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An Ode to the Thought Followers

Why most thought leadership is not thoughtful but is misleading

I think I speak for most development practitioners when I say we have a desire to constantly improve the way that we do our job. One way in which people seek to do this is by developing tools, approaches, and knowledge products which are intended to advance knowledge and improve practice. Unfortunately, not all of them meet this very high bar and many wilfully duck under it.

The drivers of drivel are primarily organisations rather than individuals but fault can be found at both levels. Organisations’ – including NGOs’, consultancies’, and donors’ - investments in ‘knowledge’ cannot be divorced from the political economy within which they exist. All of these organisations are competing. This is sometimes direct and short-term competition for funding, but it can also show up as much more indirect positioning for internal support. I have, multiple times in the last year alone, been asked to contribute to publications, webinars and other outputs where titles and formats have been set prior to the organisers having any idea as to what the ‘knowledge’ that these organisations are planning to present might be. Knowledge and learning units are established with KPIs on outputs which must be hit, irrespective of whether they have something valuable to say. It is difficult, then, to separate ‘learning’ from ‘marketing’ for many organisations and the mission of improving development has become secondary.

To give a much more concrete example from the MSD community, in reviewing four proposals for an MSD programme recently (from two INGOs, one contractor, and one local foundation), not one of them said they were adopting an MSD approach. Each was advocating their own Miraculously Suspended Disbelief Approach (…or whatever) without a cigarette paper of discernible technical difference from what was in The Operational Guide over 15 years ago. In all this rebranding, the knowledge borne of genuine challenges of MSD application to a given context, and much of the learning from comparable programmes is lost.

At an individual level, I’m far less cynical. Good people have good thoughts and good intentions. Their challenge is how to fit into their organisational systems to get these thoughts adopted within their organisations and make them available to the wider development community so that others might benefit. There is likely a skills issue – the proportion of development people (or even ‘knowledge managers’) with a research background isn’t particularly high and so it is difficult people to situate their thoughts in a way that genuinely advances knowledge, citing and building on others’ work, nor may they have the time to even try to do so. But there are also systemic constraints – when people are incentivised to produce outputs, with little quality control, the result is unlikely to be innovative ideas and new knowledge. In academic contexts, mentorship, supervision and peer review processes are designed to control for this, ensuring researchers have covered all bases in sharpening their thinking, but such systems don’t exist as we train our research and knowledge teams in a development context.

Why does it matter?

Isn’t this just like any market? Competitive consultancies, contractors, and NGOs use every tool in the commercial arsenal for positioning and this is just another of those, right? To a degree, yes, but there are some important differences. Firstly, we spend money in pursuit of development outcomes directly or indirectly. If an NGO project’s NICRA is used to pay for a ‘learning officer’ at HQ who then harvests and repackages information that is already freely available under another NGO’s brand, that is money that could’ve been used for programming. In this industry, if it doesn’t ‘add value’ it detracts from development outcomes. Secondly, development is not a normal ‘business’ or a purely capitalist transaction. There is a moral hazard in such cynical marketing practices. There is (quite rightly) a lot of scepticism around the corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices of multinationals as self-serving, unimpactful tokenism. Streams of ‘knowledge’ produced with taxpayer and philanthropic money that serve primarily to advance competitive interests make these criticisms sound all too familiar. But thirdly, and most practically, thought leadership that simply repackages old ideas in new brands actually creates confusion for the people trying to follow along and glean genuinely useful learning for implementation practice. The needle of knowledge for which you might be searching has moved from a haystack into an entire hay farm.

Does this matter? Not a lot. It’s mostly a grumpy old man lamenting seemingly wasted efforts of clever people when things have been produced that are genuinely good and should be influencing practice, but where the incentive structures dictate that wheels are constantly churning out reinvented ‘approaches’ and the emperor has an entire wardrobe of new clothes. Beyond that, there’s a lot of good money being spent in the name of ‘thought leadership’ by organisations and individuals but very little thought seems to be given to its outcomes. In recent times I’ve been interviewed by a number of ‘knowledge units’, projects, and organisations asking what they should write about, which seems somewhat backwards. I’m part of a number of working groups, communities of practice and the like – we join and contribute ideas so that others can write about them and hold webinars, gaining any political, intellectual, or network capital that comes from that.

