prompt. I can’t wait to motivate myself to do that. So last lightning round question. What is your most controversial non political opinion?

Salimah Samji  02:40

Hmm. I think I have major issues with the obsession in development with scale. People just love for projects to scale for ideas to scale. And that almost becomes the lens at which they use whether they’re going to fund something or whether they’re going to try something. But I honestly feel like why, why do you need to scale? Why can’t you do what you think is right, or what might work? and small is also beautiful, right? So I think I think this idea of the push for scale is is something that I don’t buy into.

Toney Thompson  03:20

Hm, that’s very, that’s very interesting. And that, I’m sure you’ll probably talk a little bit more about that as we get into our, our other questions. So, you know, I want to talk a little bit about the work that you’re doing at the Harvard Kennedy School. But But first, can you tell our listeners a little bit more about your career journey? I mean, looking at your bio, I was really fascinated about your journey through the world and and how your interests have kind of guided your professional, your professional decisions and how you got to the Harvard Kennedy School in your current role?

Salimah Samji  03:53

Yeah, no. So as I started, as I started in the lightning round, I wanted to be when I was young, I wanted to be a lawyer. What I ended up being in my first career post graduation from college was a casualty actuary. And so I was working in the private sector for a consulting firm, and I had a great job. And, you know, everything was working out really well. But I was not happy. I felt that in my job, I just didn’t have personal, I could do my job and I was good at it, but I just didn’t have that personal satisfaction. At the end of the day, I felt like, what am I doing for the world? How am I leaving the world a better place than I found it, you know, sure. I was shaving off billions of dollars of lost reserves for insurance companies, but that just didn’t. That just didn’t make me feel like I was making a contribution. And so what I decided to do was, rather than jump ship and do something too different, I said, Why don’t I try out what a career in development would look like and so I decided to do volunteer opportunity with a nonprofit organization working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan. And that was an incredible learning experience for me. And it was really hard. It was, you know, I went from a mindset of working in the private sector where I was billing 15 minutes of my time to working for a nonprofit that was under resourced didn’t have the capabilities, and just a whole different world. And that was a transition for me. But what I realized is the job itself, and just working with people was so much more exciting. And then I realized that this is what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have the skill set. And that led me to go do a master’s degree in international development that I did at the Kennedy School. And after that, I ended up working for the World Bank. And see, you know, what that would look like working for a multilateral organization. And I worked in South Asia predominantly. And then I moved to work for private philanthropy, and got an experience of what that world look like. And then finally, I moved to academia at the Harvard Kennedy School at the Center for International Development. I think one of the things that has been a motivating driver for me, and my changes in career has been the question, What if? I think I’ve, I don’t want to ask myself, when I’m 80 or 70, what if I had done X? And I think that has really been my driver in in making these changes in my personal career and professional life?

Toney Thompson  06:45

Yeah, wow. That’s a that’s a fascinating career journey. And I kind of want to ask you what a casualty actuary does? I, I’ve heard I’ve heard of them in like in like in television shows and movies, but I don’t fully know what they do. 

Salimah Samji  07:00

Oh, totally. So a casualty actuary is an, a person who calculates risk. And they do they work in insurance predominantly, but they do everything but life. So life insurance is you know, people who calculate how much you need to pay for life insurance policy, etc. And they do these life tables etc. A casualty actually does everything else. So auto insurance. Plane insurance as best as liability, anything that you need insurance for that is not life. Property is a casualty actuary. So what they do is they calculate rates of what you can pay. But they also calculate, what I did in the consulting firm is calculate what insurance companies should be holding in reserve for claims that may that may have incurred but not reported. So how much should you hold so that if all of these people come and claim, you know, insurance, you have enough to be able to pay them out? So it’s a whole bunch of modeling mathematics. That’s kind of, its risk management with a lot of mathematical models.

Toney Thompson  08:10

Gotcha. I got you. Thank you for explaining that. 

Salimah Samji  08:12

Oh, sure. No worries.

Toney Thompson  08:14

I’ve always want to meet an actuary. So I can check this off my bucket list.

Salimah Samji  08:18

Some people think it’s a, I’ve definitely gotten, “Oh, do you keep birds?” I’ve definitely gotten that one before.

Toney Thompson  08:28

So I want to ask you another follow up question. Based on the your career journey, you said, you know, when you switched to working in development for the nonprofit, for who’s helping refugees in Pakistan, one of the things you found most exciting was, you know, being able to work with people. Could you dive a little bit deeper into that, like, what exactly about working with people do you find so exciting?

