THEORY: The best development organizations are run like businesses

by Lindsey

Michael Schrage makes a seemingly counterintuitive point, although admittedly not his own, at HBR: put your best people on your most boring challenges.

How do you get the best value from your best people over time? The majority insisted that top talent’s time should focus on the highest value-added problems and opportunities. …

But one of your biggest issues is also — and will always be — the boring and horrendously inefficient scut work that all organizations accrue. NextJump’s Charlie Kim (yes, I got his permission to attribute), the founder of one of the internet’s most successful loyalty and rewards programs, argued that as organizations scale, they often slip, slide and default into less than mediocre processes that get the job done. Unfortunately, the job gets done in manual, jury-rigged or improvised ways that are deadly dull to manage and excruciatingly boring to fix.

Reaction: top-level in-country managers of aid and development organizations a) should recognize that opportunities to add value aren’t always exciting or even obvious; b) should set up a feedback system enabling anyone within the organization to report problems and inefficiencies; c) should be able to spin any “boring” problem as one whose solution would benefit the organization significantly; and d) should have sufficient resources to assign talented staff to identified (or even to identify) problems.

Example red flag: if your staff are spending more time wrangling financial reconciliations than implementing, monitoring and evaluating programs, it might be time to re-evaluate systems, policies and/or organizational structure. While reassigning field staff, flying in HQ staff or contracting out to highly qualified programmers or business consultants to address these “boring problems” can be expensive, won’t you think of the long-term improvements in efficiency?