How can we accelerate the effects of portfolios of development projects?

A sensemaking and acceleration protocol for UNDP

By Diastika Rahwidiati and Giulio Quaggiotto

After 8 months of road testing in around 15 country offices mainly in Asia Pacific (but also Africa and Eastern Europe) last week we released UNDP’s sensemaking and acceleration protocol. It’s been an intense journey of exploration we embarked on with Luca Gatti and partners, which we documented along the way. At the heart of this journey is the ambition of kickstarting the process of developing and leveraging a new organizational capability: that of generating actionable intelligence from a portfolio of existing projects to accelerate the impact of the work that we do as a development organization. We’ve been asking ourselves:

· Can country offices, regional and global programs dynamically manage project portfolios, constantly adjusting and renegotiating their intent as circumstances around them change often in unpredictable ways? (building a concrete practice around the often elusive concept of “adaptive development”)

· Can we ask honest questions of each other around the coherence and diversity of our interventions so that we avoid the false traps of reducing our options to single point solutions and magic bullets when dealing with the complexity of development challenges? (the “blockchain to save them all” syndrome)

· Can we extract actionable intelligence from a set of interventions that allows us to accelerate our impact, make a compelling case for transformational change and bring fresh insights to donors, policy makers and communities we work with?

Ultimately, the goal is for UNDP and for our partner governments to use this capability to skillfully navigate the complexities of the shifting context around us. And yes, as we learn by doing, we’ll make a few mistakes along the way!

The acceleration imperative

Our curiosity around sensemaking and acceleration dynamics was triggered by a number of considerations:

- The increasing realization that “the speed on the outside is greater than the speed on the inside” and the need to respond to a fast changing environment. In the Asia Pacific region, the struggle to maintain relevance and coherence in the face of rapid social and technological change is particularly palpable.

- The recognition that our systems for learning are much less evolved than our systems for reporting and accountability — and the two have have distinctive functions. Also, like many other development organisations, we recognize that our existing planning and monitoring processes are ill equipped for system transformation and dealing with complex challenges, and we need to get serious about finding sensible, practical alternatives to logframes and five-year plans.

- The acknowledgement that, when dealing with complex issues, quantitative methods cannot provide sufficient guidance to decision makers since by definition past behavior is no predictor of future trends (an MIT systematic review of automation predictions is a good case in point). We and our government counterparts will need the support of rigorous qualitative methods that can provide orientation and establish relevance in the face of a fast changing context.

- The launch of 60 Accelerator labs, “the world’s fastest learning network around development challenges” triggered an internal reflection on the different temporal dynamics of innovation (prototype/test/scale something new) and acceleration (affecting the dynamics of what is already there, in place). If we want to have a chance of achieving the SDGs (and give full meaning to our “integrator” role), we need to significantly alter and accelerate existing development trajectories. We don’t have the luxury of waiting. In a race to tackle complex challenges like climate change or poverty reduction, organisations will increasingly differentiate themselves on the rate of learning as well as the way they rethink how to learn. We wanted to provide our accelerator labs with a core capability that could bolster UNDP’s learning muscle.

The protocol at its core acknowledges that there is an existing portfolio of development projects, say, in a country office (in the case of a government counterpart it could be a set of policies), to which it applies a sensemaking capability in order to generate actionable intelligence, thereby increasing coherence of interventions and inducing acceleration effects. All of a sudden, what were, for example, a number of disconnected interventions on, say, health and environment are collectively (cannot emphasize this enough since this is a social process) recognized as associated to a particular intent and capability (say, fostering citizen engagement). By seeing them under a new frame, these activities are attributed a new meaning (they all of the sudden become “visible”, malleable assets) and one can initiate actions that can bring about system acceleration effects (e.g. “how do we further leverage our citizen engagement expertise, which we didn’t recognize before, across the portfolio?”). In a donor driven organization like ours, where portfolios often grow organically over time and available envelopes of funding, this means a fundamental shift towards deliberately connecting and shaping interventions so that they can learn from each other and aggregate their effects over time.

New capabilities for policy innovation

For our country offices, this means embarking on an innovation journey that starts from a different place than where we would have focused just a year ago, when developing organizational capability for innovation was more often equated with prototypes development, adopting new tech approaches, or putting people through design thinking workshops.

This journey brings us to the heart of the mothership and requires us to develop capabilities around:

· asking questions of organizational identity and intent, which is a precondition for sensemaking

· abstracting from the ins and outs of individual projects and organizational silos to surface the logic and coherence (or lack thereof) of existing interventions

· focusing on reflection and questioning to be able to extract meaning and intelligence from an existing set of experiences (reflection being an often underappreciated enabling condition for innovation)

· building compelling arguments for change, that can be used to actively shape decisions. There is no point in having a portfolio approach if the organization does not modify its behavior and intervene on existing projects based on the learning!

At a practical level, this has translated in a “minimum viable product” — a 3 day experience that provides country offices (and/or government counterparts) with the chance of experiencing the protocol in its entirety. But of course, that is just the beginning of the journey — building the capability of adaptively managing a coherent portfolio is not something that is done overnight. It is a social and iterative process that creates meaning and acceleration effects by aggregation, over time. As a team, once you start seeing patterns and connections between previously isolated parts of the portfolio as a result of this process, it becomes difficult to collectively “unsee” them. This is a very different dynamic from, say, hiring a consultant to do a review of an existing portfolio or build future scenarios.

An interesting side effect of the journey so far (and again, we are just at the beginning) is that as we started “working out loud” we found that a number of other development organisations are currently exploring portfolio approaches in their work, as part of the continuous quest for a replacement to logframes and rigid planning processes. Only last week we took part in an International Development Innovation Alliance gathering that was dedicated to comparing notes on portfolio and sensemaking methodologies. We look forward to continuing the conversation with other practitioners that are exploring this space.

Giulio Quaggiotto is Head of the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre of the Asia Pacific, Diastika Rahwidiati is Head of Experimentation. If you are curious to what the ‘Sensemaking’ process looks like on the ground level, you can see reflections by the Resident Representatives of Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Thailand, with the Maldives and Fiji coming online next.

Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

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In the Asia-Pacific region, we are interpreting the renewed mandate for innovation as an opportunity to reframe: follow us and contribute as we explore

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