I’ve written about scale-up (scaling) many times before, as scale-up or under another ‘label’ for the scaling concept – international outreach. Working with a number of groups involved in various aspects of scaling, as well as writing about these experiences over the past few decades, I have seen our perspectives on scaling change.

As a few examples, from 1997 through 2012 I helped with the creation and nurturing of the worldwide osteopathic community and their holistic approach to health care through the development of the Osteopathic International Alliance. The success of this effort in many ways can be attributed to the then executive director of the American Osteopathic Association who was a co-creative leader before we were beginning to call leaders by that term, and the multinational steering committee that envisioned a worldwide community.  In 2011 I helped lead some discussions around scale up at the Ashoka 30th Anniversary Conference in Paris. For the purposes of the sessions I facilitated we used a working definition of ‘expanding or growing your approach in order to increase impact.’  We talked about various considerations to be aware of and the importance of reassessing periodically why you are doing what you are doing and if your plan might need adaptation. Although most of the focus was still on ‘scale up’ as defined below, impact was clearly a goal most people had in mind, as perceptions around scaling were beginning to change.

In the past few years we are beginning to see a more robust discussion around different aspects to scaling (including a new Ashoka program Globalizers which is looking at Scaling Social Impact).   Below I have outlined some of the different perspectives to scaling that are emerging:

Scale Up – The historic approach – an entity or program gets bigger – geography can be a factor but not as important as how many goods are produced or services provided, usually by the one central controlling entity.

Scale Out – A variation on the historic approach that focuses mostly on a geographic spread -spreading good ideas, often expanding them/or an organization geographically, does not have to have as much central control.

Scale Deep – A new perspective of trying to spread good ideas that have worked well in one location successfully and sustainably to another, with local customization and focus on scaling long-term impact more than any one specific version of the idea.

There has recently also been some talk about ‘transformative scale’ which also focuses on impact but puts an almost a messianic emphasis on moving in this direction, with some talking about it being ‘the defining challenge of the social sector in the coming decade’. And even a recent toolkit by those known for exploring how to develop more effective global partnerships which still maintains the mindset of an inevitable ‘bigger is better’ with little talk about assessing impact around growth: “Once a project or pilot has been successfully implemented, the next step is to build upon this success by sustaining and growing it further. Essentially this means extending the reach of your work to a bigger population.”

Changes in perceptions do take their time. But to achieve impact at scale, our thinking needs to move beyond the historic definition of scaling as a centrally controlled scale up and the mindset that bigger is better. As a 2012 report by the Social Impact Exchange notes – scaling impact remains elusive: “Even the most effective mission driven organizations face the daunting challenge of scaling social impact.” To truly scale deep we need to work closely with local partners and in some cases be ready to say that what worked well in one place, may not work at all somewhere else. With all of the ways in which the concept of scaling is talked about, one of the most important lessons is that context matters.

Although there is not a lot in one place to guide our thinking about scaling (colleagues and I have tried to collect some of what has been written here) much more has been written about the concepts of scale up and scale out than the newer approach of scale deep. In some ways scaling deep can be viewed as an impact that the social sector is having on the business sector, as opposed to the opposite direction – of scaling originally being a business term that was adopted by the social sector.

If one is looking to expand good ideas or programs, a major challenge is finding the balance between what needs to be standardized (i.e. done the same everywhere), and what can be customized locally. With the traditional business sector concept of scale up, the emphasis is on standardization with limited customization, only as needed to sell additional products or services (i.e. McDonalds in India sells chicken burgers instead of beef burgers). With scaling deep, the emphasis is on local customization – what needs to stay standardized, or core, to keep the integrity of the idea or program, can be kept at a minimum so that the local partners can customize to their own context and needs. Vesting local partners in this co-creative process raises the chances for long-term sustainability. Finding the right balance will call for leaders that understand the co-creative process, co-creative leaders.

When all is said and done, the labels don’t matter, it’s the concepts that do. Here are some of the important concepts to deciding when and how scaling might be appropriate and how to go about it to keep the focus on impact (what we might call scaling deep):

  • Context – Instead of starting with the approach that something worked well in one place, label it a ‘best practice’, and look for ways to scale it, let’s start first with an analysis of why it worked well in a particular location/context and try to identify what aspects might be replicable (and what might not).
  • Partnerships/Collaborations (co-creation) – For something to successfully transfer from one location to another, and be sustainable over time, it needs to work in partnership from the very beginning with those in the area we might hope to transfer it to. History is littered with good ideas and ‘best practices’ that have not been sustained when this step of working closely with partners – in a co-creative, not just token approach – is skipped or minimized.
  • Co-creative Leadership – I recently read an article on leadership that argued that the job description of the leader has officially changed from “smartest guy in the room” to chief promoter of the idea that “nobody” is as smart as “everybody”. . .It’s the leader’s job to invite as many smart people into the room as possible, to create opportunities for and channel contributions from the broadest mix of people—wherever they sit in the organization (or the world).”    We are slowly coming to the realization that effective, sustainable solutions cannot be designed from the top by one leader, or a small, exclusive group. The co-creative leader understands that he/she must lead by empowering others to be part of the design and implementation of long-term solutions.
  • Customization – what is core and what can be customized? The historic approach to scale up focused on trying to transfer most of what worked somewhere else. We are now seeing that minimizing what needs to be core (or standard) to only those things which keep the integrity of the idea or program, and allowing for maximum local customization will make the reiteration more sustainable.
  • Trial (and error) – Sometimes to know how to adapt and customize you need to experiment and allow the ability to fail in order to learn and adapt. It may also mean being willing to admit that a good idea that works in one place may not in fact work outside of that context.
  • Time and Sustained Commitment– effective scaling in my experience always takes longer than we think.  I recently visited the Twawenza website and loved their reminder that “Real change takes time. We are not keen to just do easy activities and check implementation boxes.” We need to have greater commitments (and funders need to commit the resources) to multiyear projects that allow time for ‘failure’ and adaptation.

In one of the first articles I wrote about scaling in the 1990’s “Is it time for you to go International?”  I ended with the thought that organizations should also “Recognize when not to go international”. I would still say that this concept holds true: if you are hoping to scale ideas that have worked in one context, that working with local partners you carefully study the context in which you hope to scale and you may decide that it is not advantageous to proceed (or at least not in the way you originally envisioned). But today I would also underscore that if you do determine that it would be advantageous to try a scaling effort you work closely with those local partners to ensure that you scale deep – giving your efforts the best chance of achieving a significant and positive long-term social impact.