Portfolio approaches to tackle complex challenges. Notes on an emerging practice

In the last few years, in particular, we’ve seen the increase of calls for the public and development sectors to adopt more experimental approaches, across a spectrum that goes from speculative design and probes all the way to randomised control trials. As the incoherence of linear planning and single point solutions with issues like climate change or rapid urbanisation become increasingly apparent, organisations are starting to explore “portfolio approaches” as a way to better come to grips with complexity. One can only really understand a complex system by interacting with it, and the dynamic management of a portfolio provides a stronger basis for accelerating learning and adaptation than the rigidity of five year plans.

  • How is running a portfolio different from “just having a bunch of projects” or pilots? This seems rather basic, but the term portfolio is often used quite loosely, which is not always helpful
  • Why is a portfolio approach more suitable to dealing with complex challenges? And is a portfolio approach suitable to all kinds of domains, or does it mostly apply to innovation activities?
  • What are the organisational capabilities (needed) to effectively and dynamically manage a portfolio? How can we get started when our existing systems and structures are geared towards linear planning and predictability?
  • Is portfolio ultimately about the management of projects or investments (the way the term is often used in common parlance) or is it about accelerating organisational learning?
**Generated by Chôra Foundation
  • How can we design a portfolio so that it becomes a learning and sensemaking system within a problem space?
  • What breadth and diversity of activities (strategic options, projects, programs, experiences, investments) do we need at play in the problem space?
  • How do we deliberately design each activity so that it can help us discover new capabilities, resources, models and transformational opportunities?
  • How well is the portfolio connecting to and supporting the organisational intent?
  • Do we have the breadth and diversity we need? What do we select and why?
  • How well is this set of activities positioning us to generate intelligence and produce transformational effects in the problem space (current and potential value)?
  • What role does each individual activity play in the portfolio to generate intelligence and produce transformational effects?
  • What partnership modalities will create the best conditions for constant action-learning from our activities?
  • How can our activities be iteratively (re)designed to help us discover new capabilities, resources, models and transformational opportunities?
  • How can we make sense, generate intelligence, and layer the learnings from our activities over time to accelerate and multiply the impact of the portfolio?
  • How can we generate strategic arguments to support decision making and commitment to transformative action?



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Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

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