Working on the engine — using portfolio sensemaking to accelerate learning

Photo by Nathan Duck on Unsplash

Making sense of our current portfolio

The portfolio sensemaking exercises are the beginning of what we envision will be at least a one-year engagement with each of the country teams to build capacity, accelerate learning, and increase relevance. These three processes can be seen as reinforcing loops: to increase our relevance in a rapidly changing environment, we need to accelerate the speed at which we absorb new knowledge and capabilities. In order to learn faster, we will need to continuously strengthen our skills. As we become more relevant, we also become better connected to our operating environment, which provides us with even more knowledge that we can use to adapt and evolve, and which (hopefully) reinforces our capability to deal with change.

Reinforcing learning loops. (Diagram by Bas Leurs)
Sensemaking Protocol Process Overview. (Source: Axilo)

A new social dynamics allows spaces for reflection

One of our main takeaways from sessions we’ve conducted so far is that the social process around mapping synergies across projects allow for different kinds of conversations to emerge. A deliberately short amount of time to share the details of each project and the unfettering of each project from its conventional thematic groupings do two things: it pushes people to think hard about what’s important to share, and it allows people to see connections beyond their own area of work. This in turn triggers interesting conversations on the cohesion of activities across the entire portfolio, as well as on the aggregated effect of our activities.

Making tacit connections explicit

Based on the initial feedback, one of the things that country teams appreciated the most from the process was the ability to comprehensively see the collective assets, capabilities, relationships and system effects of their entire portfolio of activities. These layers of knowledge are seldom captured in formal project documents. More often, this kind of knowledge resides within the minds, memories and lived experiences of people directly working on these activities.

Portfolio sensemaking sessions in UNDP Mongolia and a2i in Bangladesh.

Generating new frames

Consolidating collective knowledge, extracting insights, and subsequently transforming these insights into the kind of strategic intelligence that teams need to strengthen the impact of their work has ultimately led to interesting discussions on UNDP’s role. What value does an organisation like UNDP add, for instance, in a middle-income country like Indonesia or Malaysia? Do our partners appreciate us because we do something that they can’t do, or because we do things that they don’t want to do?

Creating new (micro)patterns of decision-making

As mentioned earlier in this post, the initial portfolio sensemaking sessions that we’ve conducted so far are the first steps of a longer journey that we’d need to sustain to accelerate the impact of the organisation. Now that we have a better sense of our collective capabilities, assets and gaps in comparison to the context in which we are operating, there are several things that are critical in our quest.

An accelerated learning cycle for UNDP. (Diagram by Bas Leurs)

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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.