Salimah Samji  08:53

I think it’s the, it’s just the engaging with people and seeing that you can make, you can help people have a better life that you can, you can transform lives. And I think in my previous job, it was dealing with numbers. And sure that helped a company decide how much it should keep or not keep, etc. But there was just no human touch of like, what does this actually translate to my life or to another person’s life? Have I have I left the world better than I found it? And I think it’s that engaging with people. And just that connection, I find to be really important. When you connect with people and you feel like you’re really, you get something, and I don’t think it’s a one way street Toney. I think this is a two way street in a relationship because you get as much. I remember I was talking to a group of refugees and they were also, it was three sisters and they were talking And I have two sisters and a brother. So this was like a very personal connection. And they were talking about how hard it was for them to escape from Afghanistan at that time, which was under the rule of the Taliban, to Pakistan. And just like just seeing how people, what people have gone through in their lives for finding a better life. It just also helps you appreciate what you have. And I think, in my private sector job, there was never that right. It’s always like, Oh, they have more, and I want more. And I think this was, it was, it was humbling, it was, and I think that was really important, for me is is that humility that you feel, that appreciation that you feel for life itself. And also understanding that out of no fault of theirs, their life just changed like that. And that that can happen, right? There are things that are beyond your control.

Toney Thompson  11:02

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for giving that very personal anecdote, and I’m sure we’ll get into more of that when I transition to my next question about what you’re actually doing currently. So you have been with Harvard for a while and you joined to help create the building state capability program. Can you tell us a little bit more about what building state capability’s  function is and why it’s important for helping solve some of the common problems that you’ve encountered in your work at BSE?

Salimah Samji  11:35

Sure, so in 2012, so it’s nine years that the building state capability program is nine years old, I came back to the Kennedy School to start the building state capability program at the Center for International Development. Now, the the faculty that were leading this program, Lant Pritchett, Matt Andrews, and Michael Woolcock, had been doing a lot of research. And what they had observed in their experience working in international development and things that I myself had also observed is that the capability of the state to implement policies and programs was the key constraint to improving human development. It wasn’t about having good ideas, it was a lot more about the actual capability to implement these good ideas of what it is that we wanted to do. And what they had come to is that they had seen these two, what they called two techniques of successful failure. And these were the first is isomorphic mimicry, and isomorphic mimicry, the best way for example to to explain that is think of snakes. There are poisonous snakes that have certain colors, but you will also have some snakes that look like poisonous snakes but they are not poisonous. And they end up with evolution trying to look like poisonous snakes as a protection mechanism. So they look like a poisonous snake but they are not a poisonous snake, right? So what does this mean in development. So this in development, what this means is, you can make things look like what they’re supposed to, but they do not function the way they’re supposed to. So form does not equal function. So concretely, a school, a school can look like a school, but there might be no education happening in that school. There might be no teachers, no students, but you have a brick building that looks like a school, you are outside that building anywhere in the world during like, that’s a school, right? So the form exists, we will build schools around the world. But who cares whether anyone’s learning or any education happens, right. So what they had observed is there was a lot of this isomorphic mimicry, a lot of form without the actual function. The second thing that they had noticed is this idea of premature load bearing. Now, what this means is developing countries were being asked to perform tasks that were too complex for them to meet to be able to handle. So an example of this is a fragile state. And we have a case on this. We’re in South Sudan, you know, that was the newest country in Africa, that had been formed. They’re a brand new country, they’re forming themselves. And the donors come up with like a list of 20 things that you need to do, they can barely do like some, you know, our own development. If we look at our own country’s, things were staged, you did some things that sometimes you don’t start with a menu list of do all these 20 things when you don’t have the capability of doing even one of them. So what you end up doing is you’re actually, you have them stuck because they can’t do what it’s just impossible for them. You’re setting them up to fail because you’re setting expectations that they cannot actually meet. So the combination of isomorphic mimicry this idea of, you give us money, we’ll build a school but that doesn’t necessarily translate to education happening. And you ask us to do all these millions of things when we just don’t have the capability to do all of these things. And what both of these things do is you get stuck, countries get stuck in a capability trap, they are literally trapped, and they cannot get out. And so what they had this idea of coming up with this approach, called PDIA – Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation, which was an approach to escape this capability trap. So how do you when you’re stuck in a capability trap, how do you get out of this capability trap?

Toney Thompson  15:44

Yeah, that’s thank you for thank you for both of those things. isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing. Do you mind if I ask you just a question that’s kind of somewhat off the path that when you’re talking about isomorphic isomorphic mimicry and premature load bearing, it seems like that implies to me that the development world, the stakeholders that have the money that are giving it to these, these other states, to build with capability are making a lot of false assumptions about where these states are, in terms of their capability. Is that is that a correct assumption that I’m making here? Or I’m just curious why this has continued to happen. And that, and why you saw both of these things happening. So consistently?

Salimah Samji  16:37

Yeah, it’s a combination of things where donors also have, I guess, it’s complex. So here’s the thing, everyone in their own institutions have certain incentives, and certain structures of how they’re built. Donors have to give money, then there are certain ideas that they have, and agendas that they have, whether it’s a bilateral agency, where the country government themselves has an agenda of what it wants to push, so it will only fund those kinds of things. So a country says, Okay, this is the only way I’m gonna get money. So I’ll take the money and then just do whatever they want. And that’s what happens. And sometimes, agencies have a certain amount that they need to lend to countries. And if they don’t lend that to a particular country, for next year, they will lose that budget. So it is. So there’s a lot of perverse incentives in the system of I need to meet my budgetary, what I’ve actually set my budget with my superiors or you know, my management, so that I can keep my my budget for my country for next year. And if that means that I have to push something that doesn’t make sense, so be it. I mean, that’s, that’s a pretty crude way of putting it, but that is what ends up happening.

