© Keshini Wijesundera 2020

Rooting deeper and beyond a glittering frost of the sensemaking


By Enrico Gaveglia, Deputy Representative and Marian Theresia Co, Results Based Management Analyst, UNDP Philippines

This blog post tells an account of the UNDP Philippines Country Office’s continuous journey of implementing a modified Portfolio Sensemaking Protocol to meet specific needs and integrating it within business processes to generate more meaningful conversations on the quality and relevance of its interventions.

We do not need to remove the dust from the scripts of P.D. Ouspensky to realize that most of the time we are in a state of “mechanic” execution of our purpose. Project Cycle Management has been for long understood and conducted linearly. Processes have locked professionals into it and reduced the quality of experiences. At times, because we realize also in development, our job has to do with people’s life we push our experience towards an “emotional” reaction of events on the ground. We center our investment into responding to the subject of our observation until the next subject comes in sight. We are trying to move forward. To inject a dynamic driver in our portfolios and build a new set of skills within the office on how to be more strategic and adaptive, we need to intentionally keep and control the organization’s attention, holding on the subject of observation. We need project managers, programme officers, us all to be ‘intellectuals’ of development while repositioning UNDP in the Philippines at the center of a policy dialogue often marginally touched by our legacy projects.

Five months after the first “Desperately Interesting” sensemaking session, our Country Office (CO) re-committed to carving out three days out of business as usual and plunging into the ‘whys’ (purpose), ‘whats’ (offer), and ‘hows’ (effects) of a number of pivotal projects selected based on their i) investment size, ii) significance in terms of results achieved, and iii) potential for scale. All this supported by the handy one-page project summary template we had used in our original iteration of the sensemaking exercise:

Project Managers used this template to introduce their projects to a wider group of interested country office colleagues, some of whom they hadn’t even met due to being dispersed in several project management offices across government departments. The stringent architecture of the summary sheet, though, lends itself to just being a conversation opener. It necessitates by design a participant led round of spontaneous and inquisitive questions that make the project representatives reflect on the respective design and implementation strategies of the projects they are presenting about.

From the discussions that ensued, insights regarding opportunities and challenges were mapped by a set of dedicated observers at their “windows” (which are specific thematic topics of interest that are being listened for). We opted for the newly instituted UNDP Accelerator Lab heads to play the role of “window mappers”, which served the purpose of getting them quickly acquainted with our portfolio of projects and at the same time challenged them to meaningfully interact with the group.

The collision between our UNDP AccLab and our existing programme portfolio is deliberate, as different set of competencies such as design thinking and innovation sparks heat with the doers in development. From these curated observations from the “windows”, a set of claims were generated, which have then been translated into actionable items for the CO to take forward — all of which were packaged into an Intelligence (hopefully intelligent) Report.

The 3 days stolen from our day-to-day business was a forceful segue to introduce us to a guided experience on sensemaking and a country office leadership attempt to institutionalize the protocol to coincide with year-end activities demanding a moment of meaningful reflection.

Our journey to adapt and internalize the process

Management at one point had cautioned us on claiming the ‘sensemaking’ brand because, while we found value in this structured form of reflection that enabled us to revisit results and reframe strategic directions, we also needed to make tweaks to the standard methodology of the protocol to maximize its use and make it more responsive to the needs of the office. A bit like when a franchise adjusts its product to the taste of the local market to increase sales.

To this end our customization had the following objectives, which guided how we altered the sensemaking protocol:

1. To understand how we can strengthen synergies between existing investments (inter project);

2. To identify what is missing to achieve greater impact from what we have in our portfolio (intra project); and

3. To identify where we need more/less interventions (the pipeline and portfolio rationalization) to accelerate the potential to achieve country programme outcomes.

We also acknowledge that the real utility of the exercise is in the reflection process, in surfacing learnings, and in the identification of patterns that could translate into advocacy, policy levers, experiments that the CO can engage in, and even project design components. We quickly jumped at the opportunity to conduct the customized version of the Sensemaking approach at the end of the year to inform the preparation for the year’s Results Oriented Annual Report (ROAR), next year’s CO Business Plan (COBP), and the pipeline agenda for the remaining 4 years of the country programme. This meant expanding the objectives to include the following:

4. To surface key results achieved during the year and how they have contributed to Country Programme Document (CPD) outcomes and outputs;

5. To surface factors that contributed to/hindered the achievement of planned CPD and project-level results; and

6. To collectively identify concrete opportunities for pipeline development to meet CPD objectives.

In order to meet these objectives, we expanded the selection of projects that would undergo the process for a full house discussion on ALL interventions in the 3 thematic areas that the Philippines and UNDP cooperate in — Climate Action, Institutions Strengthening, and Peace. We brought in our friends from Xchange, an incubator for early-stage social enterprises, to work with the CO to design the tweaks and bring in an external perspective into the room. By doing so, we offered our ‘internal cuisine’ to external scrutiny, which helped to keep us grounded and humble and challenged our notions about the vibrant development space in the country.

