The Road Not Taken: Adopting a portfolio approach

January 15, 2024

“… I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”[1]



Once upon a time


For nearly two decades working at UNDP, I was involved in the development of Country Programme Documents (CPDs) in different capacities, leadership roles, and duty stations. From inputs to crisis prevention and recovery in East Timor to coordinating the post-revolution CPD in Libya, then in Syria, and Honduras, to leading the design in Tunisia and Cambodia. CPDs seem like karma in all my assignments!  From CPD-as-usual, I moved intellectually from testing the concept of system design and toying with signal mapping, sense-making, and speculative design tools to untangle post-COVID new normals and frame the issue of trust in Tunisia, to lately getting fully immersed in portfolio design in Cambodia.


Context Clues


The 2024-2028 CPD in Cambodia was designed at times when the need to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs contended with global economic turbulence, escalating conflicts, and the worsening effects of climate change, and more specifically a historical handover of power to the younger generation of political leaders with all what it entails of uncertainty, complexity and legitimacy concerns. This uncertainty complex where the planetary and domestic forces interact prompted us to embark on the new and less known process of portfolios approach, hoping it would allow us to navigate development complexity, respond dynamically to changes in the context, and articulate radically different new programmatic options.


Deep listening was a crucial skill for understanding the context, stakeholders’ expectations and priorities, and UNDP Cambodia’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The listening started in December 2021 with an introduction to horizon scanning during the Accelerator Lab’s retreat. We used the PESTLE tool to understand the political landscape (P), economic situation (E), sociological and demographic context (S), technological prospects (T), legal developments and issues (L), and the state of the environment (E). A multi-disciplinary group of CO adventurers led our first trial for identifying signals, trends, and black swans[2],[3]. This exercise warmed up the CO team to a different way of doing and enabled the first round of collective sense-making exercise in March 2022[4] with CO colleagues, a local think-tank, Government champions, and representatives of NGOs and development partners, which assisted in the synthesis of issues into clusters, identification of their causal boundaries and structures, and the interpretation of their potential interactions, interrelations, and potential effects on our work. A follow-up consultation was later organized with the Resident Coordinator and selected UNCT partners who know our work to seek their views and perceptions. It is worth noting that these iterations took place during the pandemic and constraints on social gatherings in general and the number of participants at best. Building on the above, the first strategic foresight workshop was organized in August 2022 to derive scenarios of alternative futures and implications from the horizon scanning report. It was facilitated by the UNDP/ RBAP Senior Advisor for Strategic Foresight and introduced the team to the UNDP RBAP Foresight and Anticipatory Approaches. It also served to prioritize, validate, and stress-test future projections for the new CPD. The purpose was to ensure that the new CPD is as futures-informed as possible[5], [6].


The System


With the draft Portfolio Primer in hand, the team embarked on a system-design thinking process. We luckily made then the decision to follow the more complicated path of integrating systems thinking and design thinking for a holistic approach that is at the same time human-centered. So, in November 2022, a deep demo exercise, facilitated by the Strategic Innovation Unit and the Regional Innovation Team, was kicked off. The lengthy (and sometimes painful) online sessions were key to building the ambition (through the intent and desirable shifts) and revealing the criticality of cross-team and cross-theme linkages. It also helped us not only in defining the problem space and identifying corresponding learning needs, but it also left us with difficult questions to answer: How the office will be set up to work in a “systems” way? What would the dynamic management system and M&E look like? How to socialize this approach with UNCT and external partners?


With the insights gathered so far and guided by the new national development strategy[7], the outcomes of the joint UNCT work on the Common Country Assessment, and the draft UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF), we aligned our CPD to the strategic aim of the UNSDCF. As such, the overall intent of the CPD 2024-2028 is to leverage UNDP technical capabilities and convening power to steward domestic, regional, and global networks and resources to advocate and broker knowledge and finance for Cambodia’s LDC graduation and SDG acceleration. A series of design consultations were organized with national partners, civil society, the private sector, development partners, UN agencies, and youth representatives to discuss our proposed offer and garner their insights on development priorities, UNDP comparative advantage, and potential partnerships. Special focus was given to young people given that youth under the age of 30 represent two-thirds of the population. An online SDGs survey, a boot camp for youth representatives, a behavioral study targeting hard-to-reach youth, and an essay competition were launched to harness young people’s perceptions and expectations of the SDGs, and their vision for the future development of the country.


