Someone I worked with in an early life used to say this a lot: “I could have saved you some money”.
I got to really love the ethos of this simple statement – its ability to bring feet on the ground. Playful but dead serious. You will not believe how many opportunities I had ever since to use this phrase, as I made my way through this industry year after year.
- The multi-agency “assessment” that will confirm that “systems need strengthening”? – I could have saved you some money.
- The supply chain evaluation that will inform that “capacity building” is needed – I could have saved you some money;
- The 6 months operational survey that shows that people are embarrassed to buy condoms? I could have saved you some money.
- The impact assessment of that behavioral-change campaign involving t-shirts that say “AIDS Kills”? I could have saved you some money.
- The involved 6-month long, inter-agency “field” research that showed that mosquito nets acquire holes a lot sooner than 3 years? I could have save you some money.
- The thorough ethnographic research in which everyone reads something else that somehow simply confirms whatever it was they were already doing? Could have saved you some money.
You get the picture.
For all these years I have never stopped wondering: why is everyone so obsessed with large, long, complicated studies, anyway? Or, for that matter with elaborate, complex solutions that require consensus on methodology and interpretation across a vast number of people and organizations. Or with consensus itself.
“Make sure you don’t reinvent the wheel“, they say.
“Yeah, but this is not a silver bullet”, they say.
(As if large committees of professional meeting-attenders are very good at inventing silver-bullets (or whatever the opposite of “reinventing the wheels” is).
Me? I adore the back-of-the-envelope. Tre trial-and-error. The quick-and dirty. The guesstimate. (And I can’t help been suspicious of any topic on which many people find “consensus”, but that is a topic for another time).
I am a true believer that, with enough tolerance to error, everything can be measured with enough precision to inform action. I am also a true believer in the fact that most of the time action based on imperfect information is preferable to inaction awaiting the perfect information.
Not a belief widely shared in our coordination-obsessed industry, unfortunately.
Everything truly complex around us is a product of small, imperfect adjustments done continuously, based on small pieces of information learned gradually. Small pieces added one after the other, growing or failing organically and informing the next step. Science. Bloody nature itself.
None of these pieces has ever been a “silver bullet”. And good things often come from doing the same thing differently (i.e. reinventing the wheel). So next time you are contemplating that multi-agency, cross sector assessment? Well, give me a call, I may be able to save you some money.