Supermini course: scaling innovations

November 19, 2018

Scale is critical to systems innovation, but—what exactly is it? And why is it so important? Colloquially, people say scaling or scaling up to mean replicating an initiative or process so that more people can participate or enjoy the impact. But this is far from the only type of scale and—as with so much in systems innovation—depends very much on timing and context. Systems innovators use this word scale in different ways. So, let’s start with definitions.

  1. What is scale? There is more than one type of scale or way to scale. There is scaling out, scaling up, and scaling deep, and some also talk about scaling scree and scaling conditions. Let’s look at these one by one.
  2. Scaling out.This is the most common way the term scale is used. In the simplest terms, this can be thought of as repeating or duplicating an innovation at the same scale (typically the micro scale), such as repeating a successful programme in one school or hospital in multiple others. You can read more about scaling out here and here.
  3. Scaling up.This is about reaching up to higher levels within the system to, for example, change laws, policies, or rules (usually meso-level structures). You can read more about this type of scaling here. Often, the innovation at this scale is quite different from the innovation that has been successfully scaled out at the micro level. For example, scaling up might involve a policy innovation. Frances Westley describes the example of the Registered Disability Savings Plan here in Segment 3.13, Systems entrepreneurship: agency. In fact, in this segment, Westley talks about scaling out, scaling up, and scaling deep, all in reference to this one example. You can go more in-depth on this example, and scaling up vs. scaling out in this article, this one, and this one.
  4. Scaling deep.This is about changing the relationships, values, norms, or beliefs that are holding the current system in place. What does this look like? It might mean using stories to shift perceptions or supporting communities of practice and capacity building where assumptions can be interrogated (see this paper). You no doubt have many experiences where peoples’ beliefs were a constraining factor to an initiative, far more than any technical requirements or resource needs. As systems entrepreneurs, we must engage with these beliefs in curious, respectful ways.
  5. Scaling scree. This is a relatively new conception of scale that has to do with bricolage and the adjacent possible (some other useful systems terms!) i.e. being attentive to other activities within the systems that can support one’s own innovation. This is about encouraging, legitimising, and cultivating other ideas and innovations that seek the same outcomes. Steven Johnson ends his whiteboard talk, linked above, with the statement: “Chance favours the connected mind.” This is an important and central idea in social and systems innovation.
  6. Scaling conditions. This one has also been called scaling infrastructure or scaling capacity. What it means is improving the ability of the system to support the initiative through such things as capital, data, talent, knowledge, and networks. You can learn more about scaling conditions here. This is what a lot of us might think of as building the ecosystem for our innovation.
  7. Summarizing the five types of scaling. Here is a useful, very short summary of these five types of scaling and an excellent video from Stockholm Resilience Centre with both a summary and some important challenges of scale.
  8. Why is scale so important? By now you’ll be getting a good idea about this. One of the reasons why scale is so important is because all parts of a system are interconnected. Whatever part of the system we’re intervening in nests within higher levels of the larger system; and lower levels of the system are nested within it, as well. And our system of interest is inextricably linked to other complex systems. Revisit segment 3.13 here for an overview of this.
  9. How do I apply this?How can I decide what kind of scaling to employ at a given time—and how? Research shows that some specific strategies are helpful.
    • First, make scale a conscious choice. Don’t automatically assume that scaling out (i.e. replication) is the best next step. It could be; but it might equally be true that you first need to scale up and foster some policy change, or scale deep to shift cultural expectations, before your innovation has any hope of success. This relates directly to the next strategy:
    • Take the time to analyse root causes. When you’re dealing with complex systems, this is difficult work that requires input from many actors and needs to be done over a period of time. There are many tools for systems analysis (stay tuned for an upcoming supermini course on this topic), but a foundational one is systems mapping. You can learn more about this in the Seeing and describing systems modules here.
    • Next: keep on clarifying your purpose. Clarify purpose at different stages and different scales. Programmes, and the conditions in which they operate, are constantly evolving. Watch segments 2.2—2.4 here for an introduction to the adaptive cycle—a core tool for understanding and analysing your system at different stages (we will have more on this in a future supermini course).
    • Then: build networks and partnerships. I think we’re all very aware of the need for this if we’re to innovate.
    • And finally, seek new resource commitments for evaluation—in particular, for evaluation methods that support rather than work against experimentation and the inherent emergence of your innovation. For ideas and references on this, see our supermini course on one such approach: developmental evaluation.

These approaches may seem obvious in some ways; yet we have to admit that it’s often a challenge to take the time needed for analysis to dig into these issues, stepping back to clarify and readjust, etc. So, another important aspect of scaling is that it doesn’t happen alone or in isolation. We help each other learn, understand, and apply for scaling up, out, deep, scree, and conditions.

Further resources: