Maximum Tolerance to Failure v. Idiot-Proof

A wee bit overwrought for you business types

In a meeting with Dunavant, Zambia’s largest cotton producer, the managing director cuts me off in the middle of explaining our mobile payment system to say:

“Just do whatever you want as long as it’s idiot-proof.”

Considering that I was explaining a roll-out of this system to his field staff and shed managers, that could’ve been taken as a bit of a slight. Instead, I take it as a bit of classic business realism: even the simplest things will be screwed up by well-intentioned fools and it pays to be prepared for it.

Nothing mind-blasting here. But the reason it’s so refreshing is because so often the development sector just doesn’t get this. They’re more concerned with possibilities than what they can actually pull off.

This was duly noted by a crusty English development worker, Eric Dudley, when he wrote in his book “The Critical Villager” that development ideas should be engineered for “maximum tolerance to failure”. In effect, he was exhorting his readers to make their designs idiot-proof so as to actually achieve some success instead of swept away in delusions of what could have been.

“Maximum tolerance to failure” v. “idiot-proof”. The second is some much pithier. Leave it to ‘development’ as a whole to over-complicate things. Leave it to business to get things done.

It’s one more reason why the methods of most modern NGOs are hopelessly unsuitable to making things happen: it takes a veteran author coining an elaborate phrase to sum up an idea every mediocre businessperson already knows.


3 Responses to “Maximum Tolerance to Failure v. Idiot-Proof”

  1. 1 Thulasy Balasubramaniam November 30, 2009 at 3:38 pm


    I just want to stand up for the development sector for a moment, which, as you know, I’m not wont to do often.

    The business of creating social change is inherently different and more complicated than the business of creating profit. While I’m no fan of development hacks who over-intellectualize everything, I certainly skeptical of joe entrepreneur who over-simplifies things too.

    I just think there needs to be an appreciation of how hard it is to actually “get things done” when tackling social problems. So hard, in fact, that I’d argue it’s less about the idiot proof or failure tolerant plan and more about how you respond to whatever happens.

    The Dudley-lover in me just had to say it, but I like the sentiment all the same.


    • 2 Elizabeth December 3, 2009 at 3:27 am

      But isn’t it also hard to “get things done” when starting up a business? You still have to deal with social issues, people who doubt your viability as a business, figuring out whether your business is appropriate for the time and place or if you should move elsewhere or try something else, dealing with investors or creditors etc. Or am I over simplifying things? I tend to do that.

      Also, would your response change depending on how the plan is set up? How would you react differently to a setback in a sky high plan vs an idiot-proof plan?

      Both really good points, is there a balance between considering the possibilities, big picture development social issues thinking, and nitty gritty business style idiot proof thinking?

      Thanks so much for your posts. I love reading these

      Elizabeth (EWB McMaster)

  2. 3 Ben December 5, 2009 at 6:23 am


    Well I think that I would generally agree you with respect to social change in the broadest sense, do you think that the ‘idiot-proof’ idea could be quite valuable specifically in AVC work? It seems to me, and I could very well be totally off base, that most of your work centres around facilitating business and helping them to develop and grow and as a result the ‘idiot proof’ idea could be relevant.

    Does this make sense or am I completely missing something and totally out to lunch?


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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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