At the heart of current policy thinking about Africa there is a significant knowledge gap concerning governance and development. This IDS Bulletin is concerned with what can be done about that, drawing on the initial experience of the Africa Power and Politics Programme. The APPP is committed to discovering forms of governance that work better for development than those prescribed by the current ‘good governance’ orthodoxy. It aims to do so chiefly by examining the range of post-colonial experience in sub-Saharan Africa focusing especially on under-appreciated patterns of difference in institutions and outcomes. This article explains the rationale of this approach and outlines the options which have shaped the programme's methods and concepts. A central challenge has been operationalising the working hypothesis that institutions function better when they ‘work with the grain’ of the society which hosts them.