#91 Rethinking Development: UNDP’s Journey from Projects to Portfolios



#91 Rethinking Development: UNDP’s Journey from Projects to Portfolios

Join us as we delve into a thought-provoking conversation with Milica Begovic and Giulio Quaggiotto, current and former Head of Strategic Innovation at the UNDP, as they shed light on how they are reshaping the approach to global development by transitioning from traditional project methods to a portfolio approach. Tune in as we unpack the need for this systemic change and recognize how deep organizational shifts are required to the complexities of today’s most pressing challenges.


Youtube video for this podcast is linked here.


Podcast Notes

At Boundaryless, we always believed in the power of learning from parallel avenues, and this episode with Milica Begovic and Giulio Quaggiotto sharing their experience in the development sector, is a testament to that.


Milica, known for her innovative drive, and Giulio, with his extensive experience in public sector innovation, share their insights on UNDP’s recent shift from a project-based to a portfolio approach in tackling global challenges.


They explore how to address systemic changes, emphasizing the importance of broadening strategies to create sustainable impacts. 


Taking practical examples from the ground, they discuss the role of cities in driving community-focused innovation, demonstrating the power of portfolio governance in achieving shared goals.


This episode is a compelling call to action for rethinking not just development work, but also what startups and corporates alike could learn to imbibe, in an increasingly complex ecosystem.


Key highlights

  • Embracing a complex systemic approach over a linear project approach can ensure impactful response to the unpredictable ways of nature. 
  • The quest for coherence and the need for optionality have to co-exist while addressing dynamic complexities.
  • Organizational agility and deep structural changes are crucial to drive systemic innovation 
  • Skin in the game through co-ownership of risks and success can lead to improved sustainability of solutions.
  • Coherence attracts leverage when multiple independent entities come together to solve a problem, and this ensures an increase in an individual’s accountability towards the outcome.


This podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsSoundcloud and other podcast streaming platforms.


Topics (chapters):

(00:39) Guests Introduction 

(01:28) Transition from Project approach to Portfolio approach

(16:04) Trickling down of Optionality

(21:45) Generating Outcomes in Emergence

(26:53) Role of Skin in the Game

(37:12) Building Narratives in a Portfolio Switch

(45:21) Uptake of Portfolio Approach

(49:24) Composability and Modularity in Portfolio Approaches

(54:05) Arriving at common census in a fragmented world

(01:02:16) Breadcrumbs and Suggestions

(01:03:54) Closing


To find out more about their work:


Other references and mentions:


Breadcrumbs and Suggestions: 


Recorded on 18th October 2023.


Get in touch with Boundaryless:

Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at https://boundaryless.io/resources/podcast



Music from Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here: https://blss.io/Podcast-Music


Simone Cicero 

Hello, hello, hello everyone. And welcome back to the Boundaryless Conversations podcast. On this podcast, we meet with pioneers, with thinkers and doers, and we talk about the future of business models, organizations, markets, and society in this rapidly changing world. Today with me, there is my usual co-host, my colleague at Boundaryless, Shruthi Prakash, who is joining from Jakarta. Hello, Shruthi.


Shruthi Prakash 

Hello everyone.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you for being with us. And we also have two that I would describe as relentless explorers of innovation in the development space. We have Millie Begovic who is heading strategic innovation at UNDP. Hello, Millie.



Hi guys, thanks for having me.


Simone Cicero

And we also have Giulio Quaggiotto that is the former head of UNDP strategic innovation besides being a research fellow at MIT and UCL, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. Hello, Giulio, nice to have you with us.



Thank you for having me.


Simone Cicero

Thank you both. Thank you both. So, okay, let’s just start to get into the conversation. 


So as loyal listeners know, on this podcast, we do not just bury our heads in startups and corporate, but we rather look at how broader systems are changing and we look beyond sectors. So I was thinking that as a new provocation for our audience, we could think of getting inspired by a community and a couple of people that have already also personally, I also had the chance to work with Boundaryless, we collaborated a little with UNDP. 


And so, as I’ve been following UNDP work in the last few years, I would say, from an original transition towards more like ecosystemic approaches that started probably around 2017-18, if I remember well, your team and you both in your…


Giulio in your previous role and now Millie and together both of you and with other countless great people, you have been working a lot into transitioning from a traditional approach that is normally project-based into what you call a portfolio approach to strategic innovation. Since this transition is happening in the business space as well, I thought that this inspiration would have been beneficial for our community.


And so as a first framing moment, maybe, I will leave it to you, each of you, one of you, you can take your turn to introduce us to the tenets, the key tenets of this transition, why, how, and maybe the key challenges that you are seeing.



Okay, so Simone, thank you so much. And it’s a nice way to start a conversation. So maybe I take us back to, you know, I would say the first decade of innovation in UNDP really kind of focused on bringing in different methods from outside the organization within the development in hope that those methods would be able to create a space for change. So design thinking, crowdfunding, blockchain, all of these different movements and methods that were sitting largely outside the organization. The premise was, how can we rapidly bring them in to UNDP with our partners, prototype them on the ground in hope of creating those spaces for change? And this first phase, I would say, culminated with UNDP investing into the largest learning network of accelerator labs in the world under the assumption that with the fastest learning network we would be able, we trade  in learning as a currency in order to tackle SDG and the planetary issues. 


