From Scaling Up to Scaling Across

Deborah Frieze

French winemakers use the term terroir to describe the unique characteristics that place bestows on each varietal. It is what makes us desire champagne from France, coffee from Kenya, cigars from Cuba, and sour- dough from San Francisco. The word itself means something like “a sense of place,” which emerges from the unique qualities of soil, climate, and topography. Just ask any Napa winemaker who’s ever tried to imitate a Burgundy or Chianti, and they’ll tell you: Cultivate the same grapes, use the same techniques, follow the same timing — and your wine is guaranteed to taste nothing like the original.

Modern winemakers have learned to embrace the notion of scaling across: the movement around the world of winemaking practices and techniques that have preserved deep reverence for the uniqueness of place, for the gift of terroir that today has generated bountiful flavors, styles, and vintages on five continents.

But respect for the invisible forces of place — to which we could add its social and cultural heritage — is hardly conventional wisdom when it comes to taking things to scale. More often, in fact, we find ourselves confronted with the suppression of the local — consider the uniformity of any Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Wal-Mart. From Seattle to Singapore, we homogenize culture by subsuming local flavor through standardization and replication. This is what scaling up is about: We patent a product, standardize a process, franchise a formula. That’s the recipe for success in a global economy that idolizes — and idealizes — growth. Take, for example, this quote from Harvard Business Review about scaling up:

[There are] five steps for successful replication. First, make sure you’ve got something that can be copied and that’s worth copying. Second, work from a single template. It provides proof of success, performance measurements, a tactical approach, and a reference for when problems arise. Third, copy the example exactly, and fourth, make changes only after you achieve acceptable results. Fifth, don’t throw away the template.[1]

Scaling up creates a monoculture that relies on replication, standardization, promotion, and compliance. It’s easy to make the case for this strategy in the context of consumer culture. Businesses all over the world encourage people to consume their beverages, buy their merchandise, watch their movies. Despite the fact that community is inherently local, most people engaged in community change nonetheless aspire to follow in the footsteps of big business by scaling up, expanding programs, and rolling out offices in new geographies. They pursue the coveted strategy of disseminating best practices, which holds that what has been invented and perfected in one place can be parachuted or transplanted into another. This view assumes that organizations are machines, and to improve them, we just need to swap out the old parts for new and improved ones, or install new software. In other words, conventional wisdom tells us to use the same irrigation, measure out the same slant of hillside, and plonk down our grapes. And then somehow we’re surprised when the wine tastes bad.

Fortunately, community is nothing like a machine, and citizens rarely surrender their autonomy to the experts’ advice. In fact, it only takes a little bit of digging to discover that even in corporations, exchanging best practices often doesn’t work. What does work is when teams from one organization travel to another and, through that experience, see themselves more clearly, strengthen their relationships, and renew their creativity. Like a Learning Journey, these are the visits that disrupt our old ways of seeing and widen our view of what’s possible.

Scaling across happens when people create something locally and inspire others who carry the idea home and develop it in their own unique way.

This text was excerpted with permission from Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now, by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.

Endnotes

[1] Gabriel Szulanski and Sidney Winter, “Getting It Right the Second Time,” Harvard Business Review, January 2002.