Scaling: A Messy, Iterative Journey

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Ian Gray
Scaling innovations is a journey, and like physical journeys, not all scaling journeys start from the same place. For the past few months, I have had the privilege of working with the 5 teams selected as part of the HEA Programme. At a bootcamp in Beirut in May of 2017 and during one-to-one sessions with the teams since, it became clear that they are in different places on their scaling journey. Some of the teams have been thinking through their scaling approach and had clarity on the targets they are seeking to achieve prior to joining the cohort, where others were still developing their ideas and thoughts on what path to scale would be most promising and appropriate for them.
The messy middle and Scaling Assessment Map
It cannot be emphasised enough that the scaling innovation journey is non-linear. It is the ‘messy middle’ of innovation, often full of twists, U-turns and new revelations. As the journey can be bewildering and disorienting at times, my experience is that innovation teams often need a map and in some cases a guide to help them navigate it. That is why Dan McClure and I developed the Scaling Assessment Map[1] to help guide the conversations and thinking of teams planning their scaling journey. When reviewing innovations using the Scaling Assessment Map, it is not about plotting where the team is on a linear journey, but mapping out what areas they have already covered, and where the innovation needs to travel to. Just as no two teams journeys are the same, no two teams completed maps will look the same.

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Current version of Scaling Map
The “kiss of death”
When assessing the teams’ journeys, it became clear that some had carried out activities that would normally be classified as ‘scale out’ activities (often termed diffusion), when there were still outstanding questions that would normally have been worked out during prototyping and piloting.
For instance, some teams are subject to what has been termed the ‘kiss of death;’ where the initial product/process has caught people’s imagination, where internal and external enthusiasm to use the product widely is high, and yet the product’s inherent purpose and ‘value’ is still to be fully established.
In other cases, an innovation is so successful that it starts to destabilise the normal running of its parent organisation. This leads to critical questions that need to be answered; not just about the innovation, but about the mothership from which the innovation emerged. They can be fundamental questions regarding alignment with the organisation’s mandate, mission and goals, to more operational questions, such as team structures, budget allocations, etc.
From visionary leaders to stable organizations:
Anticipating these types of issues is key. Scaling innovations is a bumpy process. The slight turbulences felt in piloting, become big peaks of triumph and troughs of despair in the scaling process. The stakes get higher and there are many more moving parts. More stakeholders are brought into play, and problems turn from yes/no validation questions to an increasing number of ‘wicked problems.’
Sustaining the teams through the turbulence requires vision and leadership. However, just as the need for visionary leadership is at its highest, it is also when an innovation’s vulnerability to over-reliance on a single leader or a few key individuals is at its highest.  Over reliance on key individuals is a conundrum that a number of the HEA teams are dealing with.
Part of the scaling process is to start minimising this reliance. How do they ‘codify’ some of the innate knowledge and intrinsic skills of their key team members? How do they start to share leadership responsibilities yet maintain the focus and drive that has characterised the leadership and team dynamics thus far? There are no easy answers to these questions. However, there are some general approaches that we have been through in the past three months that provide keys to the solutions.
For a number of the teams, we have used the Scaling Assessment Map[2] to map out the innovations’ current state, and their desired future state. The map serves as a basis for discussions on how to tackle some of the issues that teams face in the scaling process. For one of the teams who are facing the ‘kiss of death’, it has highlighted the need for a ‘pivot’ in their proposed business model to test out a value that had not been clearly articulated before. For another of the teams who were over reliant on a single leader, it highlighted the areas that could be codified, and the methodology and approach for delivering training and support to make the innovation more resilient to changes in leadership. Others have used it as the springboard for earlier stage conversations about what exactly the product/process is and to tackle the age old humanitarian question of what can be ‘universally applicable’ and what needs to be left open for adaptation to context.
Scaling is a messy journey, but the key factors for success can be mapped, analysed and actioned. There are many moving parts, but having a map enables you to keep track of them, prioritise action areas, and most importantly, be a basis for exposing and working on ‘wicked problems.’ The HEA teams are all in the process of managing this journey, and I have been impressed by their fortitude, resilience, flair and imagination in tackling the ‘messy middle.’

[2] Based upon our learnings from teams using the Scaling Assessment map over the past year, we are carrying out a re-design. The next version will be launched shortly and will be made available here.