And this created quite a lot of energy, it created quite a lot of positioning, it helped attract very interesting organizations and profiles that probably before would not have considered UNDP a partner to play with and work with. But at the same time, the feedback that we have been hearing from governments, from mayors, from our also offices on the ground is that maybe the pendulum have swung too far to one side, that we as an organization need to be ambidextrous, meaning we need to invest equal amount of effort and attention, not just in kind of moving fast and rapidly prototyping and experimenting a kind of an incremental side of things, but also to explore what are the conditions for doing deep systemic change. 


What does that look like? And in that way, it’s not either or, it’s an organization that’s able to pull on different levers as the need arises. So when we started looking into that question, we kept being brought back to project as a vehicle through which we engage with partners and deliver, if you will, support policy program support. And it isn’t just an instrument right a legal instrument that can be hacked one way or another. But we kept being brought back to the philosophy and the way of understanding the world that project really kind of encodes, which is an understanding that if we only have enough expertise and resources, we will be able to solve the issues, to sort of believe that the world is predictable and stable and we will be able to crack it only if we are able to bring together enough resources and obviously the world that we live in kind of proves that is not the case. 


So our thinking is that if we are to start pursuing system transformation, the vehicle through which we are to do that would need to shift from project, meaning a very siloed linear understanding of the world, towards something else. And portfolio is our hunch for a vehicle that is able to help us understand the drivers as opposed to symptoms of the issue. A vehicle that can help us generate more options in tackling very complex issues and bringing together the resources, the partners, the expertise around some of the big questions that we have to deal with. 


And just today, as a plug, we have some new research out that basically shows that out of half of 160 countries that we looked at, half of them, for every one percentage point increase in GDP, corresponded with an average of 64,000 people per country falling into extreme poverty. 


One, and the other one is that in 80% of poorest countries, the increase of GDP, actually came with the increase in carbon emissions. So the type of growth that we had is really not working. And what we have as a response to that, we have to invent. We don’t know what is the adequate mix of responses that will help us evolve a very different type of wellbeing and value models that we need to ensure wellbeing.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you, maybe Giulio, before you add a couple of bits, I can end you first reflection so that you can complement and integrate. So from what Millie is introducing, I get this idea that you have to be ambidextrous in terms of projects that are more experimentation driven and more like probing the system on a more contextual basis.


And moving at the portfolio level allowed you to think more strategically and, you know, look into depth, root causes, leverage points, embrace this idea of optionality. So creating many pieces that can, let’s say, approach a systemic problem from a more general perspective. Am I getting it right?



Yes, absolutely. And I think there’s at least two or three different things that in this, if you unpack what you just said, are implications of that, right? So one is a quest and search for coherence at different levels. So the first one is the coherence between the tools and the approaches that you bring and the nature of the problem that you’re trying to solve. So again, as Millie said, “Projects” – The way the bureaucracy tends to understand it is not coherent with the long-term structural challenge like climate change, poverty, etc. It also tends to be an instrument that limits the amount of organizations, financial resources that you can attract to solve that particular problem. So again, the challenge of how you organize a whole group of organizations around a common intent.


The second thing is that it entails this shift from project to portfolios also exploring a different path to scale, which I believe is a topic you covered times before. So in the more fast-break things type of approach, you move into funneling logic. So you try many different things under the assumption that a lot of them will fail and one of them will be the right one and it’s going to scale and become a unicorn. 


In systemic logic you look for a different path to scale which is not funneling but is actually layering over time. And the reason being is that there is not one single magic fix that is going to solve climate, poverty, etc.


What you need to have is a process that allows you to expand options over time rather than reducing them to one that is going to be the one that scales by magic. And so you need to work differently in a portfolio logic to think about what is your path to scale, how you aggregate resources and learning over time coming not only from your organization but from others, so that the level of options available to yourself, to your partners, to governments, increases over time. And so what you don’t want to have is, you know, what can artificial intelligence do for climate change type of solution. What you want to have is a series of options because it’s a complex, difficult, often unpredictable issue. You need to be able to work at different levels at the same time. 


And the final thing, which is more organizational, I guess, but one of the things that I think we learned, and Millie will correct me if she thinks otherwise, is that organizationally this requires a much deeper rewiring than having a space on the side interesting, maybe a lab or an experimentation space where you do lots of fast prototyping. This is needed. In fact, we need much more of it. But at the same time, if you really want to think through this question of coherence and move beyond projects, you need to really rethink completely not only the way you do your programs, but also your back end. So things like human resources, the way you allocate financing, the way you actually organize your auditing even, right? So it’s a very different way of operating, but really challenges really the backbone of your organization. And that is really where, you know, of course often many of the biggest challenges are because you really start talking about a very different way of doing things.