Toney Thompson  18:05

No, I understand I that happens in local government all the time. So I’m glad I’m talking to you. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about PDIA and this framework, problem, problem driven iterative adaptation? And what it looks like?

Salimah Samji  18:24

Sure. So PDIA is a process, right. So I think the most important takeaway in this whole thing is it’s a process. It’s an approach of facilitated emergence, which focuses on problems, not solutions, and follows a step by step process, not a rigid plan, where you have to follow this and this and this and this, but it allows for a lot of flexible learning and adaptation on along the way. So it’s an approach where you really spend time doing problem analysis, you identify action steps, you take action, and then you check in to see what it is that you have learned. And then you adapt and you iterate and you start the process all over again. So it’s a cyclical process that you use. And the first thing that we do is, you know, PDIA, the acronym, 50% of the acronym is problem driven, right, this idea of we start with a problem. We started with a problem because we feel that problems are really the key to driving change. Change is hard. I mean, it is not an easy thing to get people to change, because people often perceive change as a loss. And they don’t like that. And so we find that problems are really the entry points, but it needs to be a problem that whoever it is that we are working with, we,, the first thing that we usually say is, what is the problem that you want to solve? We can’t tell you what it is that you should solve, you tell us what problem you want to work on. Because it needs to be, that’s the entry point, they need to care about it. They need to want to see this problem resolved or solved. And then we can work with them. So the first process we have in the problem area is the construction of the problem, right? So you nominate a problem. And we say, All right, now let’s try to understand what this problem is right? And we do this by saying, Okay, what is the problem? Why does it matter? To whom does it matter? Who needs to care more? And how do we get them to give it more attention than they’re currently giving it? And so that’s a really important process that we walk them through, oftentimes, we find that everyone assumes that you have the same understanding of the problem. And that’s not the case. And when you start to dig deeper, everyone has a different understanding of the problem. And so getting a common understanding amongst your organization of what is the problem? Why does it matter are important starting conversations to have? And then to get people to care about it, we find that you have to use, there’s a lot of research that’s been done by John Kingdon, that says that, when you’re trying to get things on the agenda, you need both data and you need stories. You can’t just use one or the other. You need an objective measure like data, and you need story, something that’s subjective, because it’s a combination of both of them, that will really convince people to care more, the question of why should I care can be answered for some with just data. And to others data is meaningless. It’s more a story, the emotion that actually moves them to want to do something about that. And then we ask them, you know, what does the problem look like when it’s solved? What is problem solved look like. Because you don’t just want to work on a problem, you want to have a clear idea of what your goal is, what is problem solved look like. So that entire process we call problem construction. And that’s the first step in PDIA. Now, one of the things that we realize, and we see over and over again, is how humans are hardwired to sell solutions not to solve problems. So what they do when they say when you say so what’s your problem, they will frame it as a lack of a solution. So for example, they can say, we don’t have enough teachers, or we don’t have this law. That’s not a problem. A law is a solution to a problem. What’s the problem? Right? And that’s why these questions of what is the problem, why does it matter, are important in this process. The second thing that we do is deconstructing the problem. For deconstructing the problem is oftentimes, these are complex problems and you need to really break them down into smaller, more manageable problems, so that you can find entry points, to actually start to find ideas of what it is that you can do. And we use the five why’s technique for this to identify multiple root causes. And then we use the fishbone diagram or Ishikawa diagram to visually represent this problem. So that you have a sense of what your problem really looks like, we find that when you do this, you know this visual is a very powerful thing, you finally realize that this is actually a complex problem that has a whole variety of things that are related. And oftentimes, people think, Oh, I just need one solution. And when you put this visual of a fishbone, of how complex the problem is, it’s, it’s obvious to the people there to say, there’s no one thing that we can do in this problem. There’s multiple things that we can do here that can really help to start making some progress in some of these areas. And oftentimes, people feel like, this is so complex, I don’t even know where to start. And this process really helps them with that. Because once you see this broken down fish, you can start to have a better sense of how interconnected things are, and what what can be done. But the deconstruction process is also very messy. It’s messy, and you, It leaves people feeling like oh my god, this is way worse than I thought, Now I really don’t know what to do, like, Where do I even begin? And that’s like the third step in PDIA, where we actually we call it the triple A change space analysis that we will do on the fishbone on each of the bones of the fish, where the three A’s for the Triple A change space analysis are authority, acceptance, and ability now authority is what support do you need in this Fishbone to get your reform or your idea to actually happen, this can be political, it can be legal, it can be organizational, it can be personal. And the second is acceptance, right? The extent to which those who will be affected by the reform accept the need, and the implications of change, like do they actually accept the need that things