Reflections on ‘Portfolio Sensemaking’ — what we learned at UNDP Lao PDR

by Ricarda Rieger, Resident Representative

UNDP Lao PDR team members in a project sharing session

Does a small office of 40 staff really need a sensemaking workshop? Skeptics might wonder and determine that as a small Country Office team we should already know what we are doing. There is some truth to this, but after spending 2.5 days making sense of it all, in a Sensemaking workshop facilitated by the Regional Innovation Centre in Bangkok, I have come to the conclusion that the whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts.

One would think that in an office of 40 staff everyone knows what the other is working on and how the projects are interconnected. But what a surprise to find out that this was not the case. As a newly arrived manager of the office, I received briefings, explanations and felt relatively comfortable with the portfolio of projects and had already made some mind maps of my own. However, when we asked project managers to present their respective projects in 3 minutes, following the structure: what is the problem, what does the project do and what is the impact — many follow up questions arose.

On the first day a group of five predetermined mappers had the task to capture information as they heard it according to a pre-designed criteria, e.g. scale of impact, connections/interlinkages, systems effects and levers of change, intent and capabilities. At the end of the day a quick analysis revealed that our work is mainly at the national — ministry level and in some districts, but not at the provincial level. It also became apparent that we do a significant amount of capacity building and attempt some innovation, yet without having a common understanding of what this means. What did this reveal? Several projects would benefit from working more closely with each other or using the community radio stations to spread or gain information at the local level.

A facilitated process of learning loops with a small team from the office looked for patterns among the findings from day 1 and helped us in day 2 and 3 to move from insights to propositions and potential actions.

From patterns to insights- our smaller group of in-house colleagues, serving as analysts, gathered on Day 2 as part of this process.

We were very fortunate that the workshop coincided with the onboarding of three new accelerator lab colleagues that same week. They were thrown in at the deep end and were positioned as the core group of mappers and pattern seekers. No better way to learn what the UNDP is doing in the country than sensing the common vision and aspirations of the team! No better way to prepare them for the Accelerator Lab boot camp! And most importantly, no better way for everyone in the office to understand that we all are the Accelerator Lab in Lao PDR.

As a result of the exercise, we have built a stronger team in our office and have renewed energy to engage with national and local counterparts.

We have realized that if we cannot tell a story in house, we probably have a weak story for the external public. We also noted that we will need to work on our internal processes to free up energy and time for experimentation and exploration.

In these few days we have learnt that it is true that one can change the learning muscle. The sensemaking workshop provided space to see patterns, understand that it is ok to not know everything and to determine to research the gap, to question our assumptions, and provided quite a few ‘ah ha’ moments.

That same week I reviewed a new project document and looked at it with a different frame than I would have a week earlier. We will now need to keep that learning muscle alive and are already thinking when we will redo the exercise in the office or when we will offer it to the UNCT or the various sector working groups. We are curious and will challenge each other to remain so and share the insights. Follow more of what we are doing at @UNDPLaoPDR or see the background of the Sensemaking Practice at UNDP on this previous post here.

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Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

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