Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) at the Innovation Capability Center

The Innovation Capability Center of Bremen University is following an “iterative and opportunity driven strategy” for its own development. We are incorporating aspects of agile developments to be able to adapt to new situations. We knew from our own methodological background that this method is a suitable approach for capacity development in the field of innovation. In our work we are applying also principles of explorative learning like: do it – reflect on it – learn and improve. Our University e.g. has a strong profile in Research Based Learning and we were also to incorporating Action Learning methods in our work. According to our professional expertise there is a need to put the focus on a principle that is currently taking a very positive development and most likely will set standards in the future:

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)

For some people this term might sound very cryptic. But the term or better the methodology is not new at all. You will find that the ideas were introduced in a working paper from 2012, “Escaping capability traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)” by the Authors Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock. Matt and Lant were working at Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government and they still do and Michael is working at World Bank as Lead Social Scientist in the Development Research Group. To understand the concepts that we are partially piloting in TRIFOLD you have to consider the following paper:

Building capability by delivering results: Putting Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) principles into practice

Authors are again the ones mentioned in the article above, plus Salimah Samji also a researcher from Harvard University and it was published in 2015 in “A Governance Practitioner’s Notebook: Alternative Ideas and Approaches” by the OECD. People interested to learn how to apply PDIA in your own projects will have to download the eBook “Building State Capability” for free.

Our center want to build a bridge between our work and PDIA principles. In several of our  projects we had followed the PDIA principles adapted to knowledge- & technology transfer, valorization of research results and innovation. Elements of our operative work in capability development are:

  • Capacity development measures should be driven by local problems, following a guiding vision (of a higher level target).
  • Problem solving should be understood as a spiraling progress with discrete entities of very small success stories that build on each other.
  • Each little success pushes you on a slightly higher level (own learning, increased self-confidence, extending personal networks, stimulating creativity, etc.) and in parallel it introduces a small impact to the local system (showing partners what can be achieved, showing more concrete examples to the management and raise confidence, teach-in certain new processes to the surrounding system, etc.) .
  • All these development measures have to deal with a huge portion of uncertainty as each iteration will have to adapt to a new situation due to continuous changes of the recipients (entering a next level) and a change of the local system (by the small impacts that are caused by the iterations).

Taking this position we are talking about an explorative procedure in capability development rather than the engineering of a linear predictable development.

Classical project management sets a clear target and provides clearly specified steps (considering also the amount of resources needed and its timing). Beside this, it has a strong focus on the solution to be installed and not on the problem to be addressed. A classical project management using predefined milestones and outputs has difficulties  adapt to a unexpected dynamic of a system. Classical project management can react on unplanned events by mitigating its effects  by a functioning risk management. So even the unplanned events, are part of the predefined planning. To react on opportunities  or to deal with serious bottlenecks would most often require a redefinition of the milestones and outputs. It has to be understand that a process like this is not designed for a dynamic adaptation as it goes along with a huge overhead. The system is not capable to react flexible to everything that is causing a deviation. As a consequence the huge opportunity for self-optimization is not exploited. Theoretically it only can fulfil an expectation – that was defined at the begin of the process. The system is destabilizing when expectation was too high and does not match with reality. But even worse, real opportunities that might help to excels the expectation can’t be integrated in a development in an appropriate way in many cases. E.g. if you plan to build a bridge it is most likely not a good idea to apply explorative methods. Projects like construction work do have a clear target – e.g. to have a bridge within a specified timeframe and with specified costs. So a classical project planning can be useful in this case.

An explorative procedure is mainly controlled by positive and negative experiences along the path. And the taken directions are influenced by the quality of the experience made (positive: let’s do more like this or we can rely on this from now on; negative: we have to avoid too much of this or we have to concentrate more on this very relevant aspects). Philosophically,  it is interesting to realize that each success story is highly connected to all the previous iterations – they are the sum of all the previous implications. That is the reason why it is so difficult to predict and plan the path of a solution from the beginning as the process as such is continuously changing also the surrounding environment. Due to the permanent reflection in each iterations and due to the correction or update  before a next iteration takes place a feedback loop is established. This feedback enables an adaptive behavior to the overall system. This principle is very similar to an adaptive controller. So it is part of its design to optimize the behaviour by being sensitive to situations that creates deviations in any direction.

PDIA Principles (

The Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation also proposes an iterative experimentation based approach, that is driven by local problems. The authors of PDIA describing the method capable in dealing with the challenges of very complex and implementation intensive activities, similar to e.g.:

  • a dramatic lack of impact dealing with complex and interconnected challenges,
  • push of best practices from donor organizations; about “alibi” activities that are caused by “isomorphic mimicry” which also satisfy the donor
  • immunizing systems for change by steadily pushing changes without solving problems
  • need for change of the methods
  • problems solved on paper but not in reality
  • stiff systems that don’t allow experimentation and failures

A very good citation from this work, that exemplary summarizes the principles of their ideas is the following:

“The PDIA approach argues that we don’t need more “experts” selling “best practice” solutions in the name of efficiency and the adoption of global standards; we need instead organisations that generate, test and refine context-specific solutions in response to locally nominated and prioritised problems; we need systems that tolerate (even encourage) failure as the necessary price of success.”

Changes to deal with the complexity of real world challenges are hardly seen. The authors also are explaining this in clear terms:

“When facing implementation-intensive or complex, adaptive challenges, the development community frequently deploys the same methods and modalities of engagement they use for logistical or policy problems. This happens not because the professionals in development organisations are uncaring, naïve, indifferent, ignorant or inadequately trained but because of powerful imperatives generated by the core logic of the ecosystem within which they work, and in turn by the organisations comprising and reinforcing that ecosystem or “field” in which they operate.”

And furthermore they state:

“In principle, most development professionals will nod in solemn agreement with such sentiments – everyone concurs that recipient countries “should be in the driver’s seat”, that “context matters”, and that “there are no silver bullets” – but in practice this notional consensus is routinely violated; indeed, the imperatives of the aid architecture within which development is conducted essentially require that uniform responses are the norm.”

The work of our center is oriented toward the principles of PDIA as It provides the right scientific methodological frame for us. PDIA it is truly milestone! For many people who are working in capacity development it has to be understood as a real empowerment. An empowerment to do developments differently in capability development. This also applies to approaches heading in the same direction like e.g. Adaptive Management approaches and CLA (Collaborating, Learning and Adapting). Our center is providing adaptable management tools, that can be used to support iterative developments like innoSPICE for Process Capability Determination for knowledge- and technology transfer, valorization and innovation.