Questions of Scale

The psychology of scaling is powerful. It can also be exhausting. We carry this idea and need for growth inside us. It can be burdensome to try and scale to save the world. Especially because we don’t always know how and why to do it.

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So you’ve got a socially innovative project or product off the ground. But not that far off the ground – it’s pretty much working at grassroots level. This is when most innovators want to start rolling it out and scaling it up to something bigger and (hopefully) more beneficial. But Warren Nilsson has some big questions first…

1 To scale or not?

There’s lots of frustration around scaling. Sometimes good ideas don’t spread, or they do spread, but don’t work as well when they do. People seem to think – often incorrectly – that they have these ideas and can’t not scale them. It can be exhausting.

2 Are we thinking about scaling richly enough?

Probably not yet. What do social innovators think about scaling their ideas and innovations? What do they dream about? In some cases it’s viable to achieve worldwide reach, in others simply to benefit a larger corner of the community. If you approach scaling this way it’s very liberating.

3 There is no right way, or one way

Scaling a successful project is not a simple shift of one element in one direction, from a single origin to a single target. It is complex and non-linear. You can have adaptive scaling – programmes or ideas that are constantly changing due to shifts in context – or parallel, multidirectional scaling of many things or projects through each other. You also have to consider that different cultures and places respond differently to the same thing. You can’t assume that you can just spread a consistent idea in a consistent way. This means there is no formula or right answer. Which means there’s even more to talk about.

4 Scaling the invisible

It’s not only about scaling the visible, but also the invisible. We can’t just look at observable, tangible things like projects, products, programmes, organisations. What about scaling invisible elements like experiences and relationships? What about scaling for quality?

Consider an organisation like RLab. It’s not just a tech products and services company; the core of the organisation is its stories and experiences. A big part of why RLabs has been able to thrive is the quality of its relationships. So if you want to scale RLabs, you have to scale that quality, not just specific products like training modules, web apps, and venture funds.

5 Participatory Scaling

Scaling doesn’t have to be driven just by entrepreneurs, organisational leaders, or funders. It can also be driven by participants, clients, members, users – the people who have received the benefit of the original innovation. Social movements know this. Religions know this. Social innova- tors tend not to think this way, although you can certainly find examples, like open source technology projects.

6 And what about descaling?

What is really responsible for social innovation success? We always assume that growing is improving… that scaling up is the best or only way forward. But sometimes it isn’t. Some projects or plans won’t be more successful when scaled. Some innovations might be more impactful if you actually made them smaller.

7 When is the answer not the answer?

The thing about scaling is it’s not just the endpoint or answer that matters. Maybe that answer is actually less important than the way of questioning. In other words, the lesson from a particular project could come from the thought process that went into it, and not the answer that was reached. We need to think more about how we can scale questions, not just the answers.

8 Want to talk about it some more?

The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business is interested in exploring a more adaptive approach, one that considers organizational cultures and contexts more fully. What if, in addition to scaling programs, we also studied and experimented with scaling relationships, scaling experiences, scaling cultures, scaling questions instead of answers, participatory scaling (e.g., service providers and recipients working on scale together or end users/clients in one place helping to scale to another), internal scaling (going deeper rather than wider) and de-scaling.

If you are a social change practitioner currently involved in or considering scaling your work, an academic interested in exploring the relationship between local social innovation and large-scale system transformation or a a facilitator, consultant, or funder supporting social purpose organizations and projects, join ScaleShift meetings on the third Tuesday of every month at the UCT Graduate School of Business.

To find out more and be added to the mailing list, email


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