Thought Leadership

Solving complex problems outside of the silo: How the Pennsylvania Department of Education gained the knowledge and tools to run a coherent team

Victoria Ballerini and Dana Milakovic, Pennsylvania Department of Education

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) participated in the Coherence Lab Fellowship from 2020-2021. After the Fellowship, members of the PDE leadership team wanted to build the knowledge and skills of additional PDE team members to develop and sustain coherence and embarked in the Coherence Lab Intensive. The Intensive was tailored to focus on developing the mindset and skills for rapid prototyping as a tool for developing effective, equitable solutions that address the root causes of challenging problems. Participants applied their new skills to a Problem of Practice related to improving internal communication across departments within the agency. 

We spoke with two Intensive team members, Victoria Ballerini, Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary and Commissioner for Postsecondary and Higher Education, and Dana Milakovic, Mental Wellness and Trauma Specialist with the Office for Safe Schools, to learn more about their experience with and the impact of the Coherence Lab Intensive. You’ll see how engaging in Equitable Ways of Thinking and Working, and intentionally building relationships with cross-departmental staff and applying the skills of prototyping and empathy interviews transformed how PDE team members collaborate and approach problem solving. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What aspects of the Intensive were most valuable to you?

VICTORIA: I didn’t have experience with prototyping as an approach before; I was either piloting or going all in. I really like the idea of trying something small, course correcting and iterating. I think for state governments where change can be slow and difficult, prototypes are easy to develop and test and then provide proof points that can be scaled later. That wasn’t something that was in my frame of thought and it made possible things that before seemed really difficult such as changing processes. I have seen my colleagues using prototyping after the Intensive. I have seen colleagues going out in the field and talking to partners and saying “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this, what are your thoughts?” They are getting more input and then testing an initiative to see if there is something we need to change and I feel like that approach has been more intentional since the Intensive. 

DANA: I would also definitely say the process of prototyping. I think that is a powerful tool. Just today in a meeting they were talking about developing tier models of resource development. And I go back to the work of the Intensive and I was like, “Well, have we defined the problem? I wonder what would happen if we do X, Y or Z?” And the team had a moment of “Oh wait!” We were jumping ahead to solving a problem that we don’t even know if it’s a problem and without any data. It’s the reflection of asking , “Are we actually solving a problem that needs to be solved or that we think needs to be solved?” The process of prototyping and conducting empathy interviews to understand the perspective of others has completely changed the way I function at work. 

Interested in learning more about how you can engage in prototyping or empathy interviews like Victoria and Dana did? Check out the bottom of our Toolkit page for our Empathy Interview Tool and Prototyping Tool for a guide on how to engage in this transformative work with your teams.

How have you changed your practice as a result of what you learned? 

VICTORIA: For me, it was the first time I worked together to solve a problem with people from different areas from PDE that I didn’t know before this experience. It created a community. Every time I see a synergy or something where we could work together, I reach out. Now I know all these people and I know how to reach out and we have trust that we established through the work in the Intensive. 

DANA: In general, I have taken a step back and I am more intentional about asking how things are received and asking others for pieces of input. If I am not able to get input, I now take a step back. I also think it has helped me not to personalize things. I work for a state agency and people see me as a representative and share what they believe the agency is doing wrong. When I hear that now, instead of personalizing it, I take a step back and say “Okay, what we are doing is not having the intended impact. Let’s think about it. Why is that? What can we do differently?” It has allowed me to reframe my questions to ask people how they are experiencing our programs and initiatives.

What would you like others to know about working towards Coherence at a state agency?

VICTORIA: Policy problems are complex, and government agencies are organized to look at one piece of the problem. When we want to change things, we have to think in ways that are cross-agency and cross-sector and, in addition, we have internal problems within agencies that are also highly complex. Coherence, and the Intensive, allowed us to build that agency-wide perspective that folks in different areas did not have, building those connections that don’t exist because of the structure of government. It is really transformational.

DANA: I think that the number one step for working towards Coherence in a state agency is really intentionally focusing on relationship development and having people feel seen and heard. If you are not able to create that environment where people feel valued, you will not be able to create Coherence and you will continue to have silos where you are not working at your best capacity as a state agency. 

What is one word that describes the Coherence Lab Intensive experience? Why?

VICTORIA: The first thing that comes up is collective. I really enjoyed coming together with colleagues under the guidance of Education First to address internal communications challenges in the agency. That collective approach to problem solving was energizing. While we do have committees internally where we come together, the way the Intensive was structured made us work more effectively and quickly, and it also allowed for different voices to be heard. 

DANA: I think for me it was inspiring. I think that we get so caught up in our day to day life and sometimes you feel like the work you are doing is disconnected from everyone else and you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Being able to collaborate and engage in the work from different areas of the agency, the level of leadership engagement in this work and the process of stopping, thinking and working for others internally within PDE, and not just our stakeholders externally was inspiring and it has helped me reframe a lot of the work we do within PDE. I no longer feel like I am bogged down in processes and feel like I am truly making a difference and that my relationships within PDE make a difference. 

What was your biggest takeaway?  

VICTORIA: I have been interested in shared leadership and distributive leadership. The Intensive PDE team consisted of folks from everywhere in the organization so it really modeled what it means to have shared leadership and having people from everywhere in the organization come together and be empowered to think of agency-wide problems and not just the problems of the office where they work. It was about breaking down silos but also letting people exercise leadership in different ways and be more involved in improving the agency we work for. It was energizing and inspiring to see how colleagues responded to that call with commitment and passion. 

DANA: My biggest takeaway was the process of slowing down and engaging in prototyping. I am a huge proponent of going slow to go fast but it wasn’t until we started in the Coherence Lab Intensive that I realized that I was not doing that. And not just the steps of prototyping but the questions that come beforehand such as “What are the risks of doing this prototype? What could you be missing?”