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Navigating the scaling literature

by Heather Hachigian Associate Faculty, Royal Roads University

It is widely held that the scale of our work in the social sector does not yet match the scale of threats facing humanity and the environment. Pilot projects designed to serve hundreds of people are often conceived with no consideration for how they will one day serve millions. And even when projects serve millions, their impacts are often shallow. An employment intervention for refugees may offer high replication potential but overlook underlying biases and systems that exclude these individuals in the first place. To address these challenges, business and non-profit leaders around the world are looking at interventions that are proven on a small-scale, and then working to increase the depth, spread and reach of their impact. This process of increasing impact is often called scaling.

To support the private and non-profit sectors in their scaling efforts, some higher-education institutions – such as Royal Roads University – now offer courses on scaling. Indeed, academic institutions have an important role to play in bringing rigour and research-informed insights to the practice of scaling impact.

But the scaling literature is nascent and research is only beginning to look at the processes and conditions for successful scaling. Foundational knowledge about scaling is difficult to establish, since the scaling literature necessarily crosses several academic disciplines. And while there is no shortage of scaling checklists and frameworks, this guidance is often derived from context-specific knowledge. It is not clear, for example, how guidance on scaling market-based solutions in emerging markets applies to scaling a government-funded program in Canada.

To help navigate these challenges, I have compiled this collection of scaling literature. While several combinations of these readings offer valuable insights and lessons for practitioners and scholars alike, in my experience, the following four lessons strongly resonate with our students – (i.e., the arbitrators between theory and practice).

  1. Scale takes time: It is convenient to assume that scaling aligns with other organizational timelines, such as strategic plans and budgetary cycles. But scale takes time to validate, not only the innovation but the business model and operating model that will carry the innovation to scale. I am grateful to Dr. Kevin McKague, Canada Research Chair in Social Enterprise and Inclusive Markets, for sharing this insight with me.
  2. Organizations scale impact:  Students often come to the course thinking that if they have a good idea, then the innovation will scale itself. But scaling requires some entity to do the work. This invokes all the usual, messy business of organizational life, including mis-aligned incentives, conflicts and leadership, and funding gaps. Seelos and Mair (2016) and Deiglemer and Greco (2018) offer excellent accounts of the organizational processes and pathologies that are at play in scaling. 
  3. Innovation and scale are distinct processes: Innovating requires different leadership capabilities, incentives, governance structures and performance metrics than scaling does. Seelos and Mair (2017) present a valuable conceptual framework for understanding the differences between these two processes and how they work together to create impact.
  4. Scale and systems change do not go hand in hand:  Systems change is often regarded as synonymous with scale. It is assumed that to achieve scale, you must change the systems that lock in existing, undesirable patterns. And if you are engaged in changing the system, you must be scaling. Some scholars have recently challenged this view. For example, Marti (2018) cautions that even business models intended to create positive impacts may create “multifarious unexpected impacts.” In a similar vein, Seelos and Mair (2018) argue that scale can be a high-risk route to systems change. In their view, scaling is just one way to change a system. Other ways include creating a new system to attract the existing system to a new trajectory, or isolating and changing a sub-system. The authors encourage us to view systems change as an innovation process itself. Indeed, it would be ill-advised to begin an innovation by going ‘all in’ and we should heed this advice when engaging with systems.

Scaling impact is challenging, and understanding how and why organizations succeed in scaling is equally challenging. We must continue to generate a deeper understanding of the processes and conditions for effective scaling to address emerging environmental and social threats. Indeed, there are several promising resources to inform our scaling efforts, and several others are in the works. I am confident that, as more students engage with the scaling literature, we will advance toward a deeper integration between theory and practice. I welcome other scaling students and educators to share the resources that you have found most valuable.

Jun 25, 2019 |