Effective International Expansion and Scale-Up

May 16, 2012

I have been working for many years on issues  surrounding international growth and outreach, and Scaling or Scale up.  I have periodically posted different aspects of this work, but I have not written about the scaling concept itself.  This is a first short piece.

“Scale-Up” or Scaling are terms for a concept most commonly used in the business world to refer to growing the business so that it can sell more products and services, often in diverse or geographically spread markets. In the ‘social sector’ scale-up has come to refer to replicating or sharing good ideas or processes that can improve the quality of life.  It too can apply to spreading the idea or process to diverse or geographically spread areas.  Although the scale-up of organizations and practices has been happening around the world for years, there has been little sharing of information of effective ways to do so, how to decide whether or not to do so, and most importantly on how to effectively scale to achieve impact.

My experiences with helping numerous organizations to ‘scale up’ or expand their international outreach has led me to some key guidelines:

  • Goal clarity – Have clear reasons for why you are considering scaling.  What goals are you trying to achieve?  Is international expansion the best way to do so?  Who else is doing what you want to do that you might be able to partner with? Are there other ways to achieve the impact you are looking for?
  • What is core? – Be clear on what needs to be core to the scale-up and what can be customized locally.  Try to minimize what needs to be core (or standard) to only those things which keep the integrity of the idea or program. This will vary based on the context and idea or program so having a discussion about this as part of your process is critical.
  • Local ownership – Who is your constituency?  For an idea or program to be locally sustainable there needs to be a plan for local ownership and local involvement from the very beginning of the scale-up process.  What will the institutional structure be that will take the idea or program forward?  There should be a willingness to ‘pass off’ the program at some point to those locally who can take it forward.  This might be a government ministry, local entrepreneurs, NGOs, etc…
  • Consultation – If you ensure that communication is truly two-way, it is hard to ‘over-communicate’ in a successful scale-up process.  Start your process planning with consulting your key stakeholders, and have regular consultation planned in.  This is especially important if there are unequal relationships, for ‘stronger’ partners to consult with other partners.
  • Internal cohesion – if the scale-up is focused on international expansion within an existing organizational structure, it is important to have a ‘glue’ that will hold the expanded organization together.  This glue could be a couple of core values or patterns of regular communication, but there needs to be a bond that is created and nurtured among the organization’s parts for them to stay unified when challenges come about (which they inevitably will).
  • Start small – Smart small and build incrementally.  Have feedback loops to gather input you can apply periodically to make adjustments.  Pilot projects can be a successful way to do this.  Although it may feel like an imperative to scale up quickly so that your idea or program can have impact as soon as possible, it always proves worthwhile to establish a solid foundation first.  I have been involved with a number of scale-ups that have had to ‘scale back’ due to overextending too quickly.  Especially in environments where resources are at a premium, considering the risk to those precious resources that scaling up too quickly may present.
  • Keep it simple – The easier the idea or program is to replicate or iterate the greater chance that it will be successful locally.  The goals should be manageable and accountability clearly outlined.

Some  examples: The American Academy of Pediatrics Helping Babies Breathe Program and Clean Up the World

Additional resource: Scaling