need to change? What is the level of acceptance you have? And then ability on you know, the practical side, do you have the ability, the time, the money, the skills, to be able to actually do what you need to, to be able to do something in this particular area. And if you don’t, then, you know, maybe you actually there are gaps. And it helps you identify what it is that you can do. So for each of your bones, you would map out how much authority, how much acceptance, and how much ability you have. And you would draw a Venn diagram. And if you had all three, then you can run with your reform or whatever it is that you want to do in that area. And the chances of you being successful are really high. But what really happens in many situations, is you have one of the three, or you have two of the three, or you have just low amounts of all three of them, in which case, there’s no change space. And so in those areas, people usually say, okay, we can’t do anything here. And what this tool helps you realize, is no, not doing anything isn’t what we do. How do we build what we don’t have, you don’t have authority, let’s build some, we don’t have acceptance, let’s build that you don’t have ability, let’s build that we take smaller steps, and start to build what we don’t have, and grow our change space. So that over time, we can actually do the kind of reform that we would really want to do. Once we’ve done that, with our unpacking the problem, we we talk about crawling the design space for finding ideas, right? Where do you find ideas of what to do? So now I’ve got this fishbone, I have areas of where I can do things and whether I need ability or authority or acceptance. But what are the types of things I can do, right? And so we have four things that we talk about, because oftentimes, at least in international development, there is this huge push, like scale that I talked about early to best practice, right? This worked in this country. So we should all do it everywhere, without the attention to context and culture, and a whole lot of other reasons why something might have worked in one place. So we say external best practice, right? And best practice that comes from outside your country might be one, it’s not the only place you can look, but it is one of many things that you can look at. But there’s also other things that you can look at. And these are existing practice, what are you doing currently, right? Because this is a problem that you are facing? What are you doing? What can you understand and learn from what it is that you are doing? What can you improve? How can you learn from what it is that you’re doing that you can take away into creating something new? The second area we talked about is what we call latent practice, right? Maybe there’s already people in your system, who have ideas, and probably have the key idea who need to implement or do, but they don’t have the authority or the power to be able to do it, or to tell you, but asking people, especially at the frontlines. What do you think about this is really surprising, because they will have very good thoughts, they understand the ground and the reality on the ground better than most others and would probably have good ideas of what you can try. The third thing that we also suggest, is this idea of positive deviance. Is there anyone in your context, in this case, your city, your municipality, etc., Who’s actually solved this? Who has actually figured this out and is succeeding at doing that? What can we learn from the person who in our own context has solved this problem? How can we learn from them? And this is what we call crawling the design space. So looking for solutions, and oftentimes you will end up with a hybrid solution, something that has a little bit of external best practice, internal best practice which is positive deviance. latent practice people in your system who have ideas, but no one ever asks them. And then existing practice you can learn from failure. You can learn from what’s not working and make improvements to what it is that you’re doing. So that’s kind of the ideas of coming up with some ideas of what to do. And then it’s all about action in PDIA in iteration. You come up with ideas of what it is you’re going to do. Now, the difference here is we don’t come up with a plan for six months or one year, we come up with, what are you going to do in two weeks, or in one week, we do very short iterations. Because we want to learn very quickly, then the only way you learn about all of this contextual problems, and more about your own assumptions you make about your own city, or municipality or your country is by doing. And so we get people into action very quickly, and they start doing things. And as soon as they’ve done their first iteration, or they’ve taken some actions in two weeks, they then come back and do a check in and they ask themselves very simple questions. Four questions. What did you do? What did you learn? What are you struggling with? And what’s next? So very much a learning framework. And the learning lens is what we put. And what we find is with this approach, the big F word that everyone hates, failure is completely out, like there is no failure, because everything you do is learning. If you said I’m going to do this in two weeks, and then in two weeks, you say, actually, we didn’t because we learned that doesn’t exist, or we learned that this is actually should be this, that doesn’t look like failure, that’s learning, it’s like, oh, great, because I have a plan of what I’m going to do next. If I say I’m going to do something in six months, or one year, and then in that one year, I don’t do that, that ends up looking a lot like failure. And then that comes with all sorts of other consequences. So this is a much more flexible learning approach, where people are really empowered. And what we find is, when people start to see success with this, where they start, solutions start to emerge from this process, they get ideas, they themselves get empowered by this process. And we feel that it’s success builds institutions, and not the other way around. Because the people themselves then become empowered by this process. And they, they can continue to do this and success, it motivates them to be able to solve more problems, oh, let’s use this on something else. And that just becomes their culture, you bring this learning culture into the organization.

