Episode 7: Olga Yulikova

BSC Director Salimah Samji interviews Implementing Public Policy (IPP) alum, Olga Yulikova, to hear more about how she is utilizing what she learned in the program as she works to resolve public problems.

Olga Yulikova is a Massachusetts State Director for the federally funded through the US Department of Labor Employment and Training Program, for low-income adults ages 55+. She is an avid advocate for older workers. Her challenge is to fight age discrimination when it comes to labor and workforce development. To learn more about Olga's IPP journey, read her BSC blog post, Three Lessons of PDIA, or the Art of Public Policy.

For more information on Harvard Kennedy School's Implementing Public Policy (IPP) program, visit the website, read about the PDIA approach, and access the PDIA toolkit.


Salimah Samji Hello and welcome to the Practice of Resolving Public Problems podcast series. My name is Salimah Samji and I am the Director of Building State Capability at the Harvard Center for International Development. This new series on the practice of resolving public problems features interviews with alums of our Implementing Public Policy IPP executive program at the Harvard Kennedy School. The episodes will focus on how our alums are using the PDIA tools and approach in designing and implementing public policy. We hope you enjoy them. Today, I'm speaking with Olga Yulikova, who is a Massachusetts State Director for the federally funded through the US Department of Labor Employment and Training Program for low income adults aged 55 and above. She is an avid advocate for older workers. Her challenge is to fight age discrimination when it comes to labor and workforce development. She is currently training for a race to run up Mount Washington, New Hampshire, the highest peak in the northeastern United States in June this year. She completed our IPP program in December 2019 and has served as an IPP community moderator in 2021. Welcome, Olga. 

Olga Yulikova Thank you, Salimah. 

Salimah Samji It's wonderful to have you here. So let's get started. It's been almost two years since you completed the IPP program. What do you still remember as being useful? 

Olga Yulikova Salimah, this is a hard and somewhat unfair question to answer, because nothing from the course is useless. In other words, every element of the IPP course, was so well put together and practical that frankly, I use different parts and pieces of the course, if not daily, then definitely weekly in my work. However, if I had to pick the most important pieces, I would say that spending the time with your team on really defining the problem you're working on is really worth the time and energy you invest into it. When you are questioning your assumptions or validating your assumptions and engaging with all kinds of people, you begin to fully analyze and understand the problem you're working on. And that process takes longer than you think. We, as public servants, frequently start problem solving first. Partiallly it's because that's what exactly is expected of us, right? This is our job. So it takes time and our own responsibility to explain to people we're reporting to that a much more effective way is to first analyze the problem, as we call it in IPP or PDA toolkit, it's called define the problem, and then we dig deeper into the root cause analysis of what the true issue is. Now, the more complex the problem on that issue, of course, it's harder to dig into it. So it's even more time consuming when you're defining a harder, complex problem. But Salimah in all honesty, even the more of a simple problems require exact same technique. So regardless of the scale, regardless of the impact, I think the best technique that I use all the time is spending time with my team, my core team, but also with a larger audience to define what exactly is the problem we're going to be solving. And only after that move on to the next step. 

Salimah Samji And how is that that sharing with your coworkers, gone? You know, how have you shared this learning with them? You talk about doing this problem definition with your team. You know, you came to Harvard, they didn't come, they didn't get this training and then you went back to work. How did you actually bring these ideas to your workplace? 

