The story of the Montenegrin non-profit Korak sa naukon (KSAN), which translates to Step with Science, begins with the belief that science should be accessible […]
Together with the EU, we are kicking off an online course on portfolio thinking. We will be updating this blog with weekly live entries, snippets and insights from the course designers, facilitators, speakers and participants following each session. The goal is to open a space outside the online classroom to speak about portfolio thinking, the challenges in applying it, the course creation and journey, and link up with other practitioners working to apply this approach. Check back to this article to see the latest updates.
9 August | Yaera Chung
As we wrapped up our portfolio induction course with our colleagues from the EU and UNDP, who are part of the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative, our very last session specifically focused on what we mean by operationalizing the portfolios through dynamic management and how we pitch our thinking to our partners. We were joined by Luca Gatti from the Chora foundation, who explained the overall principles of how we dynamically manage portfolios through sensemaking, and Agnes Chimbiri from UNDP Malawi, who shared the country office’s experience on dynamically managing their governance portfolio. Here are several key takeaways from the session.
Dynamic management of portfolios occurs through iterative sensemaking. As we have repeatedly highlighted, the importance of having “learning portfolios” means that we are not implementing a basket of solutions to a problem, but rather embedding a strategic decision-making mechanism to understand the relationships and intervene. The dynamic management of portfolios requires an iterative sensemaking process that supplies constant learning. A well-designed learning portfolio will be constantly in need of knowledge and resources, and the iterative sensemaking of a portfolio will enable such knowledge creations and resource allocations through a constant flow of extracting data and information. Therefore, the sensemaking mechanism serves as part of the portfolio ‘brain’, whereby the thinking occurs across the activities and stakeholders, and recommendations are formulated to inform decision-makers.
Provide baseline conditions and build capabilities for dynamic portfolio management. Sensemaking of a portfolio is not an easy task, especially for the newcomers to the portfolio process and systems thinking. The example from Malawi could help us find an entry point for system change – identify baseline indicators of the system that would trigger the need for change and then, keep track of these changes in order to further expand our knowledge throughout the process. When UNDP Malawi initiated dynamic portfolio management, the very first step was to build such conditions and capabilities within the team and to engage relevant stakeholders (governments and development partners) in their learning journey. Iterative sensemaking, with clear baseline indicators, has helped the country office to build a repository of insights and actions for the portfolio. What’s more, the partners were also invited to join their sensemaking sessions to learn together and make strategic decisions accordingly.
Our six-week portfolio induction journey has ended, yet a more exciting one now awaits. As the Mayors for Economic Growth project will launch its very first cohort on applying a portfolio of strategic options this fall, we will start utilizing the learnings from the course and applying sensemaking and dynamic management to our portfolios. We will continue sharing our experiences in applying a portfolio approach across cities in our region, because a learning journey never ends.
5 July, 2021 | Aditi Soni and Andreas Pawelke
Session 4 was all about portfolios: what is a portfolio, why having one in the first place and how to design and manage portfolios.
In the development sector, there is a growing interest in portfolio approaches and a lot of ongoing learning of what portfolios are and how they could address some of the weaknesses in the way development interventions are designed, financed and implemented.
In this session we experimented with a slightly unusual learning format. Instead of running presentations and exercises on the why, what and how of portfolios and the way we commonly apply them in the development sector, we reached out to people who work with portfolios in areas very different from ours: finance, art and policy.
We recorded interviews with experts from each of these three domains and asked them the same set of questions:
During the session, we split the group into three teams with each of the teams being asked to extract the relevant information from the interview recordings in order to respond to the four questions on a shared table displayed on a Miro board (see the image above for a summarised version of the table). As the teams reported back to the entire group, we built a collective understanding of the different definitions, objectives and approaches to portfolios. We’ve highlighted some of the relevant insights below:
Why have a portfolio?
While an investor’s portfolio is all about minimising risks and maximising return on investments through exposure to different sectors and businesses, artists use portfolios to showcase their work as their visual résumé, demonstrate their skills and get public recognition and interest from potential clients. In the context of policy, portfolios are used to overcome the challenges of project-based approaches, e.g. short term thinking, and as a way to recognise interconnectivity and allow for collaboration and scaling while simultaneously working on it.
