FT: The Biggest Idea Might Be Learning to Think Small

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I spend my life sitting in boardrooms across from chief executives asking me to help them find that mythical beast, “the big idea”. To them, I say this: “Small is the new big.”

I feel this even more strongly after a recent visit to Bangladesh to meet Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. I wanted to better understand the Grameen organisation, its micro-financing banking system, and its collaboration with the global French food group, Danone. There, I would see with my own eyes what social enterprise looks and feels like when the rubber hits the road. In recent years, Ideo’s client base has increasingly been about designing not only for financial but also for social impact, and a visceral sense of the opportunities and realities was what I was looking to learn.

What hit me was the scale of the enterprise and how a small seed of an idea could be world-changing in its impact.

Prof Yunus talks about scale in the context of poverty: “To me, poor people are like bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed of the tallest tree in a flowerpot, you get a replica of the tallest tree, only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted, only the soil base that is too inadequate. Poor people are bonsai people. There is nothing wrong in their seeds. Simply, society never gave them the base to grow on.”

Grameen Bank gives tiny, collateral-free loans, mainly to women,along with huge amounts of trust that they will reliably pay the loans back. Small local branches are run by the “Grameen lad-ies”, who take pride in making their own and their customers’ loan repayments – treating everyone well and behaving, frankly, more professionally than many bank professionals.

Source: Financial Times (link opens in a new window)