Olga Yulikova I have a number of specific examples of how I actually have done it recently. And I would say, first of all, the good thing is we have the PDIA toolkit, okay? That's the toolkit that I have at my computer handy all the time. So because I constantly find myself refreshing my knowledge and looking at it over and over again. Now without this toolkit, I don't think I could have survived COVID professionally and personally. Why? Because the COVID environment where PDIA became my lifesaver was the kind of condition of high uncertainty environment and, pun intended, our problems did mutate almost as fast as the virus itself. So our jobs, my colleagues jobs became infinitely more complex because we serve, you know, people in particular older people in my line of work, and that's, everybody knows, that is the most vulnerable, virus wise population. So luckily, I have the tool kit and I knew how to explain to people how to define the problem. And just to illustrate it, a year and a half ago, I put together a very small group of coworkers, people who never heard about PDIA or IPP or any of that kind of stuff. And we decided that what we're working on is age, well, long and well known phenomena that started B.C. (Before COVID), but COVID changed everything and all aspects of work and workforce development, and especially once again for the vulnerable older adults. So when we put together the group of people to think about what to do next, our main challenge was that age is a barrier to employment. OK? So that small group of seven people got together every Tuesday morning, and over coffee we looked at the problem definition, we composed the problem. I literally showed them the PDIA toolkit, and they looked at it, so I explained where it came from. I also use a lot of videos from YouTube, and those are fantastic. Yeah. So I always refer to that and I play them multiple times. And in fact, every time I played, my team goes, oh, did you notice how Matt Andrews said this or did this and all that kind of stuff? So we watch the videos, we go through the process and we accomplish different tasks every time. When, again we started in July of 2020, we grew really quickly to include a much more ambitious number of people in our fishbone development. From seven, we went to sixty eight people. And then we ran the virtual PDIA exercise of defining the problem and deconstructing the problem exactly a year ago in February. Same thing, using lots of videos and slowly talking about problem definition, deconstructing of the problem. It allowed for very wonderful exercise, with sixty eight older job seekers, academics, people from the industry, people from the workforce development system. And we really took it apart and accomplished quite a bit on taking certain steps to improve the program. Now that didn't end either. And right now, in fact, this morning I was having a meeting with the same seven people and now we have a group of twenty one employers, local Massachusetts employers, who are working on the next iteration of the fishbone that we're putting together and trying to solve a new post-COVID problem of employers having lots of job openings and not getting a lot of candidates. And at the same time, all the workers are actively looking for a job and not getting interviews. What is up with that, right? So again, same same technique. Different environment. Nothing is in-person. It's all done through Zoom, and the process is the same. The challenges are slightly different, just technically speaking, but we tried to turn it into opportunity and bring a lot more people into the Zoom room that we would have been able to do it otherwise if we were meeting in-person. So our circles are growing. 

Salimah Samji I like that our circles are growing. It's really incredible to see the trajectory of you finish the program in December 2019. In 2020, you're already starting to do fishbones with your teams. You start with a group of seven. You move to a group of sixty eight. In fact, I recall when you reached out to me and said, I want to do this online with so many people. How do I do that? How can you help brainstorm? And it was really incredible to see how excited you were to want to bring these tools to your day job and then successfully doing it and continuing to do it. And we're in 2022 where you were still working, different problems, different groups of people, but the same tools. So I think that trajectory and also how you use the toolkit as a way to introduce it and the videos to give them the same kind of experience that you had in the classroom. 

Olga Yulikova That's true. 

Salimah Samji So the next question that I had for you is, you know, you've been a moderator for the IPP community of practice. What does the community of practice mean to you? 

Olga Yulikova It means actually a lot to me. First and foremost, I want to say that it means a group of friends, a group of colleagues, people who think alike, people who I can rely on as my team and it's also my security blanket and a secret weapon. 

Salimah Samji Secret weapon, secret weapon. Say more, a secret weapon, that's a first. 

Olga Yulikova So the secret weapon. So when in doubt, ask the IPP community and people usually jump to help. So when I'm totally lost or I don't even know how to convince my, let's say, authorizers to get me where I want to go. What do I do? I put the question to my IPP community and say, how do I go about that? How do I tell them? How do I make sure they give me the permission? Give me the green light to move forward? And I get really cool advice from everybody, from different countries. You know, problems are universal in our world of public service. Problems are quite universal. The same type of personality have a tendency to be in public service, right? And I'm not, you know, I'll be honest with you, I am a terrible sort of politician. I'm a worker bee, you know, I can work indefinitely. But when it comes to, you know, sort of building some kind of complex chess game of people and personality, I'm terrible at that. So IPP community comes into play in that regard. But also, Salimah, in terms of running my fishbowl exercises. After I reached out to you, I also reached out to the IPP community and Fuad, one of our former classmates, jumped on the opportunity to help me. He ran one of those zoom rooms with my colleague here in Boston. And he worked on the fishbone with him. And here comes the funny part. So the two of them were getting together to prep for the fishbone exercise. And so my colleague, Dave, who lives here in Boston on Eastern Time, asked Fuad to join him at 6:00 in the evening to run through the show. Fuad said, you know, it's a little earlier for me. And so Dave was like, what do you mean? It's a little earlier for you? And he's like, I'm in Nigeria. So Dave was stunned. 

