PDIA in Practice 9: Crawling the Design Space for Possible Solutions

The Practice of PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results Podcast is a 12 part series that will walk you through the PDIA or Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation approach to solving complex development problems. 1,500 development practitioners in 90 countries have used the PDIA approach. Learn more about PDIA or download our free DIY Toolkit. Watch the Practice of PDIA videos.


Camila Lobo [00:00:05] Welcome to part nine of the practice of PDIA Building Capability by Delivering Results Podcast Series. This twelve part series based on a video series used for the PDIA online course. We'll walk you through the PDIA or problem driven iterative adaptation approach to solving complex development problems. More than 1500 development practitioners in 90 countries have used a PDIA approach. We believe that the answers to complex problems do exist and can be found, but must emerge through active iteration, experimentation and learning. In today's podcast, Professor met Andrews will discuss how to crawl the design space for possible solutions. 

Camila Lobo [00:00:50] Matt, can you share with our listeners why it is important to pay attention to one's own context when beginning the process of identifying potential solutions? 

Matt Andrews [00:01:00] Many times we do reform or we do policy interventions. We get carried away with the solution. We. We get carried away with our idea because it's such a good idea. We've seen it work in other places and we really itching to introduce it into our context, into the place where we are, where we know that there's gaps and things don't work that well. Then we introduce it. And two or three years down the line, we find that the project didn't complete or the solution didn't really work that well. Or the minister who said that she supported it is no longer there. And it all just fizzles away. One of the reasons we think that this happens is because we don't pay enough attention to the context. 

[00:01:41] We rarely get carried away with the solution at the expense of paying attention to where we are. Where you are there's always stuff. There's always past solutions. There's always people with interests. Some of them will support you. Some of them won't support you. Now, we often don't see these things because we don't look at them and we don't pay attention to the context. But another reason why we don't see them is because the things that you can see in the context are often not the full story. We like to think about an iceberg metaphor to reflect on this. Think about an iceberg. If you're watching the ocean, you see the top of the sea and you see the top of the iceberg say, well, that's not a big iceberg. Underneath, however, it's really significant that the top of the iceberg in many places is where we see the rules and the laws and the regulations. It's where perhaps we would see the revealed political identities and the relationships that people have with each other. Underneath it all, the social norms are the cultural understandings of things. 

[00:02:54] And those things are often deep and they often are very, very difficult to describe. But typically they the reasons why people don't kind of follow through on things. I'll give you a very, very short example. In Malawi, the country had a big corruption problem and introduced an anti-corruption commission that not a whole lot of stuff above the iceberg. It had rules that had regulations that had a budget. It had a building. It had people who worked there. Those people were meant to be investigating corruption claims, etc., etc., etc.. Ten years into its existence, the country had a huge corruption crisis. And people say, well, what have you been doing? Answer was not that much. Fifteen years afterwards, same thing happened again. 

[00:03:39] When we started to look at this, we said, well, you do have these things over here, but actually there's nothing under that iceberg because the whole values that underpin that kind of model aren't there. In Malawi, which you rarely find in Malawi, was a completely different iceberg that overwhelmed it where they were norms and there were cultural frameworks and there were political relationships that emphasized relationships that you don't want to call corrupt, but certainly were leaning in that direction. And that gigantic iceberg that went deep into the society just kept on getting in the way of all the interventions that were being attempted. Now, what this requires requires that if you're serious about policy and you're serious about reform, that you pay attention to the icebergs in the context where you're working, you pay attention to the hidden parts of the icebergs that are underneath the water. And you pay attention also to kind of how big your iceberg is and whether or not your iceberg is actually competing with those. It's a very important lesson about context and one that we ignore at our peril. 

Camila Lobo [00:04:49] Thanks, Matt. In development. External best practice is almost always used as a solution. In reality, however, finding solutions to tough problems is not so simple. How should our listeners think about this? 

Matt Andrews [00:05:03] So finding solutions to tough problems is really difficult. Usually you have one thing to go by. You have the thing that you do already that you know doesn't work. You know how to do it and you know that it works where you are, that you know that the politics makes allows that to happen. You know that you have the capacity, but you also know that it doesn't deliver you what you want to have delivered. Now, I've drawn something here to represent thatand essentially it's a it's a basic shot that shows on this axis we know that it works. And on this axis, we know that it's possible. And this is where current practices. We know it's possible, but we also know that it doesn't work very well. Not typically in development. If you take this problem to any development organization, they're going to come up with a solution that is up in this corner over here, which is some external best practice that they know works. But they don't know it's possible because it's never been tried in your context. So this could be an education solution coming from Sweden. This could be a budgeting solution from Australia. It's something that looks great and it's something that if we could pull it off, would be fantastic. But, you know, those places are not the places where we constantly working. 

[00:06:19] So we have this really, really difficult situation where we have two options. One is stick with what we have and the other one is do this thing over here. Oftentimes what we find when we try the external best practice is we find that it doesn't work where we are. It's not possible and we can't pull it off. Or we do it in a way that doesn't make it possible for our context. Now, I think that it's really, really sad that we sit with these kind of two approaches and we can't think of anything else, because what I've drawn here with these two different axes is actually a space that I call the design space, which says you actually have a two dimensional space of many, many, many different options. You have some things that we would call positive deviance that are actually best practices from within your context that people in your context are doing in the health literature we find, for example, that in places where a lot of kids are dying and the infant mortality rate is high, you'll find that there are some villages or even some families where the kids don't die and the people go in and they say, what is it that makes them a positive deviant? And you find that they eat differently, you or they wash their hands or something. And then you say, well, what's interesting is that they do it within that context. 

[00:07:32] So if we can understand why they do it, can we take that and essentially just move up from current practice to there? The other thing is that there's a lot of latent possibilities to build on current practice. My friend Nadeem Matta at the Rapid Results Institute was constantly pushing into the space by saying to people, look, let's take the capabilities you have now and let's really try and do something amazing in the next hundred days. And all he's doing is he's pushing up here into a space where they're achieving their goals better. But they just building on the capacities that they have. Now, what we say is, instead of limiting yourself to current practice or external best practice, recognize that there are many other options in your design space. And what you need to do is you need to learn how to crawl around this design space and find a solution that works best for you in terms of something that's possible and something that actually gets the job done. We think that this is probably in most places going to end up with a hybrid that's somewhere in the middle of that space. But you only get into the middle of the space by using a different bunch of different techniques. One of them could be rapid results. Another one could be taking external best practice and trying to learn from it, not just replicate it. Another one could be looking for positive deviance and learning from the positive deviants and trying to replicate it. Putting them together gets you in the middle, something that's useful calling the design space, not limiting yourself to one or two options. 

Camila Lobo [00:09:06] Thank you for listening to part nine of the practice of PDIA podcast series. Tune in to listen to part 10 where we discuss authorization to learn more about crawling the design space in PDIA download our tool kit at BSC.CID.Harvard.Edu.