What can we do about it?

And so to perhaps the most interesting and more constructive point in this article, a proposal for how we might do something to overcome some of the issues above.

Props to the quiet digesters

Firstly, we need to celebrate thought followers - I really want to celebrate those that read and didn’t write – even when they could have. Those that changed instead of telling other to do so. Those that accepted the reward of better practice over the reward of better visibility and all that comes with it. As the common trope would go of Gen Z, there’s no point going anywhere if you’re not going to post about it in Instagram, in MSD seemingly, there’s no point even reading an article if you’re not going to take to Linkedin to give us all your hot take on it.

But often, the best hot take is a cold takeaway; if all of these contributions are genuinely trying to influence policy and practice, then someone has to follow the thought leaders. I know for a fact that some of the things we’ve published recently have not been read by half of the people who gave them the Linkedin ‘thumbs up’. All appreciated if it helps more people to see something that we think adds value, but we’d really rather people used our research than displayed it on their feeds.

So if you’ve read or learned something interesting in the last year on MSD, done something about it, and maybe told someone else who you think might benefit from it – kudos. And double points if what you learned was from an organisation competing with your own!

You say it best when you say nothing at all

For Agora, our output on these issues has decreased a bit in recent years. MSD has been practiced for over 20 years now and a lot of bases have been covered. We generally keep our powder dry for when we feel we genuinely have something useful to say that others have not said and which has a chance of being read.

A second batch of kudos is being dispensed here, then, to all the half-started research projects. If you don’t have a graveyard of ideas for all those times that you thought something was interesting, but you then looked into it and found there was already lots of interesting stuff out there and so didn’t pursue it any further, then you’re not trying hard enough. And minus kudos if you’ve decided that you’re going to say something before you knew whether you had something to say.

This is probably a relevant point at which to state that this very piece was very nearly sent to the aforementioned graveyard of ideas. It was an article that started as a conversation, then a rant, and was then put to bed, before a couple thought leaders(!) caused me to wake it up again as they felt it was a valuable point of reflection for many of us in the community.

Putting the (absence of) money where my mouth is

We learn best through example and so here are a few articles, videos, webinars etc we nearly produced and didn’t, together with the reasons why:

  • As one of many development interventions which we get asked about as a normative solution rather than a contextualised, diagnostically-led solution farmers groups have pros and cons as Tim Stewart wrote back in 2014. Farmer Groups: Why We Love Them, Why We Do Them and Why They Fail (

  • We were asked to offer an in-person results measurement course for people using results chains, logframes and the likes. We integrate MRM support into our implementation programmes and we have some specific guidance around different methods but if you want an in-person course on results measurement, Aly Meihlbrant already offers an excellent option. Miehlbradt Consulting Ltd - Training

  • I want to highlight USAID’s Market Systems and Partnerships (MSP) programme for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the MSD tool library was a good example of curation over creation – although it also highlights the issue to some extent with 187 tools currently listed. Secondly, their regular mail out contains a what we’re reading section which goes some way towards ensuring research makes a more genuine contribution.

  • We were recently asked to write something on BDS markets for enterprises owned by poor people. There’s definitely a lot that we have, can, and will add in this space, in terms of how conclusions vary according to social networks and cultural contexts and embedding lean services within existing value chains. However, before embarking on this analysis, it would serve anyone well to look at the work of the late, great Alan Gibson and colleagues some 20 years ago Making business service markets work for the rural poor – a review of experience (

Suggestions and conclusions:

  1. Are you a thought follower? My grandparent used to say that you’ve got two ears and one mouth to encourage me to stop talking and start listening. I’d add to that that you’ve got two eyes and only one writing hand (?) so the same logic applies. Listen, read, learn implement. Improved practice is its own reward.

  2. Are you a designated ‘thought leader’? How about a bit of push back. Maybe you should try to be the best at implementing someone else’s approach rather than creating one of your own? Maybe it’s better to generate evidence to support or refute the thinking rather than to ignore and subvert it.

  3. At a really practical level, if you are going to develop something ‘new’ take this as a challenge to explicitly recognise and respond to what’s out there already. State exactly what you are adding and where. Engage in peer review and be willing to promote the work of others.


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