Step 1: Project reporting — essential to building team common ground

We started with usual 5-min project presentations followed by a series of questions and answers that generated insights for the appointed windows to map and summarize for the whole group.

Step 2: Portfolio mapping — to obtain insights into the outcome team’s self-perception of connectedness and potential for connectedness

One tweak that we introduced was the conduct of a ‘portfolio mapping’ exercise where strings were used to identify current and potential linkages among projects in the same portfolio, between projects and other portfolios, and between projects and country programme results.

Step 3: Pipeline brainstorming — to invite speculation about the possible, unconstrained by what already is

Another tweak we did was to conduct a ‘pipeline brainstorming’ exercise. For this bit, participants were given a blank slate to identify opportunities for pipeline development, starting with the question: “if you were to design an intervention that would contribute to the achievement of a particular result (in the form of CPD outputs), what would you require and who or what would you tap?” After participants identify needs, partners, resources, and contexts, we clustered these in recurring themes and had open discussions to expound on the points, obtain consensus, and extract ideas for pipeline opportunities.

Valuable insights were obtained throughout this initial 3-step process. We were able to have deeper conversations about ROAR components that are often overlooked, such as the sections where COs are asked to reflect on whether contributions to specific CPD results are in line with the theory of change (the intent of the programme) or where we are asked to assess the unachieved results for the year and identify corrective actions and required theory of change adjustments.

Ideas for the CPD pipeline agenda were likewise generated. The big difference being that project colleagues were now able to contribute to the discussion and the identification of opportunities that usually only happen at the programme-level, making for a holistic approach to pipeline ideation. Several opportunities for scaling up pilot initiatives or pursuing emerging impact on the ground also surfaced.

The addition of the portfolio mapping exercise was appreciated by the participants, who found that it contributed to improving their level of understanding of what other projects were doing and that it sparked interest to work together after seeing points for convergence. It was good to see that the connections identified and the conversations sparked throughout the one-day Portfolio Sensemaking sessions continued well beyond the confines of the room.

As we revisit the process for future iterations, several things have to be kept in mind: While the windows were initially assigned to observe patterns of opportunities and challenges, which made their reflections broad and to some extent generic, they could also be made to identify patterns for a specific topic (e.g. connections with a thematic area of concern) or issue (e.g. a problem that needs to be solved). In terms of participation, there is clamor from the participants to involve external partners in the Sensemaking Protocol session in order to get their perspective on how UNDP can better mainstream project interventions and strategies to meet their goals and needs.

The journey continues…

Step 4: Translating insights into claims and into actions

To close the loop on the process, a closing workshop will be organized to bring all the teams together to jointly reflect on the claims generated throughout the 3 separate sessions. It is envisioned that the actionable items that will be identified will directly contribute to improving the coherence of the country programme portfolio and its impact on desired goals.

Moving forward, having registered and recorded our first “delirium tremens in the sensemaking”, we have kept the idea to its simple ambition: “creating an institutional protocol to dissect and accelerate internal learning and impact”. Moving beyond the glitters of a first round of trials across the region, we in UNDP Philippines have learned that:

· To institutionalize any reflection Protocol, we need the commitment of all staff to be able to integrate the exercise in existing and routine (mandated and at times not fully embraced) mechanisms such as the ROAR or similar exercises;

· To master the exercise, we will have to repeat it over and over again to push forward the dialogue from progressive gains of portfolio awareness achieved in previous sessions;

· The quality of the reflections can always be tested and the bar of meaningful discussions elevated each time to a higher, more strategic level, by augmenting the capacities and competencies of participants.

At the bare minimum we will meet a collective awareness of our portfolio in the search for ‘oneness’ of our programme. An integration at portfolio level which has not always been the ‘norm’ in the Philippines experience.

The higher aim is to develop and spread a new set of capabilities of strategic leadership in the Philippines with the hope that by tracing similar patterns in other COs, we would signal the start of an organizational transformation.



Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.