Simone Cicero

Just I want to underline something for our audience, so that we can fix some key ideas that are emerging. I think it’s really interesting how you use the word coherence, because in our practice, we have been using coherence as a way to say, you know, you are an organization, but you want to present yourself to the market, for example, in a certain coherent way. So there is a trade-off between the autonomy you can grant to your organization and the coherence you can get as you present yourself into the market. But now that I’m hearing coherence from your point of view, it feels like, you know, you may have a mission as an organization. And in the case of UNDP, it’s systemic transition, right? And then you may make mistakes in, let’s say, identifying, instead of with your mission, with clear outcomes that are more like project-wise, more initiative-wise. 


And so the incoherence that can grow, it’s between what you actually do and maybe measure and you feel good about on a specific project basis and the coherence with your more systemic mission that you have in mind. So that’s a very interesting point. 


And you also said that there may be actually a conflict between these two layers. You may have, for example, growth drives poverty paradoxically, or growth drives carbon emissions, which is again, another paradoxical, which it’s, I mean, this is something we’re gonna probably get back on. Sometimes we also have conflicting SDGs, right? 


So in terms of, another thing you said, you said, rather than reducing options, which is something that we tend to do, for example, in startup culture, right? There is this idea of pivoting until you get tried. You seem to have to entertain this idea of optionality, but not just as options you bring and we hope that maybe one option wins, but rather this capability to entertain a diversity of options not with the aim of reducing them at some point, but rather with the incumbent need that you have to manage this complexity. And so, Shruthi, I know that you have a question that plugs into this a little bit.


Shruthi Prakash 

Yeah, I think while let’s say you’re developing well-estimated and calculated optionality rate essentially I think this amount of diversity that’s being brought in how does all of this trickle down into the organization? I think Giulio you mentioned on the points of maybe adapting your HR and finance services and things like that So maybe to double down on that will be helpful for our listeners as well and trying to understand how you keep all of this open, give, let’s say, freedom to the employees as well or participants and different stakeholders, that will be good to understand.



Yeah. So, okay, so maybe we can start answering the question from this concept of coherence, right? Because I think it plays out, and Simone said it a couple of different levels. On the level of looking at whether we have sufficient amount of diversity and options among the resources and expertise, what we’re seeing is that in any particular country or region, a UNDP team, almost needs to seed a little bit of its own institutional identity in order to align an ecosystem of partners around the bigger objective and a bigger mission, if you will. I mean, when I say UNDP team, obviously UNDP teams in the country work with governments and for and on behalf of supporting the governments, right? So what this actually implies is, or what we see from the ground is that there are a number, you know, development banks, private sector, foundations, civil society, everybody’s looking at an issue, but from a particular slice. And by going in parallel, there is no opportunity to sort of compound one another, to build on legacies and actually sequence and combine different expertise and resources. So there is a need, and Simone, this goes back a little bit to to our work on platforms and the function of platforms to create a space where different players see a value of actually coming and playing together off of the same infrastructure and then meeting others who they can work with and so on and so forth. This requires enormous amount of time and effort. And again, seeding or rather understanding institutional boundaries in a more porous way to be able to build that shared understanding as to where are we moving into one, and two, building an infrastructure where people can plug and play in an almost decentralized way. 


And this is a bit of a challenge, I would say, for an organization like UNDP, no different than it is a challenge for a government or a public sector organization, which is a bureaucracy that works in a very kind of waterfall-like organigrams, if you will, with very sort of clear, this is inside the organization, this is outside the organization. So this is one level of coherence. 


The other level of coherence, I think,is the internal side, right? So if we as an organization want to move into a portfolio way of working, that means as Julia pointed out, looking at all of the different pieces and rules of the game and rules of engagement that we have. So for example, how do we understand risk? The risk policy in itself has a number of compliance, accountability, audit implications that if we take portfolios to heart, meaning it’s about emergence, it’s about admitting that we don’t know that we need to jointly figure out what works, what doesn’t. That requires a very different way of making decisions between ourselves and our partners. 


And there, you know, I would say the last, so if I look at again, this retrospective of the innovation in UNDP, the first phase attracted people who were really interested into new and shiny and buzz and experimentation and labs and move fast and throw grenades into bureaucracy, now a lot of our time is spent with parts of the house that we have not generally worked with or talked to. And it also raises a question of capacities and comfort because everybody comes at it from different perspectives and then we need to do the same thing internally than we’re doing externally, build a shared understanding as to where we’re moving towards. 


So for us, that coherence internally has meant looking at the big blocks of rules of engagement from HR to different policies, to what does the funding structure look like, what is the business model, and sort of seeing where are the small changes that we can make to keep creating the space to show what this model works. And I think it bears saying that there is no proven model that we can point to and say, here’s an organization that has completely moved into portfolios one and two, UNDP can change all at once. But unless the broader development sector changes, unless donor governments, for example, shift the thinking around what is it that we’re crudely saying buying with development finance, things don’t move. If governments themselves don’t look at public funding, and start thinking about public funding from the perspective of buying outcomes, as opposed to funding activities, things don’t move. So I think that coherence plays on a number of different levels



Giulio, please disagree.


Simone Cicero 

No, I mean, I think it’s great if you can maybe complement these with organizational structure elements that I’m sure you have to deal with, right? For example, when we talk with companies and they have these outcomes that they have, like normally they are revenue outcomes. And we recently discussed with Teresa Torres on the program and for example, she spoke about how do you, to get the organizational structure right, you really need to get the outcomes right, so that you can basically do what we call inverse Conway maneuver, so that you design your organization in a way that it produces certain outcome. 