What is a portfolio?
In the case of finance, a portfolio is a collection of assets – and in the case of private equity, it is defined as a collection of investments (in different companies, across different sectors etc.). In the world of art, a portfolio is the “collection of the works of the artist” that help them position themselves and their expertise and interest areas. And finally, in public policy, a portfolio is a set of interrelated programmes, projects and activities linked to a strategic goal.
How do you design a portfolio?
For finance, guidelines exist to design a portfolio based on what returns must be achieved on investment. Financial portfolios are also about risk mitigation and achieving set goals on profitability and returns. In the context of art, the designer of the portfolio gets to decide what goes into the portfolio based on aspects such as client needs, and how might they best communicate their skill sets through process and their identity as an artist. For policy, designing a portfolio is a result of formulating a mission shared by multiple stakeholders in the system and its context.
How do you manage a portfolio?
For a finance portfolio, investing in a portfolio is the start of a long journey, which means it is important to dynamically manage the portfolio after investing, via assessments around the value generated. For an artist’s portfolio, it is important to focus on a topic of interest in detail instead of going too broad and wide with the range of work that can be offered. Over time an artist’s portfolio can be expanded to add different ‘views’. Finally, for policy, it is important to take a deep dive into the set of mechanisms around the portfolios like support for collboation, emerging practices and any new support mechanisms in the system, followed by continuous learning and analysing of the outcomes. The policy portfolio expert we interviewed uses a learning history approach to collect, share and analyse what can be learned from the process of portfolio implementation.
This session also helped us tie a link between various external outlooks toward the what, why and how of portfolios and relate them to the context of M4EG in the upcoming sessions, using examples and drawing parallels across sectors.
22 June 2021 | Gaia Bellavista
We kicked off our third session of UNDP’s portfolio development course by introducing an exercise consisting of a simulated conversation between a portfolio expert and the mayor of a city. Having previously explored the “why” of the portfolio process, this role play gave a safe space for participants to actively reflect on the newly acquired knowledge and make sense of new concepts by applying portfolio thinking to an upcoming initiative in their municipality. Inspired by Edgard Dale’s cone of learning, recreating a hypothetical conversation with a high-level decision maker outside the EU/UNDP sphere to discuss the value of portfolio thinking becomes a way to incorporate a direct and purposeful experience into the learning process. In the spirit of the philosopher Giambattista Vico: We only know what we make.
The discussion we had with the participants on the outcomes of the exercise sparked my reflection on the learning journey that organizations such as UNDP and the EU need to undertake to be able to embrace complexity in their work, and on how this effort should be met by a shift in mindset on the demand side. First, it is important that, as change agents, we acknowledge that innovation starts with us: with the way we rethink our roles, our identity as an organization, but especially, by the way we make sense of complex concepts ourselves and are able to deliver meaningful purpose. Are we able to fully embrace this new thinking in our work and reflect its value to external stakeholders? And to what extent can we integrate this new logic in our programming and operations so as to make them coherent with our ambition to tackle complex developmental challenges?
Second, and strictly linked to the first point, is the ability of organizations working with portfolio thinking to identify and work with decision-makers, who are willing to embrace a transformational approach, learn from each other and embrace a long-term perspective. However, contrary to the mayor in our group exercise, while positive attitude is not a constant, skepticism tends to be the most common response to innovation. The need to build a new type of demand to embrace the change in the way we manage complexity is thus paramount, and it all starts from the ability to codify emerging transformation approaches into practice to build credibility and encourage adoption.
Our learning journey has just begun, but the progress and shifting mindset are already remarkable. We are thrilled that we will be able to discover and discuss, together with our participants, the “what” and the “how” of portfolio thinking in the next few weeks, and hopefully, start building a learning path towards the next four years!
16 June, 2021 | Tina Stoum
In the second session of the UNDP and EU portfolio development course, we began discussing the mindset shifts needed for embracing complexity. It was my first introduction to Indy Johar, Co-founder and Executive Director of Dark Matter Labs, and his focus on learning and humility struck a chord. Two aspects keep coming up for me during these last two sessions: moving from expert/solution provider to ‘listener in learning mode’, and moving from a command and control approach to ‘let’s see where this takes us (within the system) and adapt and manage risks as we go along’. Easy to grasp, hard to do.
