Scaling Microfinance

At Mifos, we interested in growing microfinance institutions quickly. Why?

The problem is large:

Size of problem - pie chart showing number of poor people versus total world population

More than a third of the world’s population live in poverty: 2.7 billion people live in poverty out of a total world population of 6.7 billion. That’s 40% of the world living in poverty.

(source: Wikipedia entry on Poverty)

But MFIs don’t serve most poor people:

Microfinance market - bar chart of MFIs by number of clients and number of MFIs and percent of poor population served

(source: MIX Market data, chart by Grameen Foundation consultants Bryan Barnett, David Socha, and Mary Hausladen)

This is a very interesting chart. What does it show?

  • Most MFIs are small (15,000 clients or smaller).
  • Small MFIs serve a tiny fraction of the poor.
  • Large MFIs serve the most poor people.
  • There are very, very few large MFIs (1M clients or larger).

There are only about 3,000 MFIs in the world today. I don’t have a chart to show it, but the MIX Market data also shows that there is not much movement from one category to another – that is, most MFIs that are small, stay small. If this trend continues, microfinance won’t reach many poor people during my lifetime, and since microfinance is a key tool for ending poverty, we won’t make progress ending poverty.

However – there are some MFIs that can grow or “scale” quickly. One of our customers, Grameen Koota is growing exponentially, doubling about every 12 months, and will pass 500,000 clients this year.

Which points to an interesting strategy – find the MFIs that have the potential to grow quickly, and give them what they need to do it:

Moving mid-sized MFIs to large size - bar chart

Since MFIs can grow exponentially, it is possible to move mid-sized MFIs to large size. If we can create 27 new 5M-client MFIs per year, we can bring microfinance to all the poor people in the world by 2040. (World population is expected to be 10 billion by 2040; this means there would be 4 billion poor if the current proportion of poor to non-poor stays the same; 135M people/year * 30 years = 4.05 billion people.)

This is what we are doing. For more information, see the Technology for Microfinance Consortium.

Wanting to be great

Jim says:

“A want is a baby have. People need only join together in stating their goals, visualizing them, planning for them, and securing help from one another to achieve them. This is the heart and soul of teamwork.”

I saw this on a small scale recently – my team worked on an important bug in our software product for more than a year, not making any progress. We wanted to fix it, but we had other priorities too. Which meant that, practically speaking, it wasn’t going to get done, because it wasn’t our single priority.

We didn’t want to admit that to ourselves, though, and so we (and our customers) put up with this nagging pain for too long. Late last year, though, we finally decided we had had enough.

To fix it, a lot had to change. We had to admit to ourselves that we had a serious problem. And we had to expose this problem to our leaders to justify spending the time on it. We had to commit to having no other priorities until we fixed it. And we had to get external help. Fortunately, everyone was pragmatic and supportive! We did a whole release (Mifos 1.4) that was focused on fixing this bug. And of course – we fixed it! And in fairly short order, too. Kudos to SunGard India and Todd Farmer of MySQL for their help.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his office, with a picture of Mohandas K. Gandhi on the wall

I think to myself: what stopped us from doing that a year earlier? I think it comes down to not believing we could do it. Once we believed we could, working together we changed many things to make our want into a have.

I work for a not-for-profit company that is working to end poverty. But I still meet people working in this field who don’t believe we humans can actually end poverty! And I must say, if we don’t believe we can end poverty, we never will.

There are people who did believe we could make a kinder, more just world: Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi believed all people deserved civil rights, and before them Thomas Clarkson and the Quakers believed that people should not be slaves. These beliefs were outlandish at the time. But each of these people believed their movements could be great. And they each sought help – and received it. And prevailed.

Start by wanting to be great.

Boot Camp

Some programmers are ten times more productive than average programmers. Similarly, some teams are vastly more productive than other teams. We’ve all been on low productivity teams in our life. In fact, judging by the popularity of certain satirizations of mediocrity these low-productivity teams are more the rule than the exception.Earthrise from the Moon, taken by Apollo 11 astronauts

But there are exceptional teams. These teams tackle projects others consider impossible, have success after success, and actually seem to have fun doing their work while leaving others in the dust. But what actually makes them different from other teams? How can we create teams like this? How do we keep them together, alive, and vibrant?

These are important questions to us all. If we could be more effective at solving our problems like poverty, global warming, and war, the world would be a much happier place!

It’s important on other levels too – do you want to get more satisfaction from your family, your job, or your school? Since we humans work in groups, knowing how to create great teams is part of getting the life you want.

What’s a great team like?

Can you say these things about your workplace?

  1. My projects effortlessly complete on schedule and in budget every time.
  2. Every team I’ve ever been on has shared vision.
  3. In meetings, we only ever do what will get results.
  4. No one here blames “management”, or anyone else, if they don’t get what they want.
  5. Everybody here shares their best ideas right away.
  6. Ideas are immediately unanimously approved, improved, or rejected by the team.
  7. Action on approved ideas begins immediately.
  8. Conflict is always resolved swiftly and productively.

(adapted from the list here)

And while we’re at it, let’s not just get a merely “better” team. Let’s go for great – a team that is 10x better than the average team. What does a team like that look like? Where can we go for best practices we can follow?

The Core Protocols

These are a set of best practices for intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, designed by participants in Jim and Michele McCarthy’s teamwork laboratory called BootCamp. Two of the world’s foremost experts on teams, Jim and Michele have been running a series of simulations over the past 15 years for the purpose of asking the question, “what makes teams great?”

The Core Protocols are like recipes for good interactions – best practices that we can follow to help us get the most out of ourselves and our teams. They are hard to explain – how could following these commitments, recipes or “protocols” make my team great? Won’t they just lead to stilted, over-structured, and limited communication?