I’m wondering with what Millie just said, and I have some other follow-up questions, but especially the one on emergence. So looks like there is much less clarity on the outcomes we want to generate. And so I guess that from an organizational standpoint, that’s really challenging to understand how do you organize.



Yes, so this again is in some ways maybe one of the words that will come up over and over again is identity. Right? So imagine you have an organization where the identity of people is tied to a project that they do and an organization that, you know, like many development organizations, still its identity is one of a planner. Right? And which is for the reasons that Millie just said, offer under constraints to report in a very linear way its activities as opposed to necessarily its outcomes for reasons that are perfectly valid, which is transparency and accountability. So you need to account for every single penny that is spent, obviously. But this often comes into conflict with the logic of working with emergence and learning which is really, you know, you can put the perfect five-year plan together when COVID happens and you need to scrap that and move to a very different place, right? And so here lies the tension really, that if you really want to say, well, yes, these are complex, systemic, structural issues, if these things come at you unexpectedly, then you need to design for that.


And that really creates quite a lot of discomfort, right? Because it challenges the identity of a planner. It challenges the relationship with your key partners. So, you know, one of the things that, for example, changes in this work is that rather than saying, you know, I’m coming to you with a beautiful report that everything is a success every six months, you are going to be co-owner of risk and of opportunities in this portfolio, which means we want to have much more frequent conversation with you about what is emerging, both things that are unexpected positive and both things that are unexpected negative, so we can course correct jointly much more frequently, much more often.


Now this is a very, very different role, for example, for someone who manages monitoring and evaluation, or someone who is even a project manager that needs to all of a sudden look at a balcony view of what we’re doing and start thinking in a much bigger picture. And yes, this creates the sort of questions about how do you work with uncertainty, ambiguity, emergence, it’s a very different set of capabilities. So I’m sure Millie will talk about it, but for example, one of the things that we did is work and design programs for our management to look at how you actually work with uncertainty. And so whether it is alternative reality simulations of them shadowing a magician or a pilot or a surgeon to actually see what it looks like to operate in condition of improvisation, emergence and unexpected things coming at you. This is all part of a rewiring, development of new capabilities. 


And specifically on the question you asked, Simone, around outcomes and outputs, etc. and how do you measure it. One of the things that we did is we set up a monitor and evaluation sandbox. So not only UNDP, but partners exploring and experimenting with different ways of thinking about outcomes, intermediary reporting, ongoing learning, ongoing adaptation, because this challenge of working with complex emergent issues requires a different way of thinking about these issues, which less again about clear-cut outcomes and clear-cut definitions.


Simone Cicero

I have a quick follow-up question for you both, and especially given the framing that you just added, this idea of having to deal with emergence instead of, as Millie said, buying outcomes, which is something that doesn’t really work. There’s a lot of co-owning, so co-owning risk, co-owning strategy, co-owning this communication practical elements like the communities of practice and lots of time and energy commitment. This is not something that gets handed over to someone else, but it’s more like a collaborative process that needs to happen. And especially as Millie said, I think the point on the institutional gap, when you alluded to, if I understand it well, to the need to create ecosystemic organizations like – organizations where multiple parties share participation and compound, let’s say, their missions together and build a more systemic mission together. So this is something that is happening in the business realm as well. So for example, at Boundaryless, we are now experimenting a lot into ways for systems to coalesce and collaborate more easily. 


But the question that I have for you is more like – In this space, what is the role of skin in the game? So the role of accountability, okay? So are you experiencing more like these keyfabe, as Alex Komoroske would say, you know, this keyfabe where everybody participates into this dance, but then at the end of the day, nobody’s responsible for the outcomes, right? Or there is a growing way for institutions on the field, maybe in the UNDP as well, to develop more accountability to, and skin in the game on the outcomes. I don’t know to what level this can happen because of course, systemic transitions are very, as we said, it’s very hard to define the right outcomes that you expect. But what is the process that you are seeing in terms of these new institutional agreements emerging, also being accountable to the results?



Maybe I can take a stab at this when it comes to accountability. So when we started asking these questions around what are the conditions and capabilities that would help us start pursuing system transformation in a way that’s more meaningful, one of the things that we quickly realized is this is equally about, you know, what are the types of interventions and policies and substance on the ground to tackle, say, changing climate as it is about changing the rules of the game, as Giulio pointed out.


But then when it comes to changing those rules of the game, right? So for us as a development organization, we knew that in order to prove our relevance, we also had to prove that we are capable to have the skin in the game and experiment in areas that are traditionally much more difficult to innovate on because they hit at the core of power and money and accountability. So there are a couple of things that I think stand out for me. One is I was really surprised as to the fact that M&E, so understanding change, understanding impact, being able to tell stories of intermediate change while we’re pursuing a longer term thing, seems to be a pain point across the board. So the M&E sandbox that we set up within a couple of months has grown to over 600 organizations.