Consequently, three transformational shifts were identified for influencing the national growth model: The first shift is towards a society that enjoys multi-dimensional development that accelerates inclusive growth, economic diversification, and human development. The second shift is for a society that champions green economy and just energy transition in Southeast Asia and manages its environmental and natural resources sustainably as the foundation for national wealth, well-being, and resilience to shocks.​ The third shift is for stronger institutions, civic space, and people-centered digital governance for a peaceful and resilient society. The foundations or ‘building blocks’ needed for change were identified for each shift. Then, we prioritized UNDP’s ‘own’ result contributions (the basis for ongoing portfolio design) where comparative advantage, opportunities, and partnerships converge, with the caveat that other parts of the system would need to be addressed by other development actors. An iceberg and risk analysis was undertaken for each of these shifts focusing on corresponding events, trends, and underlying structures, at the national, regional, and global levels to distill potential risks[8] and opportunities and ensure that the CPD is risk-informed and forward-looking.  

Youth Consultation Bootcamp on Development Priorities in Cambodia

Youth Consultation Bootcamp on Development Priorities in Cambodia


Know Thyself


Given the level of uncertainty in our context, we had also to look inward and review UNDP Cambodia’s capacity for adaptation. An adaptive programming action research was completed during the first quarter of 2022[9]. The main objective was to analyze the programming approach applied during the pandemic by reviewing problem-solving process(es) and the authorizing environment, reflecting on actions taken and results, and codifying the adaptive programming approach for knowledge transfer and replication. It used a combination of background research, an online survey, and interviews targeting CO staff, former CO staff who moved on, staff from the Bangkok Regional Hub and Headquarters, the UN Resident Coordinator, UN Agencies, and key donors. The research showed that CO staff demonstrated considerable flexibility within existing guidelines and procedures to meet the exigencies of the crisis, using an entrepreneurial approach to exploring how best to respond and deliver value to the government and target beneficiaries. It recommended adopting a commonly agreed definition for adaptive programming (adaptive vs. flexible) and improving the uptake of adaptive programming with pre-shock preparations and actions at the onset of shock or triggering events.


On the other hand, an Independent Country Programme Evaluation (ICPE) was completed in January 2023. The ICPE generated valuable lessons learned but also recommendations for the upcoming programming cycle[10]. Recognizing UNDP’s convening power and capacity to build bridges between civil society and government, it recommended expanding collaborative action with development partners specialized in gender equality to improve gender mainstreaming effectiveness, optimizing area-based approaches to programming at the sub-national level, and maximizing opportunities for scaling initiatives. These were taken forward in the design of the new CPD.


Staying on track


A comprehensive monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) framework is being developed to guide implementation. The new MEL framework includes (1) accountability indicators to track progress against the UNSDCF and CPD results, (2) system-level indicators to monitor overall system dynamics and risks beyond those associated with UNDP interventions but which may have an impact on UNDP interventions and the Programme hypotheses and assumptions, and (3) learning indicators to extract new information and insights on emerging trends that feed into the iterative programming approach to allow for timely programmatic adjustments (when warranted) and inform exit strategies that maximize prospects for sustainability.


The CO launched two key studies on Leaving No One Behind (LNOB) and behavioral insight on women's socioeconomic inclusion in Cambodia. The areas were flagged as learning needs during the sense-making exercise. The outcomes of the studies will inform our portfolio(s) development and will be shared with the UNCT as a common good for joint programming (UNDP’s “integrator role”).


