Scaling Impact

‘Achieving scale’ might be the golden goose of social innovation. It’s a simple phrase, but its meaning and misunderstanding is not.

“How do we take this to scale?”

This common and often well-meaning question has enormous problems with it for social innovation besides the grammar.

Scale might be among the most widely misunderstood concepts in social innovation. It is most often framed as being about reaching more people, in more places, more often. The assumption behind this is that greater reach equals greater benefit by taking a new program or service beyond its original ‘scale’ to another scale.

Another core assumption is that it is the service that requires the focus of our scaling efforts to achieve impact. What if it was the impact itself that we emphasized rather than the means to it? That is the premise behind a new book by Robert McLean and John Gargani called Scaling Impact (which is freely available).

Pathways and Destinations

The book builds on work published in a 2018 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that looked at the science of scaling programs. One of the goals of the article was to engender conversation about what it means to scale our impact through our science-led initiatives.

Speaking at the recent annual conference of the American Evaluation Association, the authors reflected on their experience with programs that have ‘scaled’ one way or another, yet achieved mixed results in terms of impact. What works best is when there is a focus on the impact as assessed by those who the program is designed to support, not those who are necessarily the ‘owners’ of the program.

They point to three key scaling principles that govern the work:

  • Scaling takes place in complex systems and thus patterns of action are governed by complexity science principles.
  • This complexity requires a flexible approach to scaling that recognizes the dynamic context in which an innovation is being introduced.
  • Coordination is required to connect an evolving set of actors to the scaling process.

It also means determining the level of risk associated with the intervention as a key feature of whether impact will actually scale.

The implications for not only what we innovate, but how we innovate are tremendous. Risk determines the type of innovation that is needed based on the science we have about the impact effects and level of urgency associated with the problem.

The model below provides guidance in determining what kind of approach to innovation is needed. Even within a complex system there is the opportunity to recognize when it’s time to simply ‘go’ — when there is little need for more information or data. It also guides us to consider when using the Lean approach commonly associated with short burst innovation cycles or design sprints versus a more measured, phased approach.

McLean, R. & Gargani, J. (2019, November). Scaling Impact. Presentation at the 2019 meeting of the American Evaluation Association. Minneapolis, MN.

Scaling | Science

Returning to our lead question: What does it mean to achieve scale? Gargani and McLean offer us one answer. Another is provided by Geoffrey West, Professor at the Santa Fe Institute and scholar of complex systems. His outstanding book Scale outlines the scientific foundation for scaling and puts a lie to much of the discussion on the topic.

West, a physicist by training and polymath in practice, shows by connecting complexity to physics how much of what we know and think about scale is flawed. West echoes the idea that there are limits to growth and that everything from plants to animals to organizations and cities has a limited range of potential sizes, shapes, and configurations that are sustainable.

See the video embedded below (see link) for more details.

The lesson is that not everything scales uniformly and that attention to what scales, where, under what conditions, and to what effect requires much consideration and study before making assumptions about whether something can or should evolve up, out, or deep.

What Gargani, McLean and West are all making the case for is that scale is context dependent. We can’t simply ‘take something to scale’ without careful understanding of the environment, value, and impact we are looking to influence.

Scale is also multi-directional. As Darcy Riddell points out in her paper for the McConnell Foundation (PDF) scale can be seen as something we can understand as being out, up, or deep — looking at the way we create value by doing more, better, in a more sustainable manner (through culture change and institutional practice shifts).

The next time you have a discussion about a social innovation and someone asks the question about taking that idea to scale I suggest you respond with your question: “What do you mean by that?”

Note: Scaling impact involves designing and evaluating your innovation to meet the needs of those you seek to affect. Want help in doing this? Contact Cense and we can help with designing innovation that achieves impact — appropriately defined.

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

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