Can we use strategic innovation to tackle development challenges?

In the last few years there has been a growing interest from the public, private and development sectors in adopting a systems lens to develop portfolios, capable of addressing complex issues, and thus moving away from linear planning, short-term interventions or one-off projects. To support transformation and build more resilience, we need to catapult strategic innovation to the center of the way we work.

Never has the interdependence of our world been experienced so starkly by so many at the same time. Covid-19 and the response to it has shown us the realities of the interconnectedness of our system, with one action leading to secondary and tertiary consequences across the globe. Leaders and decision-makers are being urged to shed non-systemic thinking and embrace a broader and deeper understanding of causation and consequence. It has also given us at UNDP a period of intense reflection on how we can reshape our approach to tackling development challenges.

In the last few years there has been a growing interest from the public, private and development sectors in adopting a systems lens to develop portfolios, capable of addressing complex issues, and thus moving away from linear planning, short-term interventions or one-off projects. To support transformation and build more resilience, we need to catapult strategic innovation to the center of the way we work. This approach helps us make sense of complex environments and uncover the dynamics that have the greatest potential for impact.

Visual: Systems Transformation Framework by CHÔRA Foundation

The pandemic has accelerated this process by forcing us to apply a systems lens to our work immediately. We at UNDP North Macedonia, with support from the UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub, decided to apply the Systems Transformation Framework, developed by the CHÔRA Foundation, to our strategic planning process and our response to Covid-19. We utilized this framework which envisages several key modules – (1) problem space design, which is a tool to examine and analyze the root causes of development issues; (2) portfolio design (programs, projects, etc.) to be put into motion; (3) sensemaking, a tool to extract intelligence that will help us to consistently adapt and recalibrate our portfolio. Such an approach to planning builds in flexibility and learning, allowing us to respond effectively when facing various types of shocks, including public health and economic crises, and natural disasters.

We pioneered the design and implementation of the first fully digital workshop and the first one to focus on applying systems thinking in support of strategic country programme planning. As this is a nascent process, we learned along the way, constantly adjusting and refining the methodology to fit our needs on a country level and at UNDP.

Having identified migration, climate change, pandemics and governance as key development challenges, we were introduced to this approach and worked online in groups to represent each challenge as three-dimensional problem spaces. Imagine a problem as a landscape with three distinguishing geographical features, each representing a single dimension of that problem and each interacting with the other dimensions, as well as a lateral dimension. By the end of the workshop we formulated an intelligence brief, a strategic argument and our intent for the four challenges we selected, to serve as the foundation on which to eventually build both UNDP’s and the government’s capability to design a dynamic portfolio that will facilitate informed policy action.

Our four key insights on the process thus far:

  • Defining the problem: To successfully address complex issues, it is essential to take the time to unpack the problem. This approach encourages the separation of problems and solutions, steering us away from an over-reliance on unexamined assumptions and a tendency to jump to conclusions about what is the best solution to the problem. For example, it helped us to understand that if we want to tackle out-migration then we should focus directly on its root causes: the low quality of life, jobs, education, healthcare and the high levels of pollution.

  • System transformation: We were and are aiming at transformational change, and that is linked to our integrator role. There was no clear framework for how to best accelerate such a transformation. In that sense, this approach can serve as an instrument to break the silos, both in our minds and in the way we do programming. Our ultimate goal is to support systemic change in the countries in which we operate. But to succeed in that, UNDP will need to lead the way by first showing that we can transform our own system. If we want to be credible and persuasive, we will have to walk the talk.

  • Shifting mindsets: When defining problem spaces and the strategic intent, the framework pushed us further to think beyond the UNDP practice areas and into visualizing problems in all their complexity, along with our role in addressing them. It revealed both the strong and weak points of our current programme, while guiding our understanding of where more action is needed to instigate and/or accelerate the desired change. The consistent application of this approach by us, accompanied by building government capabilities, will support elevating our thinking beyond individual projects and siloed policymaking and help us develop portfolios that will generate the learning needed to drive transformation and build system resilience.

  • Leadership: Developing this leadership capability requires internalizing the approach, which takes time, organizational adjustments and a mind-shift. One workshop is not enough. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires leadership at UNDP country offices to build the capability to dynamically manage development portfolios, constantly adapting and informing policy and decision-making processes based on insights. Such strategic leadership requires a profound understanding of complex system dynamics and the implementation of transformative policies and interventions. Hence, for this framework to be effectively applied and yield results, these capabilities will need to be a part of the core competencies of UNDP leadership at all levels and of the key champions in government institutions leading the transformative efforts.


The Way Forward

For us at UNDP North Macedonia, the next steps involve taking this work to the next level of portfolio development by going through the full process – problem space design for selected issues, mapping existing projects and identifying areas where new options can be designed, including in our response to Covid-19. This will help us distribute risk and ensure we are on a path for systems change.

We will continue to work out loud and to exchange insights with partners, other UNDP country offices and the regional hub that are keen to explore and address uncertainty. To weather future shocks, both UNDP and governments need to build resilient and flexible systems capable of addressing complex challenges.

