Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective

There has been an evolution in thinking about development practice. Buckley and Ward (2015) found a broad consensus for a shift from a ‘best-practice paradigm’ (Chambers 2011) to one of ‘best fit’ — that is, development interventions that are ‘optimally adapted’ to the socioeconomic, political and ecological context at any given moment (Ramalingam et al. 2014: 3).

While the private sector’s approach to consumer marketing and product innovation offers much to improve the success rates of government policy and development programming, there are lessons from development’s thought leadership that offer global brands a strategic advantage when considering the frontier markets on the African continent.

One of these is the pivot away from the ‘best practice paradigm’ – Robert Chambers anticipated the contemporary concept of design thinking in his lifetime’s body of work – to design for ‘best fit‘, an approach to crafting solutions to ‘wicked problems’ embraced recently by the UK’s DFID. Indeed, the UNECA’s recently released Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa explicitly mentions the need for industrial policy designed for ‘best fit’.

Corporate strategy consulting tends to rely on the ‘best practice paradigm’, and this is demonstrated in the slew of analysis and reports by large firms, and boutiques. While the African continent’s markets are still considered nascent, this approach may pass scrutiny, but as the South Africans are discovering to their cost, their own legacy of ‘best practices’ are not always fit for purpose further north of the SADC.

What can we take away from the field of development research?

Ramalingam et al’s abstract for their working paper “From best practice to best fit: understanding and navigating wicked problems in international development” starts with,

The methods of complex systems research are increasingly being used and valued by international development organisations. These approaches enable a shift away from existing tools and business processes that reinforce a focus on static, simple and linear problems. The evidence is that these methods can help development partners better navigate the complex, dynamic realities they face on a day-to-day basis.

However, scanning their references shows gaps that emerge from siloed thinking natural to narrowly focused academic research. Businesses of all stripes daily navigate complex, dynamic realities with greater vulnerability.  An interdisciplinary perspective, as espoused by Aalto University, would thus encourage the consideration of adding a soupçon of Business and Design, to the Engineering, prior to synthesizing the key elements of ‘best fit’ for new market entry strategy, viz.,

Strategy as a Wicked Problem by John Camillus (HBR 2008)
Living with Complexity by Don Norman (MIT Press 2010) Chapter 1 PDF
A Short Grandiose Theory of Design by Jay Doblin (STA Design Journal 1987)
Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan (Design Issues, 1992)

As we can see, business, and then design, both have given much thought to this space now being touched upon by development researchers and theorists. This will be the topic of the next post, what lessons my teachers might have to share with the practice of development. For now, we’ll consider the value inherent in their explorations of the subject matter.

Development’s value to the practice of business strategy and innovation (design) planning lies in its deep and decades long experience in developing countries. As Ha-Joon Chang et al state:

Insofar as most African economies look rather similar to each other economically, it is not because they are in the same continent but because all economies – in whichever continent they are – at low levels of development look rather similar to each other, due to the lack of specialisation and diversification in the production structure, which then leads to high degrees of homogeneity in occupational structures, social organisations, and lifestyles.

What the Development industry brings to the table is experience in operating in the challenging operating environments of the erstwhile third world, especially among the lower income segments of the population, and outside of the population dense conurbations. Only a handful of consumer facing global brands have anywhere near this type of experience, and that too from the profit maximization point of view. Emerging market consumer firms, hyper local startups, and others in the distribution chain with such ground level expertise in traditional markets tend to keep their strategies close to their chests and their trusted relationship networks even closer.

Till now, ‘best practice’ as conventionally approached by private sector and social enterprises keen on addressing these untapped opportunities has been to partner logically with local NGOs for local expertise. But the last mile of customer experience has always struggled to translate itself from thinking of satisfying demanding consumers to resonating with established mindsets of passive beneficiaries. This has had its own problems.

So, what does ‘best fit’ mean, then, in this context?

Matt Andrews, at the Harvard Kennedy School, thinks of it as choosing a new suit of clothes. However, this description I’ll hold on to for the next post as it contains the problem statement that our interdisciplinary methods are designed to address.

Ramalingam et al’s original version with authors’ formatting:

‘Best fit’, a concept stemming from governance efforts, describes aid programmes that are optimally adapted to the political, social and economic context. Such programmes can take advantage of a plurality of possible solutions, which can be deployed flexibly. They often work at multiple levels simultaneously – from community to national and even global policy levels – in order to facilitate and bring about change.

Businesses contemplating the African consumer market would do well to take such a holistic approach to their market entry strategies, and the design of products, services, and business models. Adapting to the complexity and challenges inherent in the developing world’s operating environment for ‘best fit’ becomes even more critical for successfully bridging the disparities of context.

This shift in orientation requires questioning the dominant logic of existing corporate best practices, and, instead, a willingness to explore, discover, and experiment with crafting wholly new approaches to sustainable business practice, on multiple levels simultaneously. They have the advantage of proven and robust methods and tools from the disciplines of design and business, requiring only a little tweaking of the lenses. Understanding customer needs should already be in their DNA.





NB: Interdisciplinarity involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project). It is about creating something new by crossing boundaries, and thinking across them.

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