In Retrospect


The system-design approach resulted in an evidence-based, risk-informed, and forward-looking CPD. This new way of doing business allowed us to design a more responsive and adaptive Programme that will anticipate and adjust to uncertainties while responding to people’s needs. It is worth noting that while we all talk about portfolios with authority, we still seem to corporately understand portfolios and their feasibility differently. So, a common definition is essential. Some see portfolio management as a coordinated approach to managing related projects in a manner that aligns with their connected objectives. We, at the CO level, understand portfolio management as the selection, prioritization, and “collective” management of our projects ensuring they are consistently aligned with our strategic shift(s) to deliver results[11], and more importantly benefits to stakeholders[12], as drivers for agency and change.


We learned in the process that for systems to learn and adapt, the growth and the degree of adaptation depend upon how well the system is engaged with its environment and other neighboring/ nested systems that influence its organization and continuity. Thus, it is crucial to understand the system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions, and relations, and to internalize its principles (ex. purpose, operation(s), measures, stakeholders, political economy, etc.). For this purpose, the importance of access to data and information cannot be underestimated, but also the access to social and behavioral insights and ‘informed intuition’ (for black swans).


We also found out that the ability to innovate depends on several interconnected factors such as leadership, resources (both human and financial), culture, structures, processes, partnerships, and above all risk appetite. Awareness and cultural shifts were promoted by HQ, but the CO was not yet prepared for it.  While I was enjoying my intellectual nirvana, I probably gave some nightmares to the team, who had to follow a steep learning curve and adjust to an existential change process in how we see the world and how we approach development. Investments were frontloaded to develop awareness and needed capabilities locally- still a work in progress. This was important for colleagues to understand, buy-in, and join in, but also to take strategic innovation beyond the realm of the AccLab team and sow the seed for a new collaborative culture across teams. One had to be creative to incentivize and motivate colleagues to go against the grain, contribute and overcome the “silo” impasse. Kudos to my colleagues for their grit! But, one often hears “Be careful what you wish for”! With a new way of doing business comes the reflection on profiles, expertise, and optimizing the structure for executing and adapting as needed the new Programme to remain relevant to the Government and communities. This opened the Pandora’s box of CO Strategic Review– another story for another day!


Finally, I would like to commend global and regional investments, namely, the Portfolio Initiation Framework, AccLab global initiative, and RBAP’s investment in sense-making and foresight, which contributed to the cumulative effect of a more coherent programme.  The task was nonetheless laborious since these resources were sometimes disjointed and often unknown in COs. Besides, the enabling environment for shifting to portfolio management is still constrained. I am hinting at the legal and operational processes (Sorry for the broken record!), the financial architecture that facilitates timely funding to move the system’s components (or shifts) on time for impact, and partnership strategies that ensure other actors adopt and step in sync to contribute with us to the system evolution.


Last Thought


Tomorrow has already started for UNDP Cambodia with the ongoing development of three portfolios to address cross-thematically key wicked challenges relating to youth, circular economy, and climate action. Our journey began with a critical choice, “… Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubt[ed] if I should ever come back[13].”


[1] Robert Frost, from his poem The Road Not Taken. 

[2] That is potential outliers and rare events that are beyond the realm of available data or normal expectations.

[3] Horizon Scanning Report. 2022. Prepared by UNDP Cambodia Accelerator Lab.

[4] Intelligence Report, March 2022. Prepared by Prateeksha Singh, UNDP Strategic Innovation Unit. 

[5] RBAP Horizon Scanning 2.0 Sensemaking Report Focus Country: Cambodia Report, October 2022.  

[6] UNDP Cambodia Foresight Playbook. 2023. Prepared by Paula Gil. April 2023. 

[7] Known as the Pentagonal Strategy Phase I 2024-2028. 

[8] Futures Analysis, UNDP Cambodia, April 2023. Prepared by Paula Gil.

[9] RBAP/ BRH funding under the Asia-Pacific initiative “Capacity for Experience Sharing Initiative” (CESI). 

[10] Independent Country Programme Evaluation Cambodia, January 2023. Prepared by the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO). 

[11] They include output results such as products, services, processes, and skills produced by projects; and outcome results such as business or institutional change resulting from output(s). 

[12] That is, the advantage(s) gained by stakeholders through achieving results that will contribute to moving the shift(s) forward. 

[13] Robert Frost, from his poem The Road Not Taken.