First, on the ‘taking off the expert hat’, we are socialized to present our organisation as an advisory and (signature) solutions provider. We hear that our core resources are shrinking and that our member states (rightfully) keep questioning our ‘value addition’. How many talking points to senior management do we write for them to meet governmental counterparts, starting with the ‘why choose us’, i.e. we bring you value through our network, reach, and ‘best practices’ and lessons from around the world. It seems counterproductive to start the conversation with: ‘well, we do not know what the solution(s) are or what transformative change will look like, but we have some decent tools and can walk the path with you’. It’s intriguing, applying that humility, but we might need to work on a new pitch and narrative with regard to our relevance and legitimacy, to convince ourselves and sit more comfortably (as we listen and take less space), not to mention for those talking points. (And the possible gender lens and dynamics here would be interesting to explore.)
Second, the command and control approach, which as many things, including our logframes, was taken from the military then integrated in leadership and (people and project) management, allows us to believe that we can make the world ‘complicated’ (rather than ‘complex’) and nicely arranged in boxes of predictability and hence easier to measure (i.e. control). This is a more comfortable approach for many (and me included), as we like to ‘structure’ things, often in a linear or roadmap kind of way (e.g. work plan with clear results & indicators). As we (hopefully) move further toward learning and adapting instead of trying to control through predicting, I am curious to see what our new tools and resources might look like. How do we showcase that we can indeed be kept accountable (delivering results with public funds) even when that logframe is (finally) tossed out? No single point solution or pathway here.
14 June, 2021 | Lejla Sadiku
We spoke to Indy Johar, from Dark Matter Labs, about how the role of international organizations is changing and what he anticipates is coming beyond the bend. In his view, the focus needs to shift towards decentralizing capabilities for system transformation, engaging in long-termism for the descendants we cannot imagine, and working on transnational value-creation. Besides listening to Indy, we recommend you also read Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, that Indy references, and The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric.
7 June, 2021 | Andreas Pawelke
We’re kicking off an online course on portfolio thinking that we’re jointly running with and for colleagues from UNDP and the EU who are part of the recently launched Mayors for Economic Growth initiative.
Through the course we want to support those colleagues in applying a portfolio approach in the development and implementation of local economic plans with municipalities in the Europe and Central Asia region. By incorporating a systems lens through which local governments can address challenges from multiple angles to build initiatives that are coherent and connected, we’re hoping to move away from single-point solutions to a portfolio of strategic learning options.
Working in and with complexity is not something that can easily be taught in a classroom, much less so when the classroom is virtual. While we acknowledge the limitations of teaching the concepts, methods and tools rather than experiencing them, we’re trying to provide a learning environment that makes it easy (and fun) for everyone in the course to learn about working with complexity through the design and management of portfolios following several simple principles*, two of which we describe below:
Adopting a beginner’s mindset: Having a certain degree of expertise in a particular field can make it extremely difficult to teach the very basics of a topic. The speakers in our course know things the audience doesn’t – they’ve learnt from testing different ways of applying the methods and tools they teach and they have developed mental models that are new to the participants. In every session, we try to break down concepts into key components, use analogies and provide anchors that we find helpful in our own learning journeys.
Facilitating active learning: Anyone who’s ever run a fully online course, workshop or training knows how difficult it is to provide an environment for active learning. As course designers and facilitators, it’s our responsibility to capture the attention of participants, activate any prior knowledge they might have and create opportunities for students to learn through individual and collective reflection exercises. We’re trying to achieve this through a combination of teaching formats ranging from pre-recorded videos to live inputs and group discussions, collaborative tools such as Miro and Menti, and by using examples from sectors where portfolio approaches are being applied ranging from the future of work to depopulation and governance.
*Some of our learning principles are inspired by these and other online teaching resources. Feel free to get in touch if you want to learn more about how we go about designing and teaching the course as a whole or individual modules.
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