When BRAC decided to scale up its Property Rights Initiative across Northern Bangladesh, we knew that the expansion would involve changes. One of the biggest challenges was to make the land entrepreneurs’ training—an important but expensive component of the model—sustainable.
During the pilot, we provided the entrepreneurs with free land-measurement training and certification; this motivated them to provide pro bono services to the poor in their communities. As we began scaling, the training price suddenly increased from zero to nearly $125 (Taka 10,000) in some areas. It was difficult to anticipate what the impact of this might be on the performance of the entrepreneurs: Increased fees might make the training less accessible to entrepreneurs who were socially, rather than financially, motivated. Others might be less inclined to give back to their communities via pro bono work, because they need to make their training investment worthwhile by charging for their services. This dilemma with land entrepreneurs is just one example of a common problem practitioners face during scale. Elements of a successful pilot can get lost; but conversely, new opportunities often emerge that can further improve the overall model.
Over the past two years, we have led an active research project called Doing While Learning: Collaborative Models of Scaling Innovation. It’s clear from our research that success at scale depends greatly on the ability to anticipate and prepare for inevitable changes, and to make difficult choices along the way.
At the 2014 Frugal Innovation Forum, scholar Christian Seelos suggested that an important part of scaling up is examining what project elements can get lost at scale. While organizations can expect some of these changes, it can be more difficult to predict others. To understand this, we explored the experiences of two of our practitioner partners, BRAC and Access to Information (A2I).
Every effort to scale up has certain predictable outcomes. While organizations are often ready for these changes, it is important that they stay vigilant and continually ask if there is more that they can do to encourage or navigate around them.
Ripple effects of awareness
One of the most expected aspects of scaling is ripple effect—how various project activities influence the communities in which they are carried out and beyond. During a pilot, the scope for large-scale influence and behavioral change is smaller, due to limitations in population sizes and the locations they can directly influence. However, once organizations reach a significant portion of the target population, it sparks change agents within the communities, allowing awareness to spread and influence norms on a significant scale.
Scaling operations has its challenges, but scaling the values and motivators a program instills during the pilot is even more difficult. Fast growth can impact the control we retain over the scaling up process, making it difficult to identify and nurture the practices that are worth scaling.
Bangladesh’s Access to Information Initiative (A2I) establishes one-stop information and service centers for rural citizens called Union Information Service Centers (UISCs). Leaders of the initiative selected entrepreneurs with a strong sense of social values to ensure a mix of public and private activities. Encouraged by quick wins in 2009, the local entrepreneur-run UISCs scaled up from two to thousands in just two years. Local union officials took over the selection of entrepreneurs, and unlike the pilot, entrepreneurs tended to focus less on provision of information and more on provision of services that yielded profit for them. Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor of A2I, admits, “The quicker you scale up, the quicker you lose control.” For A2I, the benefits of creating a national network outweighed the advantages of a more-controlled approach to scale, despite short-term drifts or variability in quality.
Unexpected outcomes are understandably trickier to maneuver around. Organizations often need the right system in place to catalyze desirable outcomes, and allow themselves to think outside the existing model to tackle the undesirable.
While tweaking program elements becomes more difficult at scale, there is often a surprisingly positive boost in innovation. Innovation can happen almost organically at scale, as staff who work in diverse contexts come up with unique ways of improving their work. And if organizations can adequately facilitate knowledge sharing across its network, they can catalyze innovations in unexpected ways.
In 2010, A2I initiated a blog to create a platform for local entrepreneurs to discuss common challenges. As the number of information and service centers grew, the interest and conversation it sparked within the virtual community was beyond anything A2I anticipated. It became an avenue for entrepreneurs to connect with each other, and share tips and best practices. It also enabled local government officials, who were members and contributors to the blog, to penetrate the various layers of bureaucracies and understand what ordeals entrepreneurs on the ground were facing.
Amplification of minor flaws
While a pilot can be all about tweaking and perfecting a model, the ability to neutralize smaller design flaws becomes more difficult as operations and personnel scale up. “Quick fixes”aren’t as quick, and issues that previously seemed inconsequential can become major problems.
When BRAC’s land entrepreneurs measure land, for example, they need special, government-issued maps of particular locales for accurate measurement. Though these maps were theoretically available at local collectorate offices for a nominal fee, they were difficult to procure due to corruption and malpractices in the bureaucratic process. In the pilot phase, this was a challenge that the BRAC staff could assist with locally. But as the number of land entrepreneurs grew, the shortage of maps became a major obstacle; entrepreneurs could not conduct land measurement in more locations without the respective maps. Eventually, BRAC had to engage with the government at a national level to ensure timely and affordable procurement of these maps.
The lesson here is that scaling comes with its own set of disruptions and complexities, but it is important to anticipate outcomes and not let them take us by surprise. Recognizing what gets lost at scale enables us to capitalize on new opportunities, and build in the necessary flexibility to reprioritize and let things go when necessary.