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Discovery versus improvement in development: the case of VIA Water


This blog is the first in a seasonal series on VIA Water’s experiences in the development sector


As any juggler or musician will tell you, it is quite handy to be able to work with both hands. Yet, in development we – metaphorically – are either left-handed or right-handed: rarely the two are combined. We improve existing ideas mostly, and sometimes we discover new ideas. In this article we would like to explore whether we can strengthen development by working with two hands simultaneously.

The improvement versus discovery dilemma [1]  (James March, 1991) is most easily described by the choice between ‘sticking to what you know and making the best of that’ (improvement) versus ‘exploring the unknown’ (discovery). Both have up- and downsides of course. Sticking to what you know means you can perfect the situation; you know how to work with the possibilities you have. On the other hand you could be missing out on great opportunities that you do not yet know about, and your result could be sub-optimal. The problem with going for the ‘unknown options approach’ is that it takes time, is uncertain, and might not lead to success. It could be better than traditional methods, but there are no guarantees.

In development an extra element is added to the dilemma of pursuing either improvement or discovery. Unlike in business, where new opportunities are often needed to create more profit, in development profit is not the primary goal. This makes a possible sub-optimal outcome acceptable: since the organisation does not need profit to continue, there is no external drive to search for new ideas: one can stick to improving the ‘old’. At the same time there is often a strong sense of responsibility for the funds that are being managed. This means that discovery, in which you run the risk of failure, is often considered reckless. This is aggravated by the many control mechanisms in place, as well as through the focus of the public on the proper spending of funds. All of the above leads to the fact that many (if not most) development programmes are mostly improving in nature, which means certain opportunities might not be grasped. VIA Water is a discovery-minded programme, and we believe there is a strong need for a combination of both methods in development.

Innovation, the core of VIA Water
Although perhaps counterintuitive, in both approaches there is room for innovation. In fact, less than 15% of innovations are really radical, while over 55% of innovations are adaptations or improvements of existing products, systems or services (Gijs van Wulfen, 2016). In the improvement scenario, innovation will mean an application of existing knowledge, and a focus on results that can be well articulated and planned. The chances of achieving result are high, since the actors will have strong knowledge and long-time experience. However, the yield might be small. Innovation in a discovery scenario on the other hand, may be dangerous territory: a step-in-the-dark, a long shot: it will be fuzzy and difficult and it will mean finding answers to questions that are difficult to formulate. It also means results that are difficult to assess, and a high risk of ruining a reputation. But when results do occur, they could be higher.

VIA Water has been mostly based on the discovery-approach. It is a risk-taking programme, with a spirit of pioneering: not only the projects are encouraged to experiment, the programme itself was also set up by constantly tweaking and adjusting to upcoming circumstances and insights along the way. This – so far – has led to the funding of projects that would have otherwise not received support, and to the development of true entrepreneurs. It also leads to a strong local embedding and sense of ownership, and a business mind-set from the beginning of the project onwards.

Improvement vs discovery in development projects
Working from the improvement method the spending of funds should be justifiable years after the project has ended, since sustainability is closely related to accountability. A project has to contribute to objectives, and these should be measurable; a project can be 100% accounted for. There is less focus on perfect pre-defined plans or SMART results if you are in a discovery project such as the VIA Water ones: the results of the project are a game changer in itself (whether or not they still fit the initial goals): the project owner has gained confidence and determination, the project or its stakeholders strongly contribute to change of local systems or the project contributes to the building of a local system to support innovation. Goals and next steps might need to be reformulated along the way, and there is a high tolerance of restructuring and adaptation of plans.  Scaling is seen as a sign of success: without sustainability scaling is impossible (and vice versa), meaning scaling in itself is a condition and a proof of sustainability (as is common practice in a business environment).

The future of development: ambidexterity
Ambidexterity refers to someone being able to use both their right hand and their left hand. We can apply this to the improvement versus discovery dilemma as well: why choose? As development ventures more and more into trade (‘aid&trade’), the fact that many development instruments are based on an improvement model alone will need to change. The process of starting up a new business in a new market is by nature a process of discovery: it is a process of trying and failing, of working on ten ideas and have only one succeed. If development is ever to truly transform into a support system for local entrepreneurs and innovators, we will need programmes that are not risk-averse. Moreover, the financing field is changing. Less money is available as grants, while more money can be obtained as investments, requiring more guarantees on sustainability and more emphasis on revenues.

There is also an urgent need for acceleration of progress: to attain the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 we need to do more or do things differently. We cannot continue in our conventional ways when the world is changing. At the same time, this does not mean proven practices should be thrown out completely. The tremendous amount of knowledge and experience obtained in the past 50 years is a perfect base for a combined system of instruments: we will need both so we can improve the present and discover the future.


[1] In fact, the theory is named ‘exploration versus exploitation ’. However, to ensure better readability of this article we decided to use the words discovery and improvement instead.