Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation

Learning at the CEF

With knowledge becoming accessible at our fingertips, embarking on a learning journey has never been as easy as it is nowadays. For us, employees of a knowledge hub, continuously expanding knowledge through learning, traditional or online, is a privilege and responsibility that we have towards our beneficiaries, public finance officials.

To expose the officials of our twelve constituent south-eastern countries to the latest thinking related to institutional reforms in development, we have recently completed the Harvard facilitated massive open online course on Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). The approach proposes a new way of making institutional reforms.

Why reforms are not functioning?

As observed by Harvard scholars and World Bank’s practitioners, development always involves a change, and a change every time happens in a specific context. When practitioners forget this, reforms are seldom optimally implemented. To send a signal to international donors, countries in development often introduce new and seemingly great looking policies, but these do not necessarily improve the state’s actual capability. When (local) context is taken into consideration, reforms bring new functionality, even though their design might not be superb looking. To put it simply, reforms are not functioning because form does not equal function.

What is PDIA?

PDIA is a new approach to doing reforms. Developed by Harvard professor Matt Andrews and his colleagues, the approach combines three crucial dimensions that allow practitioners and policy makers to make institutional reforms differently and with a greater degree of success. According to professor Andrews, for real changes to happen in governments, reforms should (i) facilitate problem-driven learning and (ii) involve stepwise interventions that allow processes of purposive muddling and action-based learning, and (iii) they engage broad sets of agents providing different functional contributions that ensure reforms are viable and relevant.

Argued by another Harvard professor Lant Pritchett, to mobilize enough energy for finding solutions and new practices resulting in improved state capability, reforms should start with a concrete and measurable problem. In PDIA, problems are entry points to finding solutions. The likelihood of implementing reforms successfully increases when they are problem driven.

To solve problems and not just transplant or mimic externally derived policies and reforms, local change agents should be skilled and authorized for actually solving them. PDIA requires political and organizational authorization to do things innovatively and differently. This is called authorization of positive deviation.

Once we understand who the change agents are, what follows in PDIA is iteration and adaptation. By way of experimental learning, we incrementally work our way towards what we believe is going to solve the problem, without fixed plans or roadmaps.

The remaining PDIA’s principle pertains to practices. Practices get adopted when people believe that they are the superior way of achieving institutional goals. Thus, positive practices scale through diffusion.

How is PDIA different? 

PDIA differs from other development approaches in that it moves from critique to response. It is primarily concerned with building state capability to deliver on complex and potentially contested reforms in areas like governance and justice. For reforms to not just look good on paper, but actually improve the system’s functioning, it seeks answers to concrete questions: what needs to be done, by whom and in what way.


Deconstructing complex problems in Ishikawa/Fishbone Diagram.

PDIA differentiates from other methods concerned with reforms implementation also in its higher focus on the enabling background conditions that make it possible for systems to be functional. The idea of adaptation which puts under question the notion of doing reforms by adopting external rules – best practices – is also unique to the approach. As argued by professor Andrews and his team, PDIA is about facilitating processes of finding and fitting locally relevant solutions to locally felt problems.

Our experience with PDIA

Beyond any doubt, doing PDIA is hard work. It includes hard thinking, designing, implementing, re-thinking, repeating, and so on and on towards the end goal – improved state capability. Its potential should be appealing to policy makers and practitioners facilitating reforms in institutional development. We have found our PDIA learning journey rewarding and most relevant for the work that we do in our constituent countries.



Andrews M. 2013. The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development, Cambridge University Press, p. 215–218

CID Harvard. 2014. How is PDIA Different? Available at: (accessed 21 July 2016)

CID Harvard. 2014. Form ≠ Function. Available at: (accessed 21 July 2016)

CID Harvard. 2014. What is PDIA? Available at: (accessed 21 July 2016)

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