Everybody is on the quest of how do we actually collaboratively understand what is changing? What are the boundaries of the system? What we can and cannot do and what have you? Moving beyond ticking the box and counting things that we can count. Right? So this has been one area that we hadn’t really expected, but it has become a massive entry point to start having a conversation around the transformation. 


And this has brought in foundations, donor governments as well as communities and largely cities on the city level, right? Because I think the public admin on a city level is much closer to communities. So I think that’s one thing that we’ve kind of picked up on. And the other piece around, you know, your question around commitment to this, to the accountability and the results and what have you, it has taken some time, but at least nowadays, we are at the stage where the organization is really willing to put its weight behind this change and start encoding some of these new changes. So we are at the cusp of getting a portfolio policy approved. Now you can be cheeky and say, well, policy is one, the way it’s implemented is something else. But it’s a massive signal from the organization that we want to come up with more options again to engage with our partners on this effort. 


We know that having a portfolio policy means we need to build a whole architecture and apparatus underneath it to support it. Again, hitting all of these questions around how do we finance, how do we work together internally, but also with others and what have you. And that has, to me, that’s a big phase shift for us, having that instrument, legal programming and engagement instrument that now allows more of a I would say credibility and legitimacy in terms of speaking about this transition, but also an instrument that we can start engaging and building more of an ecosystem around.



If I can just build on that very quickly. So there’s a couple of things. So I saw one element of the skin in the game is actually, so imagine the reputation risk on going to a government in our case and saying, you need to tackle climate change from a systemic perspective. Don’t just reduce it to an environment issue it has many other speak, et cetera. And then they turn to you and say, and what are you doing about it, and you’re still structured around the same thing. So there is one element of, as we used to say, eat your own dog food, in terms of actually literally showing that you are the first one who’s actually going there and build credibility and in that sense also accountability by saying, I at least am trying. The second question, however, and I think Millie alluded to, Simone, which is really always to remember where the development sector comes from, which is unfortunately, power relations and we know better in the North and we tell you in the South what to do. Right? 


And so in that logic, moving from a project to portfolio is also one way of saying that the accountability actually becomes a delegation of power, right? Which is incredibly difficult to do, where a number of players own the problem because you know what? The problem is systemic and expective of one who holds a purse can actually tell everybody else what to do is almost a recipe for disaster. And the one thing which I think is really interesting, so we just compared notes last week with Climate-KIC who’s working on this portfolio at a national level for Slovenia, moving into a circular economy, right? 


And one of the things we were reflecting upon is actually what are some of the elements that make this reciprocal accountability of a portfolio governance interesting, difficult, challenging, etc. But one of the things that I think is really interesting, we go back to a theme that we were saying before, is that if you move to this portfolio logic, you actually go to people who are doing their work anyway in a particular area, say climate, if you go to any country, there will be hundreds of organizations already working on this. And then you use coherence as the leverage, right? You basically say, well, look, you can continue to do your own thing.


If we are somehow able to elevate ourselves above our organizational identities and work in a portfolio logic together, yes, we have a higher level of impact. So, our coherence attracts leverage that way. And also we have a shared responsibility around the outcomes and the accountability. Now that is truly a very, very different way of doing things.


And I think it’s a big journey from where most of development organizations are, in terms of actually structuring yourself completely different, in terms of being able to bring solutions that are adequate to the nature of a problem.



Yeah, just so Julia inspired me to think about something else from the Slovenia case. One of the things that colleagues from the government said is that they’ve identified a lot of organizations doing interventions that are kind of short, like two, three years. They would start, then they would end, then that would be it. This coherence argument of a portfolio helped create a space where the work would leave legacy and others could come and build on it and sort of almost like engineering serendipity and making sure that the innovation that happened becomes irreversible, becomes baked into the movement that the portfolio comes, sort of helps usher. And from my perspective, I haven’t really thought about it that way, but for them, it has been a big reason for a number of these otherwise individual sort of interventions in organizations are kind of flocking to it and taking the time to actually explore and find ways to engage with different parts of the system.


Simone Cicero 

Yeah, yeah. So what I was saying exactly resonates with this because, so essentially the question that was lingering in my mind as you were explaining this is, how do you build collective narratives around this? Because it’s very difficult to think about setting an institutional renewal process and dealing with this uncertainty and emergence if you don’t have a cohesive narrative. So essentially, I think it’s been challenging for you to move away from monolithic UNDP narrative and into kind of multiplying and get this plural process of building narratives contextually, to the systems, if not the projects, to the systems you have been intervening into. So I was thinking about this narrative building, which is another need, a capability that you have to develop as you move into portfolio. Similar to when you build a platform or an ecosystem initiative, you have to create this common win-win perspective for all the parties to join. Yeah.



Yeah, so we talk a lot on webnotes, Simone, one word we use a lot is intent, right? And how do you develop collaboratively a common intent, an orf star, if you want, which is again, is quite different from a project world where you tend to talk about objectives, right? And intent is quite different from objective. And it’s something that is socially crafted as opposed to someone sitting and putting on a spreadsheet, we’re going to achieve this by this time of the year, right? And so I think that is a big part of the challenge here is actually how do you hold that intent for a much bigger group of people that share the intent, maintain the North Star and the ability to adapt as circumstances change, but you continue to be drawn towards that particular North Star. 


