An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

This post follows on from the previous one which introduced the concept of a ‘best fit’ approach to the ‘wicked problems’ in development. There I posited that consumer facing private enterprises looking at the African market would benefit from considering Development’s thought-leadership in this regard, given their experience in the challenging operating environments of the developing world.

I also noted that while the ‘best fit’ concept was a welcome paradigm shift for addressing complexity, the siloed thinking common to academia left far too many gaps in their approach and process.

In this post, I will begin to explore the seminal thinking (1) at the intersection of business and design  – also known as innovation planning – for methods and tools to address complexity in a holistic way, all the while keeping in mind that we need to ensure the end users (the rural poor, the people, or the beneficiaries) are at the center of the strategy (Chambers 1988).

Where is the gap?

A careful review of the working paper provides evidence that the challenge faced by international development practitioners when considering a ‘best fit’ approach to programme design is the lack of a robust methodology proven to take one from A to B. Here, we can think of point A as their original ‘best practice’ paradigm, and the attendant methods learnt through study and experience. Point B would be a validated process, with an accompanying toolkit, for applying the ‘best fit’ approach. One can confidently say a How To Handbook is missing, and the siloed thinking creates the barrier to developing one within the field.

What is the challenge?

While Ramalingam et al (2014) recognize the need for tools and processes from other disciplines more familiar with complex systems, one can gather a sense that they don’t know where to start. One cannot simply throw various methods and tools at problems, like spaghetti on the wall, to see which sticks. Even in mathematics, formulae are carefully selected based on the variables available, and the answer to be calculated. One doesn’t blindly throw data at all the available equations hoping to discover the one that fits the problem statement.

This challenge is better articulated in Matt Andrew’s blogpost which posits that the ‘best fit’ approach to policy and programme design is akin to choosing a new suit of clothes. The implication is one must try many different suits in order to discover the ‘best fit’. This is wasteful and time consuming.

What can people centred innovation planning offer?

First, the fundamental premise of human centered design firmly focuses the outcome of the processes on the context and needs of the end users. This orientation offers design a headstart in considering Robert Chambers’ emphasis on putting people first. The entire discipline is eminently suited to take on this challenge for international development, in an empathetic and holistic manner.

Second, addressing complex systems designed for human interaction is another key facet of the field of design, particularly the specializations that deal with computer human interaction of all types. This means there is a vast body of work created over decades meant to consider exactly this point.

Third, rather than wasting time and money on “trying on different suits” for ‘best fit’, there are proven approaches developed to minimize the failure rate of innovations introduced in the consumer market, and maximize the adoption rate by the end users. In particular, the areas of design thinking, design planning and design innovation have years of expertise in considering exactly this.

Finally, for development policies, and programmes to provide value for money, and sustainable, beneficial outcomes for their target audience, they must be designed such that they are viable, feasible, and desirable. This requires a holistic approach to solution development integrating elements from more than just one discipline, whether its design or development.

The philosophy of the methodology required to leap from “We must pivot to ‘best fit'” to bridging the gap of knowledge of “How to map the wicked problem and assess the context for programming” will be covered in the next article.



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)

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