Rethinking scale

You know that moment when there’s an idea that has been lingering, unformulated in your mind, and you read something that crystalizes it for you? This quote did it for me about the idea of “scaling” businesses, a concept that seems so taken for granted even in innovative / social enterprise circles, but which I’ve resisted in recent years:

“Taking things to scale doesn’t happen vertically through one-size-fits-all replication strategies, although this is today’s dominant approach. Change happens as local experiments move horizontally through networks of relationship, scaling across communities and nations. People become inspired by one another’s discoveries and create their own initiatives; they also support one another as pioneers.”

(Source: Five Things To Walk Out Of (and Five Things To Walk On To), by Meg Wheatley and Debbie Freeze.)–and I found it in this article about reinventing social systems by George Pór.

I believe that many people looking to create social change (I’ve seen this in myself in many moments) meet their best intentions with a great deal of ego — an extension of the “white savior complex” (it doesn’t really have anything to do with being white, but it does have quite a bit to do with power and privilege). Each of us individually wants to be important; we pit ourself against the world and imagine ourselves as agents of change upon it — rather than a part of an already ever-changing world.

And we want to be able to wave our magic wand and have the solution we built be “scaled up” across the world. Scale is a concept based in the modern/capitalistic paradigm that values growth as the ultimate goal — based, as described here, in a financial system where value is no longer material, but virtual (I think that comes down to the ability to make money off of money — abstracted at one or various removes from material reality, but I’m no finance expert). That article also explores some interesting, de-centralized, bottom-up approaches to credit that challenge the dominant paradigm, using the systems of nature as inspiration.

(Photo credit Joysaphine; no changes made).

Two years ago I began collaborating with TinteMaya, a self-started cooperative of 25 women weavers from the Tz’utujil Maya culture in San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala. Having worked primarily with U.S.-based organizations, I was interested in seeing what it would be like to be a part of a truly grassroots organization — one where I had no formal authority. My ideas for “growing the business” often met no forward momentum with the group. For the women of TinteMaya, preserving their ways of life — being able to work from home, take care of their kids, and continue the rhythm of life as they know it — is paramount. Things necessary for growth (in the modern, capitalistic sense) — like standardizing production, inventory control, etc. — also require certain changes the women do not desire.

I have at many times needed to swallow my agenda and remember that I’m just a helper, facilitating growth as the women envision and desire it. This issue is tremendously complex, as many times a desire to preserve traditional lifeways is mixed in with fear of the unknown and the social insecurity that many indigenous women in Guatemala experience from being at the outskirts of inclusion in the formal systems of education and enterprise. Add to that the impact of financial poverty on the ability to plan for the longterm (its hard to invest in your future when you’re thinking about where your next meal is going to come from). Yet me “pushing” is not nearly as empowering or appropriate as sharing ideas and building trust so the group can maintain autonomy and grow in a way that is natural to them. After all, I don’t have the answers.

Still, the juggernaut of globalization is incredibly powerful. For a little over 6 months, I worked with a start-up that sourced artisan textiles for mainstream fashion brands. That company responded to the demands of their customers who live and breathe and are the churn of the modern fashion industry. That pressure was pushed down to the artisan groups. In many ways, the message seemed to be: get on board or jump off the boat (and lose out).

I believe that “go big or go home” is only true inasmuch as we all buy into it. The most inspiring book I’ve read in the last year was Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. The reason I loved reading it was because it got me out of my head by focusing on case studies of real organizations in the real world that are challenging the dominant paradigm and proving that other ways are possible, and can be successful (in terms of profit metrics, but more importantly, promoting well-being and life).

How does growth happen in nature? The tree has nothing to prove — its transformation from seed to seedling to great oak is not a matter of great personal effort. Its roots are able to find what they need as they respond gently to external forces. Its wisdom is not calculated.

I’ll leave it at that for now but I hope to keep writing upon these themes; I welcome your comments.

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Originally published at on January 14, 2016.