Toney Thompson  32:33

One of the things I found fascinating about what you were saying was that oftentimes people have the solution, and they don’t have, they’re not looking at the problem, they already have a solution in their minds they want to implement. And that resonated with me, because it sounded very similar to how you were describing international development and the flow of money, like people have a bucket of money, and they want to give it to these international communities to help solve a solution that they think that they need. But it sounds to me like PDIA is a framework that is designed to kind of reverse that, that flow, like let the, let these international communities or the states, you know, really identify and tackle what their problem is and what solutions that they need, and then have that investment command to help solve these problems. Is that would you say that’s correct?

Salimah Samji  33:24

Yes, that’s absolutely correct. It really is reversing that relationship and giving ownership right, and we find that it is through countries themselves defining what problems they want to solve, that really helps empower them, gives them agency, but also, the process of PDIA, helps build the capability. So in this entire process of trying to solve problems and work, they build capabilities that they lack, and they build confidence in themselves to be able to do that, right? So it’s not about hiring a consultant to come in and solve this for us, which is, so the general the general trend in development is okay, we need to do this, we have a problem and we need to solve this, what’s the first thing that you do? Oh, let’s create a terms of reference that takes like weeks, then you hire someone, then external consultant doesn’t may not even live in that place, whatever comes in, flown in from the outside is gonna like, figure out what needs to happen. And then we think that that’s actually going to lead to success. But that is really what happens that is de facto what happens and why I think even when we decided what we were going to call this program, we we toyed with with words, right? Because words are so powerful. We didn’t do building state capacity. We did building state capability and it’s the state because in some countries and I think that happens in the United States as well, where people just opt out of the state services, public school or whatever. And private, you know, you can you can opt out of the public and go to private, whether it’s a hospital, or a school or whatever it might be. And that happens a lot in developing countries also. But the only the only game in town is the state, the state needs to be able to do its job, we cannot give up on the state. And, and that’s why we thought we have to be building states, but not capacity. Because capacity is a word that gets used, where people actually solve the capacity thing of getting It done a workshop at a time as though setting you to a workshop. And yeah, sure it can, it can help build your capacity, but we want the capability of the system. And that’s why we chose the word capability and not capacity, because it’s really building the state’s ability to be able to do its job.

Toney Thompson  35:55

Okay, so Salimah, would you mind giving us examples of how PDIA has been implemented both in your work and also if you’ve seen this implemented in local governments here in the States?

Salimah Samji  36:10

Yeah, absolutely. We actually have several examples of how it’s implemented in the United States as well. And we’re working to actually create a page on our website that has exclusive examples for PDIAs use in the US, because we now have a lot. We started off, you know, we I work at a Center for International Development, working mostly outside, but we came to realize that these are issues that we see in our own country. And there are things that we can also help cities and regions in the United States. And we have started to do more of that. So let me give you an example, on homelessness. Okay. So that’s definitely a problem that we have seen people use PDIA for. And so the problem, again, is something that a city or a county comes to us and says, okay, the problem is really homelessness. And so the first thing is, you know, they asked themselves, who should care about this? Who doesn’t care about this that we need to bring on to this? And what does problem solve look like, and then this particular example, they came up with the idea of reducing homelessness by 30% in five years, you know, that’s kind of their idea of what they wanted it to look like. And they wanted to reduce the number of unsheltered homeless people, and reduce the average time people spend homeless, right, this idea of chronic homelessness, and that’s what they used PDIA for. So when they did the deconstruction, which is the fishbone diagram, now we need to break this problem down. The problem statement, which was the head of the fishbone, in this case, was that there’s a large number of homeless people despite available programs, right? We all have programs for this, but we still have a large number of homeless people. Why is that? And so when they broke their Fishbone, down, they had these types of things. And hopefully this gives you an example of how these tools work in practice. So one was affordable housing, you know, vouchers are denied. They have criminal records, credits, increasing rents, there’s not enough units. Housing is far from transport, limited public transport to affordable housing was one Fishbone. Another Fishbone was coordination among stakeholders, the costs, they’re siloed, there’s overlaps and gaps. There’s restrictive regulation and funding. There’s inconsistency and objectives. There’s a lack of private sector engagement. That was the bone on coordination amongst the stakeholders. And they had another one on lack of tailored programs. So they found that there’s issues of substance abuse, of disabilities, of health, of domestic violence, but there wasn’t tailored programs for causes of why people were homeless. Another thing they found was that the emergency shelters that they had in their city were underutilized. And they were underutilized because it was wait lines because they were restrictive. They had bad reputation. People feared for theft or sanitation in these emergency shelters, and so they didn’t use them. Another Fishbone they found was unemployment, childcare, lack of skills, job training, and that was the cause of homelessness. And so this was just like one example of they then broke down the homeless problem into all of these causes. And you can already see that there’s like tons of things and actors in this particular area that you need to start to dig deeper and to figure out what are the types of things that you can do? Who has the authority to be able to do anything in here? Who has the ability? Is it an ability problem? Is it an acceptance problem? Is it an authority problem? What are the types of things that we can do? So for, you know, what are some actions that they could take as they started to think about all of this? So on underutilized shelters, you know, try to understand what are the causes of the problem, identify some performance services amongst the shelter’s, contact the frontline organizations and get the beneficiary perspective. One of the things that we see constantly Toney, and this is really surprising, but we see it over and over whether it’s international or in this country, is people don’t talk to the beneficiary, or the user of whatever service that it is that you’re providing. There’s just an assumption that we know what these people need. And so we’re going to do that. And so a lot of this process as they start to dig deeper, and ask these questions, they end up having these conversations with beneficiaries, with the homeless and say, why is this happening? What is it? What are things that we can do that would help you? And also looking at positive deviance, what they had done in this particular case, is they had found a county that was very close to this county. And they’ve actually solved this problem. So what can they learn from what someone in their neighborhood was doing right, that they could also implement? And so that essentially kind of gives you a sense of how they go through this process of first, start with the problem and better understand what are the root causes, we are too quick to jump to solutions, we are too quick to say, Okay, let’s do this, when we need to step back a little and the little doesn’t mean we’re taking months, it can mean we’re taking a week. But let’s just step back, and try to break down the problem. So we understand what the causes are. So that when we come up with ideas of what to do, we are addressing the causes, not the symptoms, and then this can actually go away, as opposed to continue to stay around and be this and become a bigger and bigger and bigger and more complex problem.

