DevLearn Newsletter 1 – Enough Market Analysis Already!

Welcome to the first DevLearn newsletter! The aim is to stay connected with all the wonderful people we work with, and share useful tips and ideas on systems approaches to inclusive economic growth.

Each newsletter will include one practical tip, one insight, and one useful resource. Please send us feedback on what you find useful and what you would like to see more or less of. If you find it helpful, please forward to colleagues who can sign up through this link.

Tip: Don’t start with market analysis – start with quick interventions

A common mistake for new market systems development programmes is to spend too much time on analysis before starting interventions

This is something we intuitively understand in other aspects of our lives. Think about something that you love doing and are knowledgeable about – a sport, a hobby, or even raising a family. Ask yourself how you learned about this topic. Who taught you? What were your most important experiences? Where did you get your passion from?

Personally, for example, I love gardening – illustrated by the picture of an adventurous squirrel stealing my sunflowers. But I didn’t learn about gardening through a literature review. I started gardening during the lockdown in the UK, when I was bored, by finding an old trowel and planting some seeds. I tried reading gardening magazines but found them difficult to follow. Once I had some experience, I returned to the magazines, joined an online class, and found that it all made much more sense. Reading and analysis are not enough – it needs to be paired with experience.

This is also true in market systems. Data is often unavailable or unreliable, meaning that literature reviews can be time-consuming, misleading, or both. Market actors are a valuable source of information – but are busy, sometimes distrustful, and have little reason to speak to you. Too much analysis at the start of a programme can lead to a time-consuming review, re-review, and re-re-review from your management, senior management, and donors, all asking questions that are relevant but impossible to answer.

Deep understanding does not come from a literature review and a few interviews, but from running interventions and working to solve problems. You need a basic level of understanding to get started, but this should be supplemented with cheap, simple interventions. For example, set up a small grant opportunity for businesses hoping to expand, or for farmer associations looking to improve their management. Use this to get to know the market, understand market actor perspectives, and pick up some early results. You will learn from the experience, and find that your initial partners give you much more honest information when they get to know you. Treat analysis as an ongoing problem, not a once-off activity, and after a year you should be in a much better position to develop your market strategy.

Insight: Be a scout, not a soldier

Julia Galef has just written a great book called The Scout Mindset, which is really relevant for market systems development programmes.

Julia argues that, when we think and discuss, we are often in a ‘soldier mindset’. Rather than search for what is true, we try to find evidence that backs up the ideas we already hold. This idea is deeply embedded in the very language we use. Like a soldier, we try to ‘defend’ our ideas, and ‘shoot down’ the suggestions of others. Like a fortress, our beliefs can be ‘deep-rooted’ and ‘well-grounded’, ‘backed-up’ by arguments. During arguments, our positions can be ‘challenged’, ‘destroyed’, or ‘undermined’.

Instead, we should be more like a scout. Not a young child with a red scarf and badges, but a military scout. The job of a scout is to find out what’s really there. If there is a massive army on the other side of the hill, you may not like the fact, but you hope the scout will find out and tell you nonetheless. Similarly, a ‘scout mindset’ is one that tries to find the truth – not to simply defend existing ideas.

I think this is really relevant for market systems development. We like to think of ourselves as scouts, seeking to understand the market systems we work in, and regularly learning about our interventions. In reality, however, we act like soldiers much of the time. Once our initial analysis is completed and our partners are selected, it is very difficult to change our minds. We tend to ignore evidence that we might be addressing the wrong constraint, or emphasise positive results and ignore ways in which the partnership might be struggling.

What can we do? Julia gives a bunch of useful tips, but some quick ones are:

  • Ask how our theories might be wrong. You are probably familiar with the idea of a results chain. Once you’ve made one, imagine a situation where you didn’t achieve your impact-level targets. Why might that be? What might go wrong? What assumptions would prove invalid?
  • Bring in outsiders. Over time, a team finds it harder to challenge their shared narratives. Bring in other stakeholders – from government, the private sector, or your intended target group – to think about your analysis and logic, and suggest areas where you might be missing things.
  • Make yourself receptive to unpleasant truths. It can be tough to think about being wrong – and for that reason, we try to avoid it. If our market analysis ends up being flawed, we think this can create lots of problems for us and the project. In reality, however, it’s not too bad. Regularly ask yourself what would happen if your strategy was wrong or the intervention didn’t work. Think about how you would cope, and this will help you when you really come to it.

An additional tip for donors – the typical external review is almost designed to promote a soldier mindset. I’ve sat through plenty of reviews where the programme presented what they were doing, and the review team tried to criticise and find flaws in the work. This might aid accountability, but will not help the programme adopt a scout mindset.

A bonus resource for MEL fans

And finally, are you sick of SMART indicators? Would you like to make your own indicator-based acronym? Now you can with our Indicator Acronym Builder tool! Simply download the file by clicking here and enter your own letters into the blue boxes. The picture below shows the acronym DEVLEARN – but you can include whatever you want.

And finally…

Thanks for reading this newsletter, I hope you enjoyed it! If you did, please forward it on to a colleague and invite them to sign up through this link. Give us any feedback on what you found interesting and what you would like to see more or less of. You can also follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter below.