With many thanks to Luca Gatti, Founder and Chair of the Managing Board of the CHÔRA Foundation, for his input, mentorship and inspiration.

Never has the interdependence of our world been experienced so starkly by so many at the same time. Covid-19 and the response to it has shown us the realities of the interconnectedness of our system, with one action leading to secondary and tertiary consequences across the globe. Leaders and decision-makers are being urged to shed non-systemic thinking and embrace a broader and deeper understanding of causation and consequence. It has also given us at UNDP a period of intense reflection on how we can reshape our approach to tackling development challenges.

In the last few years there has been a growing interest from the public, private and development sectors in adopting a systems lens to develop portfolios, capable of addressing complex issues, and thus moving away from linear planning, short-term interventions or one-off projects. To support transformation and build more resilience, we need to catapult strategic innovation to the center of the way we work. This approach helps us make sense of complex environments and uncover the dynamics that have the greatest potential for impact.

Visual: Systems Transformation Framework by CHÔRA Foundation

The pandemic has accelerated this process by forcing us to apply a systems lens to our work immediately. We at UNDP North Macedonia, with support from the UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub, decided to apply the Systems Transformation Framework, developed by the CHÔRA Foundation, to our strategic planning process and our response to Covid-19. We utilized this framework which envisages several key modules – (1) problem space design, which is a tool to examine and analyze the root causes of development issues; (2) portfolio design (programs, projects, etc.) to be put into motion; (3) sensemaking, a tool to extract intelligence that will help us to consistently adapt and recalibrate our portfolio. Such an approach to planning builds in flexibility and learning, allowing us to respond effectively when facing various types of shocks, including public health and economic crises, and natural disasters.

We pioneered the design and implementation of the first fully digital workshop and the first one to focus on applying systems thinking in support of strategic country programme planning. As this is a nascent process, we learned along the way, constantly adjusting and refining the methodology to fit our needs on a country level and at UNDP.

Having identified migration, climate change, pandemics and governance as key development challenges, we were introduced to this approach and worked online in groups to represent each challenge as three-dimensional problem spaces. Imagine a problem as a landscape with three distinguishing geographical features, each representing a single dimension of that problem and each interacting with the other dimensions, as well as a lateral dimension. By the end of the workshop we formulated an intelligence brief, a strategic argument and our intent for the four challenges we selected, to serve as the foundation on which to eventually build both UNDP’s and the government’s capability to design a dynamic portfolio that will facilitate informed policy action.

Our four key insights on the process thus far:

  • Defining the problem: To successfully address complex issues, it is essential to take the time to unpack the problem. This approach encourages the separation of problems and solutions, steering us away from an over-reliance on unexamined assumptions and a tendency to jump to conclusions about what is the best solution to the problem. For example, it helped us to understand that if we want to tackle out-migration then we should focus directly on its root causes: the low quality of life, jobs, education, healthcare and the high levels of pollution.

  • System transformation: We were and are aiming at transformational change, and that is linked to our integrator role. There was no clear framework for how to best accelerate such a transformation. In that sense, this approach can serve as an instrument to break the silos, both in our minds and in the way we do programming. Our ultimate goal is to support systemic change in the countries in which we operate. But to succeed in that, UNDP will need to lead the way by first showing that we can transform our own system. If we want to be credible and persuasive, we will have to walk the talk.

  • Shifting mindsets: When defining problem spaces and the strategic intent, the framework pushed us further to think beyond the UNDP practice areas and into visualizing problems in all their complexity, along with our role in addressing them. It revealed both the strong and weak points of our current programme, while guiding our understanding of where more action is needed to instigate and/or accelerate the desired change. The consistent application of this approach by us, accompanied by building government capabilities, will support elevating our thinking beyond individual projects and siloed policymaking and help us develop portfolios that will generate the learning needed to drive transformation and build system resilience.

  • Leadership: Developing this leadership capability requires internalizing the approach, which takes time, organizational adjustments and a mind-shift. One workshop is not enough. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires leadership at UNDP country offices to build the capability to dynamically manage development portfolios, constantly adapting and informing policy and decision-making processes based on insights. Such strategic leadership requires a profound understanding of complex system dynamics and the implementation of transformative policies and interventions. Hence, for this framework to be effectively applied and yield results, these capabilities will need to be a part of the core competencies of UNDP leadership at all levels and of the key champions in government institutions leading the transformative efforts.


The Way Forward

For us at UNDP North Macedonia, the next steps involve taking this work to the next level of portfolio development by going through the full process – problem space design for selected issues, mapping existing projects and identifying areas where new options can be designed, including in our response to Covid-19. This will help us distribute risk and ensure we are on a path for systems change.

We will continue to work out loud and to exchange insights with partners, other UNDP country offices and the regional hub that are keen to explore and address uncertainty. To weather future shocks, both UNDP and governments need to build resilient and flexible systems capable of addressing complex challenges.

With many thanks to Luca Gatti, Founder and Chair of the Managing Board of the CHÔRA Foundation, for his input, mentorship and inspiration.

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