Toney Thompson  42:14

Yeah, thank you for that. I mean, homelessness is something that so many local governments are dealing with in trying to find, I should say, trying to find solutions for. So yeah, trying to tackle that problem of homelessness is something and I think that was a really great example to share for our listeners. So I kind of want to ask you, how you, how are you training people in PDIA currently? So how is how is BSC at the Harvard Kennedy School, doing some of this work of training people to be practitioners in this?

Salimah Samji  42:54

Sure. So we do a variety of things. One, as a center, we actually, we work directly with governments, and we will do training programs for governments. And this is what we call our high touch approach where we will actually help a government, they will nominate the problem that they want to work on, and they will come up with teams. The thing that I didn’t say earlier, is that we always work with teams, because these are complex problems. And you cannot solve a complex problem alone. Oftentimes in these problems like homelessness, like homicides, all sorts of police relations, whatever it might be, these are complex problems, and no one person can solve. And so you need a team that can actually work together. And these solutions will emerge through the process. So the government would nominate teams that we would work with, and we will usually work with them for a period of six months to one year, we’re one of the firm beliefs that we have, because we are really committed to the idea of building their capability of whoever it is that we work with. We don’t do the work, we give the work back to them. So we facilitate, we coach, but we do not do the work because the work is not ours to be done. It is whoever it is that we are working with to do. But we will walk them through the process. We will ask questions, we will nudge we will do a variety of things like that, but we will not do the work with them. So that’s our high touch model. And then we sometimes work with partners who we train and they can take this to people, their own member networks that they can bring this approach to and we’ve done that as well. And then we have online courses that we offer where we train people, and that’s what we do as a center. But what we also do is we teach two classes at the Kennedy School.So our Faculty Director, Matt Andrews, teaches this class. called Getting thing, getting things done in development, where it kind of sits above PDIA and kind of talks about, what are the problems that you’re working on? And what are the management tools that you can use for these problems? Because what happens oftentimes is you, you don’t match your method to the type of problem, and then no surprise, it fails. So you assume that there is no unknowns, and you don’t have to learn about something and that you know, something, and then you use an approach that you would have for, for that type of scenario, for something that’s really complex, and it doesn’t. So to give you an example is, there is this plan and control approach, where you come up with a plan, and then it just needs to be implemented. That is a great approach, if there’s no unknowns, and there’s no learning that you have to do build the road, pretty easy come up with the plan, like any construction, things are pretty easy, you know, you can come up with a great plan, and actually get it done. And then, you know, there is a system of delivering quality education, you can’t come up with a plan for something like that, because it’s just much more complex. So he does this course, where he kind of showcases to the the students, you need to at least be clear about what is the nature of your problem to decide, what is the approach that you want to use. And then we teach the second class, it’s a field lab class that I co teach with Matt Andrews, and that one is more a PDIA class, and what we have learned about PDIA is, the only way to learn PDIA is by doing because it is in the doing that you actually learn it’s an it’s an approach, right? It’s an experiential process, and you have to go through the process to learn it. And we’ve experimented a lot and seen that the only way to teach it is by doing it. So what we’ve done in this class is we put the students into teams just like we would do in countries, etc. And we give them a problem. And so what we’ve done is we’ve paired them up with alumni of ours from our executive education teaching programs, to be their authorizer or their client to give them a problem. So currently, we have eight alumni who are working with our student, we have eight student teams, and they are working on problems like police and community relations in the city in the US, childcare options of a city in the US and that’s with a city councilor that they are working with. They’re working on reparations in a city in the United States, they are working on the lack of blood in Nigeria, they are working on a legal reform in the Ukraine, just to kind of give you a sense of like real problems with real people. And what they do is we give them the process and the tools. And so like I walked you through problem construction, deconstruction, so every week we’ll do one of these things. And they will have to do it with this problem, they will also do a meeting with their authorizer and talk to other people in that context, and do some research and figure it out. And this week, actually, everyone presented their Fishbone diagrams. And it was incredible to see that none of these students had an expertise in any of these areas, or had been to some of the countries that they are now working on. And in a matter of four weeks, they were able to put a detailed Fishbone diagrams that have already been been giving food for thought to their clients and their authorizer. So that’s how we teach it. You have to get your hands dirty, you have to do the process. Because in that is where the learning comes out.