Despite being written down so clearly, practicing the Core is hard to explain in words. Like many things, there is a difference between reading about something and actually doing it. So there is a lot that I can’t convey here. But I can point to what it feels like.

Shadow Sun

In BootCamp, you immerse yourself in an environment where you use the Core Protocols all day, every day. The new skills you learn help you notice the barriers to greatness that exist in your mind, and practicing the Core with others helps you strip those barriers away. Together with your team you use your skills and your greatness to ship a product. The growth is exhilarating, awkward, and painful all at once. You feel what being part of a high-performance team is like. Because – you actually are part of a high-performance team.

Jim and Michele say:

The intense BootCamp experience includes all of the failures and triumphs that occur with normal team formation; the creation of a team-shared vision; and the design, implementation, and delivery of a product. The days in each BootCamp are packed with accelerated team dynamics; what usually takes a year or more is created in a few long days and nights of exceptionally deep engagement.

My team at Grameen Foundation wants to be one of those 10x teams, so we decided to hold a BootCamp recently, with the help of Jim and Michele McCarthy. It was an amazing and transformative experience. I highly recommend it. And the “booting” is continuing as I write this, because we’re taking that experience into our work as a team. It’s an experiment. I’ll say more about it on the pages of this blog.

Online civic space

Sidewalk cafe - civic spaceThe gist of Ran’s quote that I referred to in the last post was really about Google Buzz, privacy and civic space, and only referred to physical workspaces as a metaphor… but even online, there are different kinds of privacy and public space. Bloggers enjoy the civic space of conversation in the blogosphere and willingly give up some privacy to be a part of that conversation.

I think the reason they are – and I am – willing to do that is that we imagine we have some control of what we reveal. At my work, I still often go to a private conference room to have a one-on-one chat or take a phone call that I want to be private. And I have 1-1 chats via IRC and Skype. And me and my team members move between the public and private frequently.

Bloggers do this with some fluidity on line, and this is what people give up as they become more and more famous, the ability to have flexibility in mixing their public and private spaces. In the age of vast databases, data mining, NSA wiretapping, and social networks like Facebook and Buzz, the question of what is private, what is civic space, and what is oppression and invasion is often not under our control.
painting of a prison cell

The problem with Google Buzz is not that it’s public or private – it’s that we can’t easily choose who to associate with, or easily choose what is public and private. I think this what Ran was getting at when he said, “I feel myself being dragged out to sea in a rip current of increasing complexity.”

That’s what I think Ran’s reader missed – people don’t always want privacy over open space. Privacy and social status aren’t the same. You can have privacy in a corner office or a jail cell, or give it up by sitting at a sidewalk cafe, being homeless, or being famous. It’s choice that matters.

The economy of ideas, hierarchy and private space

Ran writes, “How much privacy a person has, is often an indication of what position they hold in a hierarchy. Who gets the corner office? Who gets a desk in the middle of an open area?” Yes, that is a cliché in corporate USA and Europe. However, Extreme Programming teams almost always sit together, and I think, in general, most great teams do too.

I think this is part of the shift from an industrial economy, to an economy of ideas. In an industrial economy, the emphasis is on repeatable, standardized processes. By definition, there is a small group of people setting the standards and designing the processes. The best standards win – think of Henry Ford’s production line, Taylorism, and school.

For some time our economy and society has been shifting to an economy based on ideas. Here, firms, teams, and people win by having better ideas, not standard ideas. New and creative ideas are valued. And the best way to develop creative ideas is with other people, not by sitting in a room by yourself. Even some CEOs recognize this – Intel’s former CEO Andy Grove used a cubicle partly because his co-workers could overhear his conversations and give him help.

There is a movement afoot. I often say I wish my work was like my son Martin’s school, PSCS – it feels vibrant, warm, and fun, and often when I go there I don’t want to leave. So one of the first things I did when I started working at Grameen Foundation was create a team room, and got my team members sitting together. Our productivity jumped because we could get help from each other quickly – and at least for me, the warmth of the place went up a lot.

In the programming world, there is controversy about this. Microsoft rarely uses team rooms, putting most programmers into private offices where they can’t collaborate in-person with each other. So does Joel Spolsky. And Don DeMarco recommends it in the great book Peopleware – the same book where he recounts the story of the legendary Black Team.

But there have been great teams that do it the other way, like Chrysler’s famous C3 team ¹ that spawned Extreme Programming (XP). ThoughtWorks does it this way, as does my friends Paul Ingalls’ and Troy Frever’s XP team at Smilebox. When I visit ThoughtWorks or Smilebox, I don’t want to leave.

Anarchists often say that big business is the same as fascism and oppression, and make up that there is nothing to learn from corporations and business. That is true for many or even most large corporations. Business are changing the world – many for worse, but more and more there are ones that change it for the better – and the way they do it is by implementing their ideas. In the world we live in, if you want to change the world, shipping is what counts.

And it’s easier to ship if you’re sitting in the same room with your team.

Note 1: The Chrysler C3 team actually did not fully complete their software for Chrysler, and the project was eventually was shut down. However, in addition to shipping software, they also shipped the Extreme Programming methodology, which had significant influence on the software industry. Mistakes and failures are not always what they seem to be. I’ll say more about that in a future post.


My idea for this blog is to participate in the discussion about creating a kinder, more gentle world. I’m passionate about creating enlightened society – one where people are effective at making each other happy, don’t coerce each other, and don’t hurt each other. I’m interested in creating happiness one-to-one, on teams, and on a large scaleat the scale of nations and worldwide.