So that’s one of the big thing, big shifts in terms of actually how to do it. But there is a second piece to your dynamics, right? Because you’re talking about how it actually works. And I think one of the interesting thing that we discovered, I guess, by doing, right – Is there is often a tendency when you talk about we need to move to systemic work, we need to move to a different way of doing things, et cetera, to assume tabularasa.And therefore, the shift becomes really perceived as an enormous transition from what you’re doing. Right? It’s all these big new things that you need to put in place, all these new partners you need to bring on board, all these new, new difficult big things that you need to do because systemic stuff is difficult, etc. One of the big things that we learned is that it’s actually extremely empowering and this seems really ridiculous but you know it is to work with what you have. So in fact one of the first stages in the process we go through is to say you’re working on climate and there’s lots of people working on it, lots of different activities as opposed to taking that as a problem you’re taking it as a major asset that you have however the piece that is missing is that again all these parts are looking at themselves as individually, their identity is individualized. And so somehow you need to find a way to move into a being comfortable, to actually abstract and looking at all of themselves as part of a bigger series of patterns, the portfolio. But if you do that, what you realize is that you actually have plenty to work with to begin with.


So the whole thing to shift to system, etc. seems so incredibly daunting. In reality, there is an awful lot already happening, except it lacks, again, coherence and a common intent. Narrative, if you want to use your language. And once you start building the process, which of course takes time, and again, let me emphasize again in our experience, it’s a social process, right? This is really about building, trust infrastructure, relational infrastructure with a number of different partners. Once you’re, if you get into that, you actually can kickstart much faster because guess what? Out of this whole scattered activities, now all of a sudden you can actually be much more purposeful in shaping them into working towards a particular north star. Of course it takes time, it’s difficult, it challenges many different ways, but that’s really the path you embark on.



Yeah, maybe if I can. So I think what we find is that it takes courage and political capital for a mayor to actually take the time and create the space for that conversation that has a question of who are we as a city? What do we stand for? But then investing that time, as Giulio pointed out, really allows for looking at what you have under a very different light. So we’ve had a couple of cases where governments sort of wanted to be future of work. It’s all about digital and creative economy. This is where we need to go. So we sort of help create a bit of a space to have this conversation about, well, what does that actually mean? And the end result in few cases was, well, future work is equally about digital and the future as it is about tackling the legacies of the past, the discrimination and what have you. 


And once you actually have that common frame,you actually start realizing that the government starts seeing that, you know, those bifurcated identities are standing in a way of putting together assets that they already have. 


So for example, one of the reasons why women are not volunteering for these incredibly sort of well-crafted schemes to become part of the formal economy is that they don’t have childcare services and healthcare services are not on par. And they end up spending a lot of time caring for the sick and elderly at home.


But if you actually look at work, not just from the perspective of future, but also from the perspective of what is hampering women to have more time, then you start co-locating your health services and your social inclusion services with your digitization and you kind of treat or sort of meet a particular person where they are and offer a full slew of services, if you will, that can solve the problem much better than when you were looking at it from the perspective of silos.


Simone Cicero

Right, right. I mean, this resonates a lot with some of the principles of our work that is to ground the platform initiatives into the ecosystem mapping and scanning approaches. So when you said, you know, you have to start from what you have basically and map it and understanding and understand the lock-ins and, you know, don’t just come imagine that you can, you know, generate a systemic outcome as if the it was a tabularasa, as Giulio said, there’s a lot of resonance with what we say. And I like to quote Dave Snowden that once on our podcast, if I’m not wrong, he said that you had to do to make resilience with the people you have. And I think that’s a very important point, not just in the development space, but also again, as a reminder that when you enact platform strategies, you have to understand the ecosystems first and also extend your inquisitive work into systemic lock-ins that may be, as our common friend Indy would say, in the dark matter behind the scenes. So I think that’s really, really important. Shruthi, I know that you have a follow-up question.


Shruthi Prakash 

Yeah, so I think what I wanted to understand more on, I know that, let’s say the systemic approach now has been, you know, sort of implemented for a while now across different nations. You’ve taken a lot of projects underground. So I wanted to understand what has the uptake been on this? How has the response from the ecosystem been? Has there been any positive or negative sort of, you know, sort of reflections that are coming in already?


The other thing is like has let’s say the portfolio approach equated to a systemic approach in that sense. Do these two equate to one another? How has that sort of reflection been? And all of this while of course like building capabilities on ground giving that power back to let’s say the different stakeholders involved.



So maybe I can kick off with that second one. I mean, it’s a really good question, right? We’ve seen an uptick in energy when the likes of Mariana Mazzucato and Christian Basin and Climate KIC started talking about portfolio as a vehicle to pursue mission-driven policy. Right? But what we’ve also found is that portfolio practice and craft, if understood not just from the perspective of achieving efficiencies and internal coherence, but changing the rules of the game and tweaking what we do and how we do and power relationships is not necessarily well developed at this stage. So I suppose the short answer is it’s a hunch. This is the perspective from which we are pursuing it as a vehicle that can help, but there are a lot of different pieces that need to be coming together and that we need to be working on. And again, it’s not one organization mission. It’s in our case, a full sector approach.



