Published on Voices

Pilots are for airplanes, not projects

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I recently heard a senior official from an African country emphatically say she wants nothing to do with pilot projects. There are too many of them she asserted and not enough to show for them. Pilots are for planes not projects, she said.

I can’t help but smile when I hear that because I mostly agree with her. The practice of global development looks like a cemetery of pilots that never grew, and sometimes pilots that died without even knowing what went wrong or why. That’s an entirely avoidable outcome, but one that requires a much more disciplined approach to data-driven experimentation and continuous, deliberative learning.

And yet I often hear my colleagues react negatively to the idea of experimentation when it comes to poverty alleviation. How can we ‘test’ solutions on poor communities who cannot afford the risk of failure? But that assumes that what we’re doing is working, that governments and non-profits are meeting the needs of the poor and that outcomes are largely positive. We know that’s not the case. So why are we shy about asserting that we need to try new things, test what is untested, and accept that many things will not succeed the first time but that’s not failure as long as we’re learning and improving what we do? 

If we want breakthrough innovation, we need to break a few things along the way and understand what went wrong. In the spirit of continuous learning, I think it’s important to distinguish between a pilot and a prototype. Piloting is when we start small, tinker, and later grapple with how we grow and scale impact. When things don’t go as planned, we look for people to blame and hide our failures. Scale is hardly ever reached because we don’t start with the end-game in mind.

Conversely, a prototype is when you thing big (from the start), start small, move fast, learn fast, and grow. It’s an experimental process driven by data, observation, continuous learning. It’s about a deliberate process that is iterative, modular, and designed to scale from the beginning.

Think of a ‘demonstration school’ in an impoverished African village where all the children are provided with textbooks, nutritious meals, and good quality teachers. When results are promising in the first village, the ‘pilot’ is lauded as a success but it’s entirely unclear how results will be replicated, whether the ‘solution’ is commensurate with the scale of the problem and how unit costs will be reduced over time.  Contrast this with a school-in-the box model developed in Kenya which trains hundreds of local instructors (most of whom are not formally trained teachers), leverages low-cost information technologies to deliver curricula and measure learning outcomes, and keeps costs to less than $8/student per month. The ‘prototype’ has a much higher chance of scaling across the country because it was designed from the beginning with the end in mind.  

It may sound obvious why the latter approach is better than the former. My experience, however, suggests that many development projects fall into this avoidable trap. If we’re going to solve social problems at the scale that’s required, we need to get this right. So let’s keep our pilots in airports and strive for something better in schools and hospitals.


Aleem Walji

Director, Innovation Labs

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