Toney Thompson  48:56

Absolutely, thank you for sharing that. I want to go back to something you use you just said about matching the method to the the nature of the problem, the type of problem, and it made me It made me think about, Are there any types of problems where PDIA would not be appropriate to use?

Salimah Samji  49:21

That’s an excellent follow up question. So for things that are that are simple, so I’ll articulate like three types of problems right. So problems can be simple, they can be complicated, or they can be complex. So a simple kind of problem. Think a recipe right? a recipe exists, it could just be what it is. And that’s a simple problem. You just need to read the recipe and follow it. You do not need PDIA. So for PDIA you need to work in the space of complicated and complex problems, where there’s a lot of unknowns and there’s a lot of learning that you need to do. So it’s a combination of unknowns where we really do not know, you may think we know, but we don’t really know. And then there’s a lot of learning. So you could use PDIA in the space of complicated or complex. So for for complicated is like building a rocket, right? It’s complicated, but you can learn over time and figure it out and gotten better at it. And complex problem. A good example of that is raising a child, that’s complex. Having one child does not mean that you can raise your second child any better or worse, right? They’re just in their complex, there’s no handbook for for raising a child, etc. So those are kind of the three areas. And so I would say PDIA is not a process you need for simple problems, if you already know what you need to do and you know how to do that there’s very little unknown, and there’s no learning that’s needed. If you don’t do that approach, do whatever it is that you know, best practice or whoever tells you that this is the way then go for it. You don’t have to use PDIA.

Toney Thompson  51:19

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. Um, can you tell me a little bit more about the role of data and metrics? Sometimes, you know, KPIs are called got play in the PDIA framework. I know, in local government, we talk about data and metrics a lot. So and you talked about earlier how you need data plus stories. So I’m just kind of curious about how, how often is data and metrics, and tracking used in this PDIA approach when people are kind of getting to like, okay, well, we need to, we know, these are the metrics that we need to hit to know that we have solved the problem.

Salimah Samji  52:02

Yeah, sure. So we, we definitely think data and metrics are useful. But I think sometimes data and metrics can really be stifling. When you pre commit to something that you then realize, that’s not what we’re doing. So we do not like to set things to, you know, set things into stone. So in the fishbone diagram back to, you know, where we do this deconstruction, and you have this fishbone diagram, a very important thing that we say is, you have your team there, and you say, what are some of the causes, and whatever anyone says needs to go on the fishbone. Whether you agree or disagree, doesn’t matter. This is an inclusive, Toney, this is a hard process where people are like, No, no, no, no, you know, someone says something like that, you know, it’s not a problem. We’re like, no, and then and then, and then there’s no editing that’s happening in this process. You have an idea, you’re on the team, it goes on the fishbone, then we say how do you know that that is not a problem? Do you have data to support this? Oh, no, we don’t? Can we collect it? Sure. So the fishbone becomes, again, you’re starting from root causes. It’s the causes that develop your metrics, it’s the causes that develop, we don’t come in with like, these are KPIs that you need to have. Because I think that anything that’s too risky, you can’t in a complex problem landscape, you cannot have prescriptive things, things have to emerge through the process. And they have to make sense. Oh, we’re actually not tracking how many people come back. So if we go back to the homelessness thing, are we tracking how many people keep coming back? Are we like, what are we tracking? And if we are not tracking that, maybe we should. And already you’ve improved this process. If the problem in the problem again, homelessness, is there’s no coordination. Okay, how can we coordinate with each other? Should we share data? Like, what are the kinds of things that we can do to improve that relationship, and voila, you have some metrics. You have some KPIs that you’ve created, but they are very rooted in the fishbone. They don’t come from outside. They don’t come from like some random thing. I will, in my personal experience, what I’ve seen, Tony, is people collect a whole load of metrics. And if you ask them, why are you collecting this? And they’re like, I don’t know. I was asked you. And that’s always a bad idea. If you don’t know, right, why you are collecting the data that you are collecting. That means it’s not being used in any place, and something that that I have seen over and over. And this is more in my international development experience, is people will then send data in reports in a Word document. It’s not even in Excel. So why are we collecting this data? Like forget the validity of the data? And if it’s correct, you know, like, let’s leave that on the side. It’s in a Word document. What are you? You’re not even putting it in Excel, doing something simple, like average, median, you know, simple things. No, no, no. So what is the point? Oh, yeah, someone came and said, Oh, no, we should collect this. Okay, let’s collect it. And I think, what the fishbone. That’s why, you know, I keep saying how PDIA is a process, because the process really encompasses all of these things in what it is that we’re trying to do.

