Nurturing a new and lasting idea doesn’t result from analyzing market data. Aspiring creators must act on what nonprofits already know: you get the best answers by burying yourself in the questions.
Before Muhammad Yunus decided to start the innovative bank that would upend conventional wisdom and deliver affordable credit to the rural poor, he didn’t conduct grass-roots market research or consult a global positioning system for the best target markets. Certainly, he knew enough to compile such data; he was, after all, a highly trained economics professor. But the inspiration that led to Grameen Bank’s launch in 1976 came not from the depths of an ocean of market data, but from a personal bond and shared vision built by Yunus and the Bangladeshi farmers living in the village adjacent to Yunus’s home and university.
That shared vision came into focus as Yunus and the villagers spent time together as a community: in the rice fields in farming projects, in afternoon conversations at roadside tea stalls, and in late-evening dinners and debates. By working together and learning from one another, Yunus’s and the villagers’ unique knowledge, insights and perspectives came into creative collision, sowing the seeds for a profitable and scalable village banking model that neither could have conceived of independently. In time, Grameen Bank would profitably serve more than seven million women borrowers across some 75,000 villages of Bangladesh, with annual loan disbursement exceeding $800 million.1
The leading question
How can CEOs transform the innovation process itself — and not just the fruits of it — into a source of lasting value?
- Create demand by building a social movement, adapting the model nonprofits have used to tap purchasing power in low-income communities.
- Let the community pull your company into new markets or products.
- Humility can be learned — and must be practiced — if executives are going to be open to act on what they hear.
More than two decades later, another experiment began taking root. Motivated in part by the success of Grameen Bank, several corporations began to test the theory that an untapped, multitrillion-dollar consumer market could be found at the “base of the economic pyramid” or BoP — the four billion people with annual per capita incomes below $1,500 (purchasing power parity).2 One of the companies at the forefront of this movement has been Hindustan Unilever Ltd., formerly known as Hindustan Lever Ltd., the Indian subsidiary of the Dutch consumer products multinational Unilever N.V.