The Biggest Waste: Underutilised Human Potential – A three-step Approach to Develop and Better Utilise Talent

Poverty leads to an incredible waste of human potential. Think about the millions without access to the sorts of life chances that empower people to become the best version of themselves. For those who lack these chances, even one single opportunity could lead to an unimaginable difference. How can we make this happen?

Ever since the industrial revolution, one of the greatest desires of humanity has been to achieve economic growth through increased effectiveness. Adam Smith (Smith, 1776) and Frederick Winslow Taylor (Taylor, 1911) tried to achieve this through advocating for standardised work processes and the creation of economies of scale; Henry Ford by introducing the first moving production line (Ford, 1926); Japanese post-WWII manufacturers by inventing “Just in Time” management (Hutchins, 1999) and other lean manufacturing techniques; Daniel T. Jones and J. P. Womack by creating techniques to identify and eliminate non-value-adding activities; Steve Blank (Blank, 2020) and Eric Ries (Ries, 2011) by applying the same approach to the start-up environment.

However, many experts believe that despite all these advances in management thinking, one of the greatest problems that still remains unsolved is that of underutilised human potential (Sen, 1999). As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Abhijit Banerjee puts it: “poverty leads to an intolerable waste of talent (…) [it] is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being” (Banerjee, 2011).

An effective way to attack this problem of wasted talent is to design optimised educational initiatives. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues: “through education, learning, and skill formation, people can become much more productive over time, and this contributes greatly to the process of economic expansion” (Sen, 1999).


How to design better educational initiatives?

I propose a three-step approach that answers the following three questions:

  1. Why do students learn? Answering this question helps students to increase their motivation to learn.
  2. What will they learn? Offering clear answers here allows for the development of better educational materials.
  3. How will they learn it? Answering this question involves finding ways to deliver teaching materials in a more effective way and creating learning-boosting environments.


First, lack of motivation among students is a serious problem even in developed countries. (Ford, 2013) (Legault, 2006). Learning expert Ulrich Boser argues that the starting point of teaching should be to make knowledge and skills more personally significant for the student (Boser, 2019). Finding personal value and meaning in what we learn can be a powerful motivator: “purpose and relevance serve as the fuel for our drive to learn.” Experts call it “utility-value intervention” (Hulleman, 2009) (Harackiewicz, J. M).

Secondly, based on the concept of “Creating Shared Value” (Porter, 2011), we can initiate partnerships between the business sector and educational institutions. Synchronising the demand for knowledge workers with a large pool of people eager to learn could be a great way of developing mutually beneficial relationships (Hyslop, 2009).

Thirdly, we can design a better, science-based approach to delivering materials, in particular through greater appreciation for how memory works (Willis, 2007). The latest findings in memory research should be leveraged in replacing various  outdated but still widely used approaches (Boser, 2019). Here are a few discoveries that hold out the possibility of making a significant difference.

  • Designing personalised learning environments (Leung, 2007) can be a more effective way of teaching than traditional classrooms.
  • Replacing passive learning techniques with active retrieval can significantly boost long-term memory (Soderstrom, 2015).
  • Using flashcards (Kornell, 2009) to enable “spaced repetition” retrieval technique can significantly increase memory performance (Brown, 2014).

There are many such techniques that might be deployed in this manner to optimise learning. Indeed, the possibilities here are virtually limitless.

In implementing these methods for the elimination of underutilised human potential, it is hoped that some contribution can be made to the cumulative efforts of previous pioneers in the field of maximising economic effectiveness. By asking three simple questions (“Why lean?”, “What to learn?” and “How to learn?”), we can make progress towards creating more effective educational initiatives that help people to develop and better utilise their talent.

This is our responsibility. I believe that talent can be made (Gladwell, 2002) (Dweck, 2006) and that every individual has the right to reach his or her full potential. If we empower people, we can build a better world. Together.



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