Toney Thompson  55:48

Right. That totally makes sense. Thank you for explaining that. I only have like a couple more questions for you. Salimah, one of them was going back to the triple A framework that you have as a part of PDIA and the first A, which I think is authority. Some, so oftentimes I see in local government, there’s this issue of authority that keeps coming up, because it’s like, well, we could do this, but we’re being restricted or limited by our state government, or we could do this. But this is really an issue at the federal level. So I just kind of want to hear from you about if you’ve had examples of using PDIA in local government and getting around like that authority issue, like what can local government do? When they’re saying like, well, this is a this is above, this is at a higher level of federalism for us to really move this move the needle?

Salimah Samji  56:49

No, that is a great question. So the question of authority and authorization is so so so key to PDIA. And thank you for bringing it up, because I didn’t. In the toolkit that will be a resource that we will share as well, we have an entire section on building and maintaining authorization. And there’s a section on it, because we think that’s how important it is. Oftentimes, there are issues with authorization, where you don’t really know where your real authorization lies. Because there’s a difference between what your org chart will tell you about authorization, and who really has authorization. So better understanding your own authorizing environment is a really important first starting point. And then we really think that it’s extremely important to be able to build and maintain your authorizing environment. So this is basically where we talk about, you take the small steps, and you report back. So you report back to your authorizer. And you show your authorizer the progress you’re making and how you are working. And with every time you do that, you get more legitimacy, which then gives you more functionality, you do more, you get more legitimacy, and you really co-opt your authorizers to your approach, and you really help bridge that divide. So that’s one thing that we do. The other is, you know, in the problem construction phase, it’s really important to construct the narrative for your authorizers. So when we say who, you know, the question of who should care more, and doesn’t care more, it might be your State leadership. How do we construct the narrative, remember data and stories, to be able to get them to care more? How do we make this narrative pitch to them to say, hey, this is our problem, not from pointing fingers, you won’t give us money, and no, no, this is a problem. We are in your state. It’s a problem for you also. Here’s the magnitude of the problem. How can we work on this together? It’s a very different narrative where you use the problem. A third thing, not individuals not Salimah and Toney, it’s this third thing, where you’ve done a fishbone and you’ve done this analysis and you go to, you know, your State Leadership and say, Okay, so how do you think we should do this? What are some of your ideas, how can we work together and I think it’s a game changer, in terms of getting buy in from them, but actually asking their opinion and working together, which is a challenge that exists not just in local government. This working in silos and not working together is a common problem everywhere. I see it in academia, I see it in development. You know, you see it everywhere. But it really helps break down those silos. Because if it’s a problem that the state cares about that you also care about, that you can tell them that look, if we were able to, to make some progress on this, it makes you look better. And we could probably share with other local governments in our state. And we could, you know, I think there are there are cases to be made. So authorization is extremely important, something that cannot be taken for granted, something that needs to be built, and something that needs to be maintained. It’s not that, okay, we did the fishbone. And we got there by and see you in six months. No, no, we’re gonna keep you in the process. So very much getting your buy in, even if the check ins are short. And it keeps these things current in their minds of okay, something is actually happening in this space.

Toney Thompson  1:01:01

Excellent. Thank you. I was I was taking notes. I appreciate that. So just to wrap up, where can people go to learn more about the PDIA framework or even some tools or resources that they can download or share with others?

Salimah Samji  1:01:18

Yeah, absolutely. So our websites, which is bsc.cid.harvard.edu is the home for a whole load of things. And then on the website, you will find our PDIA toolkit, our toolkit exists, it’s a DIY kit, to the PDIA approach. So everything that I have talked about is in the toolkit, we actually have worksheets, that lays out how you would do these, these different pieces on authorization for authorization, we even have a little worksheet to think about what type of authorization you need, legal, procedural, you know, etc. So we have our toolkit, we have a series of podcasts, which talks you through the approach. And we have our blog, which, where we share stories of examples of people using PDIA in practice and these are from around the world. But we do have some examples in the United States as well that we will be adding to one of our websites.

Toney Thompson  1:02:25

Excellent, I would definitely encourage our listeners to go check out all those amazing resources. So Salimah, the last question I have for you, and maybe the most important, if you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as your exit music for this episode?

Salimah Samji  1:02:43

Um, Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World.

Toney Thompson  1:02:47

I love it. Great. I like that. That’s a great choice, that’s a great choice. So this ends our episode for today. Salimah, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me. For our listeners, you can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter, @GovLovePodcast, and we’re on all of your favorite podcast subscription services. Please subscribe to Gov Love through your favorite podcast service and leave us review so more people know that Gov Love is the podcast for local government topics. And if you have a story for Gov Love, we want to hear it. Send us a message on Twitter A GovLovePodcast. Thanks for listening and this has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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