I was first introduced to the term "Portfolio Sensemaking" by the UNDP work looking to establish the practice in their Accelerator Lab network, in 2019. This grew into an approach across the lifecycle of managing a portfolio, and a series of protocols.
What is a Portfolio approach?
"generating actionable intelligence from a portfolio of existing projects to accelerate the impact of the work"
As I understand it, the core elements of the approach are:
- Moving away from single point solutions and toward a developing portfolio of interventions
- Moving from a planning (analyse-to-predict) to an experimentation mindset (prototype-to-learn), in line with conventional wisdom about complexity
- Move from trying to control an outcome, to starting from the world “as is” and existing assets to probe and adapt one’s way into preferable future scenarios
- Ensure evaluation is in place to capture a range of insights and learnings when the interventions are active
- Using the insights and learnings from the portfolio of interventions to inform changes and improvement across the portfolio and beyond
- Work in action-learning cycles, rather than linear planning-based phases
- Focus on capability being distributed across a team, rather than external consultants conducting "portfolio reviews"
This approach has strong echoes of the way we approached our work with Lifehack, which I wrote about in 'How we use experiments to drive insights' here:
More broadly, it appears to be an attempt to develop a methodology / practice to build on top of the efforts social labs (and other fields) made to increase the adoption of prototyping and experimentation culture, to tackle social and environmental complex challenges.
Who is using Portfolio Sensemaking?
So far, I have seen this approach being talked about by:
- UNDP Accelerator Labs
- Dark Matter Labs
- Chôra Foundation
- Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI)
- Dan Hill
- Cognitive Edge
Who have I missed? Drop me a line on the chat in the bottom right.
Articles & Resources
This section aims to curate some of the articles and resources I've found most useful and illuminating in understanding and using the portfolio sensemaking approach.
UNDP - Introducing Portfolio Sensemaking
In this post from the UNDP Asia-Pacific team, they introduce the idea of portfolio sensemaking in the context of the Accelerator Labs.
Portfolio approaches to tackle complex challenges.
Some notes on the emerging practice of portfolio approaches by leads from UNDP & Chôra Foundation:
Portfolios & Experimentation
The Dark Matter Lab team collective letter about their hopes and aspirations for 2020 (perhaps that became a little more complex than expected...) articulating some of their portfolio approach:
The UNDP Team share some of their work to develop Portfolio protocols:
Saving the world: A portfolio approach
Rafael Kaufmann with a provocation about portfolio approaches to change:
Thoughts from the UNDP team about how the Accelerator Labs should function so that they didn't create a culture of innovation on the fringes:
Sitra Portfolio Workshop
This post from Sitra is from the gathering to develop the portfolio approach further, with UNDP and Climate-KIC heavily involved in the participation.
Sloan Management Review
This article from the Sloan Management Review outlines the portfolio management approach from an "innovation network" standpoint.
Directional Systems Innovation
Climate-KIC outline their move from single point solutions to ecosystems of innovation directed at systems change:
Sitra 'Portfolio Approaches' - Curated Links
Mikael Seppälä did a great piece of work sourcing and curating a range of links focused on 'Portfolio Approaches to Sustainability', into a Google Doc, which is a perpetual work in progress.
Network of Governance & Regulatory Experimentation
Proving that the portfolio sensemaking approach isn't just for shiny innovation efforts, a collective of bright minds (Dark Matter Labs et al) established a network of experimentation for one of the areas most in need of continuous improvement - governance & regulation.
International Innovation Portfolios
Another Sitra post, this one focused on innovation portfolios, internationally.
Transforming the Local Food sector
A post about one of the UNDP projects which is apply the portfolio sensemaking approach to the local food sector in Thailand, during COVID-19:
Dominic Hofstetter (of Climate-KIC) outlines how funding may be applied to a portfolio sensemaking approach:
Towards Targeted Systems Change
I wrote about my personal approach to creating a portfolio of prototypes, in the article 'Towards Targeted Systems Change':
COVID-19, Complexity & Leadership
Dave Snowden (of Cynefin & Sensemaker) talking during COVID-19 about how to support leaders to learn and reflect (cornerstones of portfolio sensemaking) and share across a network:
Prototyping Our Future
Written back in 2014, but addressing the idea of portfolios of innovation and drawing on social labs thinking, this free book is a notable early offering:
A catalyst for a wide range of projects rooted in place, to develop a community-level experiment to scale participatory culture by the OpenWorks team:
Portfolio-based Climate Strategy
A thorough look at how deeply Climate-KIC have embedded the idea of portfolio apporaches into their organisation-wide strategy:
UNDP team in Malawi on accepting complexity, identifying possible leverage points and generating learning and knowledge that is fed into future program design:
Snowballs vs Snowflakes
On different approaches to generating value from innovation activities - Chôra Foundation whitepaper on Layering Vs Funnelling:
From Narrative to Investment
The City Flow model developed by Dark Matter Labs, proposes a strategic process for Climate-KIC's "Healthy Clean Cities" initiative, and is a simple, approachable articulation of a portfolio approach:
Developing Public Sector Portfolios
A workshop guide by OPSI which makes resources available to anyone wanting to gather people and get to work exploring portfolio approaches:
The practice associated with portfolio approaches is growing in nuance and it's happening around the world in many different contexts.
Thankfully there's a reasonably large degree of open publishing about the experiences and findings, especially from the UNDP, Climate-KIC and Dark Matter Labs teams. Hat tips for this.
The next significant step I am interested in, is how these kinds of approaches can be normalised in all organisations which have a stake in tackling complex social & environmental problems. Currently, I'm working for a environmental-focused nonprofit which would significantly benefit from seeing:
a) tangible examples of portfolio approaches, and clear explanations of how they're different and why they might be better suited than current approaches
b) comparative evidence about portfolio performance, especially with an ROI lens, to assist with exploration of funding such approaches
c) pathways for capability building to support exploration of portfolio approaches
I'm looking forward to exploring how we can build on the collective learnings between the development of social labs in the 2010's, and the portfolio approaches which seem to be an evolution into the 2020's. I'm keen to hear from people doing this work in Australia especially.