Scale with Care: 6 Ways Early Stage Social Innovation Gets Killed Off

Recently, I spent some time with a team working on a grant funded project that sought to establish a nationally scalable model for a new form of community level support.

At best, they were a bit manic. At worst, they were completely overwhelmed and facing inevitable failure. What was the problem?

The story went a bit like this…

Someone within their organisation had, some time ago, developed an interesting new approach to providing better local support for a particular audience. Through force of personality and some trial and error, they had made a couple of different groups work in adjacent local communities. The model showed promise and some good stories about impact were flowing out of it.

So far, so good — this is how great social innovation often happens. But pretty much everything that happened next destined the project to reach its challenging and frustrating current predicament.

The charity secured a decent chunk of grant funding to scale-up the idea. Within that process, the proposal got loaded with massive immediate targets - several new delivery regions, hundreds of participants and volunteers and measurable, immediate benefits for everyone involved. Somewhere in amongst all this was the fundamental ambition of the project: the development of a nationally scalable model. The format of this model had been decided in advance — a toolkit.

The team I met had arrived a few months after the formal start of the funding, to deliver against the agreed and (seemingly) fixed work plan. They were a few weeks away from the first milestone and had to have the project live in all the new regions, with a bucket load of volunteers and participants involved in order to unlock the next payment and, ultimately, keep their jobs.

I felt enormous sympathy for the team, as well as deep frustration for the series of events and decisions that had put them in that position.

At the heart of this is a mistake that is repeated wilfully and relentlessnly: despite what seems to be a central, shared ambition to scale something that has started to work, every element of project design makes meaningful, sustainable scale almost impossible.

How so? Here are six suggestions for contributing factors, which overlap and intertwine to strangle these ambitions to death…

1. An immediate leap to greater scale

In order to prepare something for delivery at scale, there is often an odd and rather literal assumption that it has to start scaling immediately. This is driven by a lack of patience, but also a lack of understanding about how much work is required to break a solution down into components, prioritise, standardise, codify and develop assets that can replicate that solution consistently. And a lack of appreciation for the time and resources required to do this gradually and to a high standard.

2. Assumptions about transferability

In this case, the approach had worked with specific ethnic groups in particular areas of a large city. Based on some criteria that probably had little to do with actual needs of the design process or target users (e.g. areas that sounded good politically because they a) weren’t in London and b) had high rates of relevant problems), several other locations were chosen with an entirely different set of conditions and, from a design perspective, an entirely different set of variables. The ill-considered assumptions that informed these plans all served as little time-bombs for the project team to discover one-by-one over the next couple of years.

3. The wrong measures and targets

The shared ambition in this project — and many others like it — is sustainable impact at scale. As described above, this is often immediately translated into measures and targets related to scale and impact. These are delivery objectives and they are the wrong focus for the vast majority of these projects, with enormously damaging consequences. Instead, these projects should be structured and measured via their progress towards design and development objectives, such as: an increasingly standardised solution that can be replicated consistently via strong assets (e.g. training modules, a brand, technology, delivery processes); a rich picture of needs amongst target user segments, as well as increasingly positive feedback from these users; a robust business model hypothesis, gradually validated by potential and then real customers; increasingly strong evidence for impact, building up from what can be observed to what can be more concretely measured and evaluated.

4. Little or no investment in design

Taking a form of community-level support that has been made to work once or twice, in certain communities, and building a genuinely scalable model is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It requires certain skills in areas such as service design and user research, it needs teams to have experience of developing and testing scalable business models and it needs a flexible and well integrated approach to capturing and harnessing impact data to support learning and improvement. Instead, teams working on projects like these tend to be dominated by delivery experience and they are being asked to do an impossible task.

5. Lack of flexibility

There is an obvious and a less obvious problem at work here. The obvious problem is that what should be planned as design projects, with an upfront agreement on outcomes and process and ongoing refinement of milestones, are normally planned as delivery projects, with specific activities and outputs. The less obvious problem is that few social organisations understand that funders are normally very happy for teams to return with updated plans, based on what they have learnt. These combine into a profound challenge for projects likes these: with little actual or perceived flexibility, poor assumptions or overambitious targets are irrecoverable.

But this also points to a fairly easy win: closer relationships between social organisations and funders, more discussion, more opportunities for learning and adaption. And while this isn’t common practice, it happens regularly and, every discussion that we’ve had with funders and social organisations suggest that there is a strong appetite for more.

6. Little room for failure

Like the question of flexibility, this one is a little ironic. No flex is planned, despite the fact that almost every project like this ends up flexing, but normally too late and behind a facade of perfect progress against the planned targets. Similarly, there is no room for failure within planning, yet most projects do fail in some or many ways.

Again, a close and transparent relationship between funders and social organisations would make a world of difference. Space for small failures (like the specific locations or outputs) or big failures (like the unsuitability of certain solutions for scaling at all), should be discussed and embraced as highly likely, rather than some sort of damocles sword hanging over teams, threatening to cut off their funding.