Yeah, I would say one of the things that was interesting and we were very mindful of and still are, is that portfolio doesn’t become the new design thinking, right? Meaning that is the one way to do systemic change, right? It just happens that in our particular context and because the history we just particularly described, right? It was the best short end we could find to signal a desire to work in a different way and a particular organizational journey of change. 


So, you know, by far we will never say, you know, this is the way to do things and certainly not to do things like complex or systemic change. It’s a frame that has helped us advance a particular journey of learning and change inside UNDP. And one of the things that has been interesting, as Millie said, is that as we started going on this journey we figured out that there was an equal first for some of these aspects not necessarily the whole portfolio approach always but certain some elements of it certainly this quest for coherence seems to be a common thread across the development sector we search for what is next after you know a very still post-colonial type of approach – So it’s a useful catalyst for us in that sense in terms of surfacing organizations that are asking the same questions and are unequally on a journey of discovery, what that actually means. So in that sense that has I think helped us open up conversations with organizations we might have not done otherwise.


Simone Cicero

I think I have another couple of questions that I would like to talk to you about. One may be short, and it’s more about, did you kind of see, did you see the emergence of certain ontology, common ontologies and taxonomies as a result of your portfolio work? So for example, a certain piece of intervention that can be taken from somewhere and replicated somewhere else, or pieces that tend to compose themselves to kind of compound into a more systemic strategy. 


So is composability and modularity a topic in this transition between projects that may be very vertical, may be very, very integrated into portfolios where you create these options and modules? I mean, think of something similar to what happens with APIs or a single products or plugins or something like that in the work that you’re doing. Are you seeing this composability and modularity emerge?



So it’s a timely question because we’ve been turning what we’re doing into a bit of a program, a learning program for colleagues who have not drank the Kool-Aid on portfolios. And we’ve had exactly this conversation, Simone, and there may be three things that stand out, both internally, but also when we look at organization outside UNDP who may not use the same words, but are actually using similar principles, and there are some things that kind of repeat.


So three things, one, investment in seeing what’s hidden and hearing what’s not said, so understanding the system, which is a whole set of capabilities and processes that in a more kind of projectized world is assumed away, if you will. This is one. The second one is the ability to continually generate new options. And this is where really these two worlds clash fundamentally.


Because even if we manage to get the ecosystem around, working at the clock speed at which changes are happening on the ground, if the operational side of things, ability to procure, to hire, to contract, isn’t on the same way, things grind. So the second one is being able to generate more options, both from the perspective of having your finger on a pulse on what’s going on, being able to extract learning, but also being able to do.


And then the third aspect is reconfiguring relationships. Reconfiguring relationships within the organization, reconfiguring relationships with partners outside. So these three keep repeating. And now, a couple of years into this process, we have started codifying some of this practice. And when we see either colleagues from inside or organization outside pick up some of that and try to appropriate it and make sense of it, they also come back with these three things that really stand out to them as difference from a more kind of linear projectized approach to this other practice



Yeah, and with that to add, so we were very much inspired. In fact, our initial framework was taken from the Khora Foundation, which is an approach which is modular by design, right? It’s designed to be modular that way, the way you described it, Simone. What we found is that we needed to internalize it and appropriate it, and then turn it into what Millie has eventually described. That’s a journey that has taken us to do it. And now we have our own modules, if you want to call it this way.


Which one starts again with interesting relation with other organizations that won’t start asking about, okay, how do you do this or what are elements of doing this? And again, I think it’s really interesting to reflect, right? So again, we saw really a lot of more questions around this space as soon as portfolios been indicated by the you and others as a way to deliver on missions.


Then the whole mechanics of how this works, is this something that is modular or not? What can be translated from one geography or another? All these questions become much more urgent in the sense that there is a big political agenda behind it in that particular space, right? But even with Beyond the You and with partners in the developing world, the same questions come up again, as Millie said.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you so much. I think one thing I would like to bring in as maybe the last question in the conversation, Shruthi if you allow me, I know that you have other questions coming up, but I was thinking to maybe use a few minutes to move ahead and beyond the discussion of portfolios and get your pulse in terms of what’s happening in general in the world and this tendency towards more, I would say, more disintegrated systems and apparently much more polarization and local initiatives being more important and so on. So this kind of, how can I say, you know, we are talking about SDGs and SDGs kind of represent a global project, like if this global project would exist. But if I look into the last maybe couple of years, it looks like the idea of a global consensus is really fading, right? So I’m curious to know what’s your impression in terms of how the development world and the business world are maybe trying to have this conversation beyond sectors, right? So to think about the connection between the private, the public and the open systems. How are these type of agreements and activities reconfiguring themselves in a much more fragmented world? You of course play, or at least played inside a very iconic organization that is global by design, let’s say.


But what are your feelings in terms of how your work is shifting, going beyond sectors, beyond borders, and maybe beyond the pre-configured ideas of global development that we used to have, and it’s been maybe declined into more local or more contextual ideas of development that maybe don’t fit into the very well-framed, albeit sometimes conflicting structure of the SDG.



