Reprinted from Harvard Business Journal (Sept. 2010) by Thompson and MacMillan:
In recent years, we’ve all experienced considerable volatility—financial breakdowns, natural disasters, wars, and other disruptions. It’s clear we need new approaches to the world’s toughest economic challenges and social problems. Entrepreneurs can play a central role in finding the solutions, driving economic growth (building infrastructure, developing local talent, infusing struggling regions with investment capital) and helping hundreds of millions of people worldwide. If successful, socially minded entrepreneurial efforts create a virtuous cycle: The greater the profits these ventures make, the greater the incentives for them to grow their businesses. And the more societal problems they help alleviate, the more people who can join the mainstream of global consumers.
The failure rates for new companies and markets, however, are high. That is true anywhere in the world, including emerging economies. The management challenges associated with producing and marketing goods and services at the base of the economic pyramid include imperfect markets, uncertain prices and costs, nonexistent or unreliable infrastructure, weak or totally absent formal governance, untested applications of technology, and unpredictable competitive responses. Given this daunting uncertainty, entrepreneurs need a framework for “unfolding” success from a perceived or an emergent opportunity.
Turning Uncertainty into Risk
Entrepreneurs and others who want to launch businesses in, say, Latin America, Asia, or Africa but lack reliable data about those environments need to put together the best models and mechanisms they can, documenting their assumptions as they go. Critically, however, they need to systematically test each of the assumptions underpinning their preliminary models against a series of checkpoints and be prepared to change on the fly, redirecting their efforts through a process known as discovery-driven planning. In this way, they can act on emerging evidence instead of obstinately and blindly pursuing infeasible objectives. (See Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian C. MacMillan’s “Discovery-Driven Planning,” HBR July–August 1995.)
What Is Discovery-Driven Planning?
However, this method of planning is necessary but not sufficient to handle high-uncertainty ventures. In the following pages, we’ll look at how to combine discovery-driven planning with four other guidelines for building successful businesses in uncertain markets that we developed during a sustained field program carried out by the Wharton Societal Wealth Program (WSWP). Specifically, we’ll consider four social enterprise projects we helped launch in Africa and examine how the guidelines informed the work in each.
It’s important to note that the lessons here aren’t just for entrepreneurs. The management teams of established multinationals, foundations, large NGOs, and other nonprofits can apply them in any challenging and highly uncertain business situation. In doing so, they can better control their costs, increase their impact on society, minimize the effects of surprises, and know when to disengage from questionable projects.
Lessons from the Field
As part of our research in the WSWP—a nine-year-old field research program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business intended to examine the use of business models to develop projects that attack societal problems—we worked with 10 groups of local entrepreneurs trying to launch base-of-the-pyramid ventures in the United States and several African countries. Each project faced some or all of the elements of uncertainty cited earlier. In a few instances, even the initial objectives and desired outcomes were unclear, which made it tougher to make decisions about where and how to allocate resources.
“Resource allocation in Africa and which social venture projects to begin with is always a priority. Jumpstart projects which can help create micro enterprise businesses based on the larger resource project is a good start,” says Ray Dinning, social venture lawyer.
Ian MacMillan and James Thompson co-authored this article in Harvard Business Review.