Salimah Samji That's amazing. That's really amazing. He was probably wondering, how did you find someone in Nigeria to come and like man this zoom room for you? 

Olga Yulikova Exactly. That's what people say what? We're like yeah, we can do the meeting any time, by the way? It's funny. 

Salimah Samji That is indeed. Super. As part of this podcast series, we're doing rapid fire questions, so I'll now ask you our rapid fire questions. What are you currently reading? 

Olga Yulikova So I just mentioned to you that I'm really not good at certain aspect of working with people, so I am reading, believe it or not, first time in my life, the self-help books. And the ones that I am reading are written by a very wonderful psychologist and therapist, Harriet Lerner. And her books, the one that I'm reading today is The Dance of Anger and how to change the angry patterns in your relationships. Which, by the way, the book has examples of handling difficult relationship in the workplace. So professional and personal issues are important to me. So that's what I'm reading about right now. 

Salimah Samji It sounds fascinating. I really like the title dance and anger put together, right? I can almost see you usually think of dance, anger and fire, but I liked the use of dance and anger. What podcasts are you listening to? 

Olga Yulikova Ha. That's another thing. I've got really, because of COVID and the fact that I walk around or I'm at home alone a lot of times, so I started to listen to a lot of cool podcasts out there. The one I'm listening, I'm totally addicted to, is by a fascinating Russian author and historian Edward Brzezinski, who talks about Russian history and Western European history in general. His main take on history is the following: I'm trying to keep it verbatim. History in general, but Russian history in particular, is the arrow of politics pointed backwards. So, OK, what does that really mean? It means that in order to understand what's going on today, look backwards and take a look what happened in history. Then you would really know what you're experiencing today, politically in the moment, in the historical moment when that's happening. So I get a lot out of that. And plus he's a phenomenal storyteller and a wealth of anecdotes and information about historical figures ranging from Napoleon to Lenin, Stalin, and even artist, and movie stars. He's a lot of fun. And he's an older worker, he's eighty five. 

Salimah Samji Wow. That's how I want to be. Still active and being able to do things at that age, that's really incredible. What's your favorite part of the PDIA process, Olga? 

Olga Yulikova The favorite. Well, you know, that's very simple. Fishbone. 

Salimah Samji I had a feeling that you would say Fishbone. What advice would you have for people who are trying to work on public problems? 

Olga Yulikova You know, there's this saying that, by the way, I completely disagree with which is to do what you love and the money will follow. This never happened to me. 

Salimah Samji I think it didn't happen to many people. 

Olga Yulikova Exactly. You know, so that hasn't happened to me and a million other people I know. However, here is what I think is a better statement. Do what you love and the people will follow. That I've seen multiple times in my own world and professionally and as well as personal. So just to say that when, back in 2019, when I started the IPP class, I couldn't even define the problem that I was working on. You know, age discrimination in the workplace seemed so huge. I didn't know where to begin. So the course helped me develop a much better, deeper understanding of the problem I was trying to solve and who I needed on my team to help me solve this problem. So two years later, I definitely have a strong network of people who follow me and my adventures and who I'm able to bring along on the journey of fighting age discrimination in the workplace. So once again, do what you like and the people will follow. 

Salimah Samji And people will follow. It really is about building that community, building that network, building a movement, if you will, to be able to start working on this problem that you care so deeply about. Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your thoughts and experience with us today, Olga. 

Olga Yulikova My pleasure. 

Salimah Samji Thank you for listening to our podcast today. If you liked it, please check out our website bsc.cid.harvard.edu. Or follow us on social media @HarvardBSC. You can also find links and other information under the description of this podcast.