Taking innovations to scale


I spend a fair amount of time thinking about scale.

As in, how can we bring enough good to enough people to really make a difference?

How can we build delivery mechanisms that can make great ideas accessible to all who need and deserve them?

And how can we accomplish scale without completely losing agility and responsiveness and locality, and the empowerment that should accompany them?

There is a really thoughtful article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review about the paradoxes of innovation, and all of it is worth reading. It raises concerns about the dangers of ‘cultification’ as people follow the latest innovation to the detriment of established approaches (without necessarily attending to impact), as well as the difficulty of compromising enough–but not too much–to cross boundaries in pursuit of workable innovations.

But the piece that jumped out at me most is around the different processes needed to spark innovation and, then, to build the systems capable of scaling that innovation.

This third paradox is, itself, the subject of a SSIR article on the balance between innovation and scale.

The breakthrough for me in this analysis is the model of the organization’s capacity for continuous innovation (OCCI), which positions innovation and scale not as diametrically opposed but, instead, as both part of the organization’s evolution–in essence, innovating new approaches and then innovating the systems necessarily to scale those innovations. There is tension, clearly, as one seeks to increase variance in search of the best approach while the other decreases variance in order to standardize a system.

But tension can be creative, and, importantly, some of the same internal and external characteristics are associated with high levels of capacity in both functions, knitted together as OCCI. This is so critical, because I think that we often fall into a trap of reifying nonprofit organizations and, then, assuming that they are like people–either really good at divergent thinking or more convergent types, but fundamentally incapable of both coming up with good ideas and then figuring out how to tweak them into stability.

That can lead to dangerous type-casting, where some organizations do the scaling (often losing something valuable about the nature of the intervention) while others perpetually experiment, yielding tremendous outcomes but never able to really ‘move the needle’ on our greatest social problems.

The article includes a fairly lengthy case study of an organization innovating and scaling, but I’m interested in other examples from your own work, of how you create and sustain organizational cultures that simultaneously seek new solutions and figure out how to get those solutions to a scope and size where they can wield maximum potency.

Where do you see organizations ‘stuck’ in ceaseless innovation or, conversely, preoccupied with scaling approaches that may not deserve it? And where do you see bright spots of organizations with OCCI that helps them make it all look easy?

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