Strategy Development – In Small Meal Sized Chunks

A quick personal update before I get into the meat of this post. As you might know if you’ve been following Erin’s blog there have been some staff changes and rejigging of roles on our team this year, which has left me in charge of driving our strategy development process for the next three months. This is a great role for me – I love thinking and acting on strategy and it’s allowing me to test out a bunch of ideas on how we can incorporate elements of Customer Development and a great framework on business models called the Business Model Canvas from the fantastic book Business Model Generation. I’m really excited about pushing these ideas into our strategy process so we end up with more scalable, more exciting, and more impactful interventions.

For the next couple of posts I’ll be writing an overview of strategy development process for a few reasons. First, we’ve got five fantastic university students that will be joining us this summer for our Junior Fellowship program, and they will be integral to this process. I want to capture the process and articulate it to bring them on board, and as a resource for new folks in the future. I also want to use the series as a way to better articulate our approach so that we can get external feedback on its validity and share some of the ideas with the broader development community. Lastly, this will both make me think out the details of the process, and practice articulation of a somewhat technical topic. I originally was hoping that they would be “bite-sized” chunks, but I’ve revised that to “small meal-sized”, which I think is more appropriate – so get ready to dig in!

Before I get into details on our actual program, it helps to know a bit of the theory behind our approach. We focus on capacity building for local partners, in my case with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), in order to improve the operations of those partners. Part of our value-add as EWB is to take the time to search for new ideas, test their ability to achieve impact and then work out the details to actually take that idea to an appropriate scale where we get a good return on the investment in searching for new ideas. This sometimes is talked about as the [Search] -> [Prototype] -> [Pilot] -> [Scale] model. While this may seem like an obvious cycle for many of the engineers reading this blog, it often doesn’t happen that way in the aid sector. What we see more commonly is something closer to [Write Proposal in Washington/Rome/Accra] -> [Confirm Funding] -> [Execute at Scale]. The more common approach leaves little room for learning and adapting. See my previous post comparing the aid sector to high tech entrepreneurship for more on the downfalls of this approach.

While there is still some debate exactly what each element of the [Search] -> [Prototype] -> [Pilot] -> [Scale] looks like, the general principle is to end with more effective approaches by taking the time to test the potential ways the idea could fail or be improved before the full-scale execution phase where there is a lot of money flowing into activities and little room to adapt if the program’s assumptions don’t match reality. The important take-away is to know that EWB’s work focuses on capacity building by searching for great ideas and working with our partners to then take them to scale effectively, getting more bang for our buck.

For this post I just want to share some of the background thinking and reasoning behind where we’re at and what we’re doing. As you may know, my team has been largely focused on implementing and scaling the Agriculture as a Business Program (AAB) in MoFA district offices. We’ve been developing the program with MoFA over the past three years or so. We’ve seen some positive results at the farmer and district level, and one of our staff is working on a much bigger impact exploration that will be taking place over the next three months. As we’ve attempted to understand how it will scale, it is clear that it will be difficult to keep AAB on MoFA’s radar without an EWB member driving the implementation in a district. Having staff in every district from now until AAB is no longer useful to farmers is not a sustainable route. We’ve come to the realization that the program is not offering enough value to district staff (or possibly we’ve just done a bad job at marketing it) to have it prioritized over the other development partner projects that seem to be bombarding districts recently. Going forward we need to understand how to avoid this problem and improve the process by which we invest our limited resources.

Over the next few posts I want to explore how our experience with AAB, the fundamentals of the [Search] -> [Prototype] -> [Pilot] -> [Scale] model, and influences from the high-tech entrepreneurship world (namely Customer Development and the Business Model Canvas) will be driving our overall strategy development process.

You may have noticed that I’m very interested in applying concepts coming from the high-tech startup world to our team. Is this wise? Why would ideas from a completely different context work here? While I’ve blogged a bit about this before, I’ll add another piece of justification from one of Steve Blank’s blog posts called What’s a Startup? First Principles. Steve defines a startup as “an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Substitute business for impact and I think this is the essence of what we’re about at EWB. At the end of the day, we don’t have the resources to hire staff to implement our projects on a long-term basis, which is why we work with partners. Our job is to search for what that repeatable scalable impact model is and pass it off to our partner. In this sense, we’re operating exactly like a startup and so I’m betting that tools that work for startups will work for us too.

So, what’s next in this series? The first piece is to get up to speed on the big picture of our strategy development before diving into the Business (Impact) Model Canvas and what we’re actually learning. Here’s my rough guess at what the next couple of posts will look like:

Thanks for sticking it out through a pretty technical post – and hope you enjoyed it. There’s lots more to come!

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10 Responses to Strategy Development – In Small Meal Sized Chunks

  1. Marc-André says:

    This is really exciting Ben, thanks for sharing your research! I’m looking forward to reading the next posts in this series…!

  2. Anne Lombardi says:


    Great post! Interesting comparisons to the high-tech entrepreneurial sector, definitely makes sense. I’m looking forward to reading your “coming soon” posts, and to hearing about new strategy directions!


  3. Ben says:

    Thanks Anne and Marc! Next post is in the works, aiming to have it posted tomorrow for your consumption. Thanks for reading!

  4. Pingback: Development Digest – 01/04/11 « What am I doing here?

  5. Elmira R says:

    Hi Ben!
    Thanks for the great post. looking forward to reading more posts in the series!!
    It’s great that you guys are critical of MoFA’s impact and are sharing your thoughts openly. I’m excited to see what the 5 university students will bring to your team this summer :P

    – Elmira

  6. Ben says:

    Me too Elmira! May is coming fast and I can’t wait for all of you to join us. Going to be a great boost of people for the rainy season!

  7. Bailey says:

    Approaches to development shift so frequently that I’m always scared to get really excited about a new idea, and yet this model is so exciting! Very much in line with the move to randomized control tests which seems to be yielding really interesting results for development projects. I’m really excited to be a part of MoFA as you/we explore this!

    Sidenote: Can you tell me more about these other development partner projects that have been bombarding the district offices of late?

    • Ben says:

      Hey Bailey,

      I too am sceptical about the frequent shifts in development approaches – I recently attended a conference focusing on randomized control trials and was definitely on the sceptical side. Interesting that you relate this approach to RCTs, I think there are definitely some similarities in terms of having more hard evidence before moving something forward, but one of the tough things about RCTs is that they’re very hard to do at a small scale – in order to get statistically significant results you need a pretty huge sample size. In this way I think the approaches are quite different, although they serve very different purposes from my understanding as well.

      In terms of development partner projects with MoFA, here’s a few off the top of my head, but Erin could list more:
      Block Farms (actually funded by the government but essentially operates as an autonomous project)
      Northern Rural Growth Program (funded by IFAD)
      African Cashew Initiative (through the African Cashew Alliance, funded by Gates and GIZ)
      Farmer to Market (implemented by IFDC, funded by AGRA who is funded by Gates and Rockefeller)
      MiDA Ghana (funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, implemented by IFDC as well)

      I’ll stop there for now…


  8. Pingback: Strategy Development in Small Meal-Sized Chunks | Engineers Without Borders - Grand River

  9. Pingback: Development Digest – 09/04/11 « What am I doing here?

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