Working on the engine — using portfolio sensemaking to accelerate learning

by Diastika Rahwidiati

Photo by Nathan Duck on Unsplash

In their recent blog, Giulio, Alex and Bas outlined the goal of firmly embedding innovation within UNDP as part of reengineering the “mothership” to face future development challenges. As a first step towards this, we’ve been working with our friends from Axilo to develop a process that would help Country Offices evaluate the cohesion of their current portfolio of activities. Over the last four months, we’ve tested this approach with five teams: UNDP’s Access to Information initiative in Bangladesh, and the Country Offices of Cambodia, Mongolia, Indonesia and Malaysia. This post recaps what we’ve learned so far on how the process can be used to accelerate learning — and ultimately accelerate the effects of what we do as a development agency.

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)

This first round of sensemaking exercises was designed as a series of structured conversations that would provide a comprehensive view on the scale, diversity, impact and coherence across all activities that a team is currently working on. These discussions allow teams to abstract from the nitty gritty of projects to identify patterns, including latent capabilities that could be used more deliberately; synergies across activities that could be strengthened; and levers of change that could be used much more strategically. These insights can then be used to frame a future portfolio of options for teams to reorient their work around.

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.

The social learning process also creates a safe space for team members to question organisational practices that are normally regarded as given. Why, for instance, do we follow a particular process when designing a new initiative? Why do we measure project success this particular way? Are the measures of success that we use actually driving fragmentation across our portfolio? While the kinds of strategic organisational shifts that we are aiming for won’t be achieved through one-off sensemaking sessions, these kinds of conversations are a precondition of moving towards them.

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.

By visually mapping out these aspects, the portfolio mapping process allowed team members to identify much more quickly where one project could leverage off another project’s capability. The Mongolia country office, for example, realised that the trust-based relationship models developed by their Youth team to engage with subnational government could also be leveraged by its larger Governance programs to connect between national policies and how these are enacted at the local level.

Portfolio sensemaking sessions in UNDP Mongolia and a2i in Bangladesh.

Being able to simultaneously see common threads across an entire portfolio also brought to the surface capabilities that teams inherently knew they had, but have never deliberately articulated. A2I’s portfolio mapping discussion, for instance, revealed that although their original goal of digitising public services was to reduce the time, cost and number of visits required of citizens, a common unintended outcome across most of their projects was that the transparency afforded by these platforms increased citizens’ trust in government. The question that A2I now faces for their next phase is whether they should shift their lens and deliberately design activities for public trust-building, instead of aiming for improved service expediency.

This ability to comprehensively see our collective assets, capabilities, and ways of working is a precondition for accelerating the impact of what we do. Once we know what we have, we can act on our assets and reconfigure them in a way that is much more impactful to the problem that we are trying to address.

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?

From this first round of sensemaking sessions, what is emerging quite clearly is the potential value of UNDP as a connector across the different agents and actors whose involvement is necessary in tackling a development issue. In countries where governments are more than capable of making robust policy decisions, often what it needed is a partner that can connect across policy issues — “matching the pipes”, if you will, instead of building them.

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.

So far, much of the portfolio sensemaking exercise has been focused on strengthening a team’s own internal logic of why we do the things we do, what value we provide, and what our role is in the larger ecosystem. As a development agency — if we take the most fundamental meaning of these two words — our job is to effect positive change on a system. In order to do this, there needs to be a very clear link made between the intelligence that is generated through the sensemaking sessions, with the decisions that we need to make in order to create positive change. Inevitably, this will require a thoughtful balancing of priorities, resources, incentives and political feasibility from all the teams that we have worked with.

A significant part of the decision making relates to building the adaptive capacity of a country office. From the gaps and synergies identified through the sensemaking process, teams can more specifically map out what they need to do in 6–12 months’ time to close their knowledge gap in a particular issue. This could be done through a combination of horizon-scanning for the latest developments in a sector; mapping out existing solutions; and testing out a coherent set of new potential solutions. In effect, what we are trying to establish is an accelerated learning cycle with a much tighter feedback loop between understanding how we are going, and what we need to act upon in order to improve.

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

We’re hoping that this is the gearshift that we need to move away from the predict-and-control model of decision-making, towards something that allows us to quickly sense the changes in our environment, respond accordingly, and evolve based on what we have learned.

As you can see, this is going to be quite a long journey. We’ll be sure to update you on how we’re faring, and we’d love your thoughts and suggestions!

With much thanks to Giulio Quaggiotto, Alex Oprunenco, Bas Leurs and Luca Gatti for their inputs.



Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

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