How to 'pilot test' your program the right way

By Liana Barcia 09 November 2015

A pilot project for recovery and reconciliation by the United Nations Development Program launches in South Sudan. What should program managers do to ensure their pilots really do take off? Photo by: JC McIlwaine / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

The term ‘pilot’ can be overused and misused in the development field. It is often wrongly employed to refer to any small or early stage activities or projects — regardless of whether they have the capacity, potential or intention of operating at a larger scale.

The lack of a clear, formal definition is problematic for many seasoned program managers, whose interpretation of the word is tied to scalability and eventual large-scale implementation. A pilot should always anticipate what it would look like if it were being delivered at scale, says Larry Cooley, president emeritus of Management Systems International. And planning for scale influences everything — from strategy and project design to the way you structure incentives and engage third parties.

“I think a pilot really is just trying to look at a proof of concept,” Cory Heyman, chief program officer of Room to Read, told Devex. “I think that what makes a pilot different is the intention to learn something, and the intention to both prove the concept and to improve the model in a formal way.”

There are now more donors and funders than ever, but the average pilot project size and duration have both shrunk. According to Cooley, this has contributed to the increasing number of small, one-off projects that never make the transition to full or large-scale implementation. But how can program implementers avoid falling into the trap of “pilots going nowhere?” Devex spoke with a few experts and experienced professionals to compile some vital tips.

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About the author

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Liana Barcia

Liana is a Manila-based reporter at Devex focusing on education, development finance and public-private partnerships and contributing a wide range of content featured in the Development Insider, Money Matters and Doing Good newsletters. She draws from her experience in business reporting and advertising to generate coverage that is engaging, insightful and relevant to the Devex community.


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