When best practices aren’t best: A look at Gridworks

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May 13, 2021

I recently read a headline decrying that in the year 2021, more than 600 million people in Africa have no access to electricity, and hundreds of millions of others who do only have access to unreliable, unpredictable, and intermittent power. These numbers are mind-boggling, but the UK’s CDC Group has set out to change them through a $325 million investment in Gridworks.

Gridworks is a development and investment platform targeting transmission, distribution, and off-grid electricity in Africa. Although it’s not alone in its vision to expand electricity infrastructure, the platform’s approach to market creation is anything but ordinary. Gridworks’ CEO Simon Hudson put it simply, “our mandate is to bring affordable, reliable power across Africa, [but] today there are no ready made investment opportunities in this space. So we have to create and develop those opportunities.”

For Gridworks, this means the activities it pursues in each country where it operates are dictated by the problems it needs to solve or the gaps it needs to fill. As a result, depending on the country, Gridworks may invest in a number of different components in order to successfully create a new market for electricity, including  “utility concessions, public private partnerships, management contracts, rural electrification programmes, isolated grid systems, off-grid to on-grid investments, and utility services companies.” In other words, circumstances determine the platform’s approach to investment, not best practices or “formulas” for how other markets have developed. This stands in stark contrast to how other organizations—development or otherwise—approach problem solving.

Taylorism and the birth of best practices 

The notion of best practices—that a certain way of doing things is more efficient and therefore better—can be traced to 19th-century author and management consultant, Frederick Winslow Taylor. While working as the chief engineer at Midvale Steelwork in Pennsylvania, Taylor felt that inefficiency was the biggest problem plaguing many of the plants and manufacturing operations during the industrial revolution, and standardization was the ideal solution. For example, as Todd Rose writes in his book The End of Average, Taylor “determined that the optimal amount of coal to shovel in a single swing was 21 pounds. So, he developed processes around that. According to him, there was a “best way” to do something and deviating from this “best” was inefficient, no matter the circumstance. 

Dubbed “Taylorism,” the notion of best practices has touched virtually every industry, most notably management consulting. While there is certainly value in understanding what’s worked best in the past, it’s a mistake to assume that when it comes to problem solving, one size fits all. Taylorism works best when applied to organizations or situations that face similar circumstances, but what Taylor misses, and Gridlocks gets, is that circumstances matter. Especially when it comes to creating new markets, the “best” way for one region might be completely inappropriate for another.

Myriad factors determine the best way forward when creating new markets in low- and middle-income countries, including existing infrastructure, political instability, government involvement, corruption, culture, and consumers’ wealth. While it may be tempting to copy and paste what’s worked in other regions—particularly those that are wealthy, where “best practices” often originate—to do so sets organizations up for failure. There are certainly common strategies organizations can adhere to that will increase their odds of success, but not every strategy will suit every organization. It’s the innovator’s task to observe what’s worked for others, and tailor those strategies to their unique circumstances.

If Gridworks stays the course, it should succeed in expanding affordable, reliable power across Africa. The specifics of how it does that will differ depending on the country where it is working, because each country will have a different gap to fill. But by resisting the allure of Taylorism and adopting circumstance-based problem solving, Gridworks can catalyze investments that will ultimately lead to the electrification of Africa. As someone who has experienced first-hand what it’s like to live with unpredictable and insufficient power, this will not only make life more comfortable for millions, but it will also be a boon to African economies.

Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa researches, writes, and speaks about ways in which innovation can transform organizations and create inclusive prosperity for many in emerging markets.