When it comes to innovating, William Easterly from the World Bank believes there are two kinds of person:
Based upon his extensive experience in trying to deliver aid to the developing world (and documented in his book), he identified these two forms of person.
Planners think they have all of the answers already, and therefore tend to place their trust in external expertise and look for solutions from within their existing field of knowledge. Planners tend to favor top down solutions to each problem.
Searchers, on the other hand, readily admit that they don’t have the solution beforehand and accept that most situations are incredibly complex and require a very nuanced solution. Whereas planners like top down solutions, searchers tend to prefer bottom up ones instead.
In the aid community, there is a growing appreciation for the searcher based approach, which tends to place much more emphasis on local knowledge rather than experts parachuted into a situation.
In Easterly’s book, he documents a number of examples of where external experts have attempted to impose their solutions and ideas into an environment that they believed they understood fully, only for those solutions then to meet local, technical, and sometimes even legal resistance.
Alas, the aid community is stuffed full of planners, and just as with innovation, the community has a tendency to evaluate programs by the amount of money they spend rather than results they achieve.
Easterly recommends instead that this notion of the ‘big idea’ should be scrapped, for they so seldom result in anything remotely close to what was intended.
Instead, he suggests a much better approach is to constantly experiment, ensuring that you’re getting excellent feedback in a rapid manner and sense and respond your way to better outcomes.
It’s the kind of approach highlighted by the well respected positive deviance approach that I’ve written about many times on this blog before, and that I believe has much to teach us about how we innovate as organizations.
Whilst it’s probably fair to say that the worlds of foreign aid and innovation are not completely analogous, there are I think some strong parallels and lessons we can draw from it, and I’m sure you can recognize people that fit the ‘planner’ stereotype from your own organization.