So I think the SDGs, you can find a lot of critique of the SDG agenda, but I think from our perspective, what has been really useful is to see how different governments engage with SDGs and what are the different frames, as an accelerator, as an integrator, as a business opportunity, as an alignment with the broader international agenda. 


So that has been really interesting because we’ve been able to see certain things filter out as commonalities across. And there may be five things that stand out that stand out for us across. Right. One is we are painfully seeing the limits of the current financial systems insofar that, for example, the levels of debt are severely constraining government’s ability to invest in education and health and social care across the board, one. 


Two, focus on rethinking institutions. So this is where I think you’ve had a conversation with Jeff Morgan and a lot of his recent work has been, you know, how do we, we have made progress in so many other areas, but our institutions are really true remnants of the past, trying to sort of grapple and fight with problems that have way bypassed them, right? So we see a lot of countries actually looking into this question without necessarily having that social imagination that Jeff also talks about in terms of how do we do that within the political realities of today. 


Three, cities and what it means to build livable, sustainable cities as a pattern across different regions, across different development contexts. Resilient infrastructure from more kind of future-facing digital infrastructure but also bricks and mortar, energy infrastructure, health infrastructure, road infrastructure.


And last, the fifth one is work. The way that the concept of work is actually changing and morphing across. So I would say SDGs is a kind of a global construct that’s meant to represent that we all on this planet are kind of aiming toward and intent, if you will, of what type of planet we want to live in. For us, this has been, it has generated conversations that seem to be filtering out some patterns across that seem to be on the minds of most countries that we’re looking at. And I think this is where the value is because it allows us to start kind of engaging and using that as honey, if you will, to start bringing in ecosystems to start answering some of these questions more effectively.



I would only add in a sense the situation you described, so from one hand I think it’s important we all remind ourselves, this is a matter of choices, right? So decoupling, fragmentation, etc. is something that is something that governments, institutions, citizens, whatever you choose, and so it’s important to remind that if we still believe in global values, in global priorities, etc., It’s a matter of figuring out the way to make it happen. So that remains the same thing. And then interestingly, if you accept that there are increasing fragmentation, and et cetera, et cetera, that actually makes the call for portfolio approaches, meaning as approaches that actually bring coherence to a lot of activities distributed across different sectors, different players, et cetera. even more, right? 


So I think you talked also to Dan Hill, but anyway, so he likes the phrase of small pieces loosely joined, right? And being able somewhat to bring these things together and figuring out a way again to craft a common intent from very disparate players and being able to hold that as, you know, bigger constructs seems to be questioned.


I think that becomes even more important. So in that sense, I think that makes the whole logic of this bringing together and creating commonality under a shared intent even more important and timely as an organizational capability.


Simone Cicero

Thank you so much. I think I really resonate with this, and especially the message I get, the impression I get is that you know, on one side you are bringing, you’re trying to bring coherence, on the other side you are accepting dynamic transformations. So it’s like, you know, bringing coherence because you want to control, but it’s rather since you are accepting that things are much more dynamic and distributed, then you will have a need for, you know, enacting coherence at some level, which reminds me on another conversation that we had on this podcast, Rita McGrath, it was 2020 if I’m not wrong, or 21, I don’t remember when she said, she was making the point that we had to move from control to coherence as a way to deal with much more uncertainty in the system. So I think that’s very resonating and our listeners can catch up with that whole episode that we will put into the notes. Shruthi.


Shruthi Prakash 

Yes, I think yeah, one of the, I guess when you said about small pieces loosely joined, I was thinking about my own reflection of how I have, let’s say strong opinions loosely held and sort of practicing that day in and out. So it was nice to hear that as well. And yeah, I mean, the conversation was really interesting to have both of you. What I wanted to ask was if you’ll have maybe any breadcrumbs or suggestions to share for our audience any books or podcasts, any piece of information that has helped you that can help our audience as well. It will be good to share.



So maybe I can, what I’m currently reading is Sascha Heselmayer, Slow Lane, who talks about sort of moving at the speed of trust and sort of resisting the allure of quick silver bullet solutions and building a space for a very different type of relationships and approach to some of these complex systems. It’s a fantastic book and it’s very well researched with a lot of examples from various different contexts that has been incredibly helpful.



Yeah, and I would mention a TED talk by Kirsten Dunlop, which is illustrating the way that climate-KIC applies a portfolio approach to the climate issue that has been herself and the organization has inspired quite a lot of our work and that TED talk captures it quite nicely.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you so much. So we are at the end of the conversation. So Shruthi, it was a pleasure to have your questions, as always, your participation. Thank you so much.


Shruthi Prakash 

Thank you. Thanks both of you for joining in as well.



Thank you very much.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you both. I hope you enjoyed the conversation a bit at least.



It was fantastic. Thank you for having us.


Simone Cicero

Thank you so much. And for our listeners, as always, you will find all the information on this podcast on our webpage, Boundaryless.io/resources/podcast, where you will find the episode. and in the episode, you will find the transcript and all the show notes, the references, the breadcrumbs and all. And I hope you enjoyed the episode as well. And until we speak again, remember to think Boundaryless.