Portfolio Sensemaking Experiment: We stumbled, we designed, and we delivered!
As a newly minted fresh off the boat AccLabbers into UNDP, we were taken through a month-long onboarding process designed by the Global Accelerator Lab Team enabling us to understand and incorporate a new way of working and learning.
Among many exciting new concepts that we learnt, one of the most important lesson was understanding the Principles of the Accelerator Labs and incorporating them into our work. Though the focus of the AccLab is on innovation and learning, it does emphasize on learning together as a collective and prioritize building on what already exists. Sensing or sensemaking is at the heart of this approach.
Inspired and eager to kick start our learning cycle, we initiated our first sensemaking activity within our own UNDP multi-country office to better understand the work currently being carried out and about the projects or programmes in the pipeline. This also included learning about the operational side of things.Through the sensemaking process we were able to generate some key insights that we believe can accelerate the learning at the country office and grow the collective impact.
Insight #1 - Explore ways to enhance open communication among personnel by breaking layers of communication barriers thereby increasing collaboration within UNDP teams and other units.
Insight #2 - Surfacing projects and programmes intersectionality and interlinkages and by building crossover bridges, impact can grow significantly.
Insight #3 - Bringing in mechanisms to boost office morale and setting process to speed up internal processes will improve team dynamics and energy.
Insight #4 - Creating safe space for the units to co-design and co-create evidenced based projects or solutions that will increase confidence and accelerate learning.
Our sensemaking and exploration landed us a brilliant opportunity – being included in the process of designing the annual staff retreat agenda. We saw this as a strategic platform to both deepen our sensemaking process while also generating value for the country office by creating action points for the discovered insights.
We found an intense process called Portfolio Sensemaking that would suit our needs and embarked on an experiment to design and facilitate Portfolio Sensemaking for our MCO. Before we go further on what we did, here is a little bit more about Portfolio Sensemaking.
Portfolio Sensemaking is a process that extracts insights, induces learning, and creates meaning from experience. In simple terms therefore, it is a way of reflecting as a group on past activities and what can be derived from them to inform our future work.
When we focus too much on the project delivery, we often find it hard to reflect on two quite fundamental questions about our portfolio of activities:
· Why are we doing these particular projects at this particular point in time?
· Are the things that we are doing, coherent with the problem we said we would try to solve?
We can apply a sensemaking process to a portfolio of projects and activities in a Country Office to understand their alignment with the original intent (“did we do what we set out to do?"), their coherence (“are the activities we implemented a good fit with the nature of the problems we are facing?”), and crucially, identify opportunities to accelerate the effect of our work.
The Annual Staff Retreat seemed to be the perfect platform to introduce this exercise and after multiple negotiations we managed to get a day to introduce a teaser version and check the response. The classic AccLab approach of having a proof of concept and a prototyping before the full large-scale intervention!
Looking back, we can break down our journey of Portfolio Sensemaking Experiment into three clear and distinct stages:
Stage 1 - Pre-workshop Planning and Designing
a. Learning the methodology - We connected with the regional bureau in Bangkok to understand the methodology and process. During the pre-covid era, the Regional Innovation Centre of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific (RBAP) used to visit the country office to facilitate this workshop. We figured that our MCO wanted to take up this exercise in 2020 but Pandemic had a different plan.
So, this year 2021, AccLab reached out to RBAP to learn the methodology and facilitate the exercise for the office. Usually, RBAP does this as a 10-month program, or a shorter version could take three days of intense workshop along with weeks for pre and post workshop sessions. We however had just one day to experiment.
b. Contextualizing the methodology: Fiji is closet to us in terms of being a SIDS multi-country office and they concluded a successful Portfolio Sensemaking session last year. We reached out to our sister lab in Fiji to understand their approach and what worked well for them. We also looked up reports and process that other countries like Viet Nam and Turkey. The insights from their work and experience deeply informed us in our own design helping us contextualize making the experiment more relatable.
c. Designing what works for us: Once we contextualized the design and format, we had two more challenges – 1) How to compress the ideal 10-month/ three days format to 1-day one? 2) - To dovetail the Portfolio Sensemaking into Annual Staff Retreat design. Thankfully, we managed to both by creating a teaser prototype to introduce the thinking frames and extended invites for detailed deep dive sessions to be introduced eventually.
d. Pre-workshop preparations – Thanks to our remote collaboration, we have become adept at using online collaboration tools that can help us collect get data and insight that we otherwise would have collected during the workshop. This not only reduced the session time but also helped us plan better. The two exercises that helped us were – 1) Mural Exercise to understand unit’s understanding about What ROLE does UNDP want to play in Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tokelau? And what EFFECTs would this role be? And 2) Review of the UNDP retreat document from 2020 in particular the focus on the overall strategic vision currently being developed.
Stage 2 – During Workshop Facilitation
a. Introducing portfolio Sensemaking as an experiment – At the onset of the first session, we had shared that we too are beginners in the process and that this would be a journey taken together as a team. Not making tall claims about us being experts ensured our colleague were more patient with us as we introduced the thinking frames and facilitated the session. This also made it less stressful knowing that we had permission to fail. The session did achieve what we hoped and planned for and by the end of the session we had a clear agreed upon Intent and Role statement to guide our work at UNDP and bring out more alignment.
b.Creating Space for everyone to participate - We were clear about our role as a facilitator and ensured we stayed clear from giving ‘advice’ rather safe spaces were created for everyone to contribute. Safe spaces are a key component in any workshop, and this greatly assisted the AccLab in enhancing communication among colleagues. The strategic use of Balcony views to tap into emergent intelligence is one of the steps from the Portfolio Sensemaking exercise that was well received and appreciated by our colleagues. As a result, challenges that may not have been apparent before the experiment were unpacked and reflected upon This was a breakthrough for both the staff and AccLab as it allowed for honest reflections affecting the performance of colleagues and paved the way for the remaining sessions to become more effective when implemented.
c.Making it Fun – We do serious work, but do we need to take ourselves too seriously all the time? Absolutely not. Swallowing a full egg to building with LEGOs were some of the energizers that ensured high energy level throughout the high intensity thinking day. Icebreakers and energizer activities should never be underestimated. The fun activities planned were deliberately designed to build cohesive teamwork and enable open communication.
Stage 3 – Post Workshop Feedback and Next Steps
a. Feedback and Survey - One of the final activities for any workshop is to gain an understanding of the success or failure of an experiment. An online evaluation form was sent out to all colleagues to gauge their feedback of the Protocol sessions. Some reflections from colleagues includes but is not limited to the following:
a. Follow up with the unit for next steps – As we hoped, we got a big break here. We are collaborating with E&CC Team on their CERO Waste Project and creating a portfolio of experiments
b. Portfolio Sensemaking Experiment II – Remember we said this Portfolio Sensemaking experiment was just a teaser? Once we concluded the Portfolio Sensemaking experiment, we shared an open invitation to all our colleague to do a detailed Portfolio Sensemaking exercise with us. We are in conversation with some of colleagues and figuring out when to do a detailed full-fledged Portfolio Sensemaking exercise. Hopefully you will hear about how that went in one of our blogs soon.
We hope you enjoyed reading this piece. If you are curious about Portfolio Sensemaking and would like to know more about it, do reach out to us at email@example.com.
Co-authored by Pragya Mishra. Head of Experimentation, and Kaisarina Salesa. Head of Exploration