Taking It To Scale: Reframing the “Scalability” Problem

by | Dec 2, 2021

Whenever a pilot project is successful, the question you can inevitably expect is “scalability.” How do you take this to scale and make the same thing happen across departments, or locations, or teams? It worked in one place, so let’s make it work in every place.

And let’s do it in a hurry.

For businesses under constant pressure to adapt and produce results, what could give a greater sense of safety than replicating “proven” methods?

But very often what worked in one place fails dismally in another.

This doesn’t mean the wish for scalability is wrong. But how can you reframe this classic problem in order to deliver the desired outcomes? Let’s explore.

If You Acted on This Definition

With the stated goal of taking the project “to scale,” your most likely course of action would be to standardize the elements of the pilot. Figure out the basic structure of the successful project and codify it into workable structures and procedures.

You would then obtain support from the top. Next, you would turn it into a program, hold a bunch of meetings, conduct training programs, set system-wide standards, and all the rest that has become stock in trade in change management.

Reframe “Scalability”

There is an underlying reason why this approach so often fails. Pilot projects work largely because people in one local site are engaged in creating them. Because they are locally engaged, they are able to act within the full scope of their own needs, circumstances, and knowledge. It is this act of engagement and creation that leads to high performance.

When you take something to scale and do it fast, the imaginative life is drained out of it. What you end up doing is to attempt to extract what is “universal” from what has worked locally. And usually, this means figuring out how to replicate certain outcomes rather than the creative processes which led to them. Therefore, when applied elsewhere, what once was choice becomes coercion.

Nothing can be taken to scale. The success record of proliferation is poor.

The way to think about it is that, like politics, all change is local. You can’t easily copy and paste results from one locality to another. But what you can proliferate is the possibility of local invention following some loose guidelines and statement of purpose.

Don’t fall for the trap of thinking that top management is simply to blame for problems in “scalability.” Support from the top is not necessary to shape an organization of your choosing. Let top management set the mission. But every unit should be able to express its own vision of how best to organize and train itself in order to achieve that mission. This is the only way that the mission can be instantiated at the local level. Otherwise, the top’s inherent distance from the local circumstances will sabotage the ability to replicate the intended results.

Lastly, be prepared for this to take time. The wish to do something quickly is really a defense against local choice. It is the argument that we do not have time to engage a lot of people.

Don’t buy speed as an argument. Speed is a defense against depth and meaning. Nothing important happens quickly. Choose quality of experience over speed. The world changes from depth of commitment and capacity to learn.

To act within this frame:

  1. Don’t assume what worked “there” will work “here.”
  2. Engage local workers in the creative process of creating a vision for their unit.
  3. Go in for the long haul. Although engaging more people takes more time, it will produce more meaningful and resilient change.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 398-399]

 When we offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care.

Interested in Flawless Consulting for your business?

Through our Flawless Consulting workshops and Influence Coaching, we have given people like you, the tools they need to confidently communicate their ideas, listen well and strive toward building collaborative relationships with their clients and colleagues.