June 19, 2024

tipping the scale

a bunch of ducks on a small pond in a park
photo caption: if a bunch of geese make a gaggle, do ducks make a daggle? [it’s a waddling -ed] here is a daggle of ducks hanging out in a small pond in a park. this probably started out as one duck. but then look what happened! having the same number of case managers should be fine, right?

This post is narrated! Listen below…


Nothing can inspire fear in a project manager like these six little words: “How soon can we scale this?” Or, worse: “Let’s triple the number of sites.” I spent several years working as a grants manager. In theory, we start with a plan to improve things. Funders provide startup costs. We test out our plan in a small, controlled environment. The funding stops around the time we can prove our idea works. The successful idea brings in plenty of money to pay for itself. And the organization spirals into an infinite amount of cash. Our 3 pilot sites become 10, then 20, then the entire world!

But the world and everything in it are finite. This is the issue with capitalist excess: nothing can guarantee infinite growth. Sometimes we expand, not because we need to, but because the shareholders or donors expect us to. There are alternatives to scale that we should consider as well.

why reinvent the wheel?

There are clear benefits to scaling a program or approach to something. The first is that we can spread the impact of an idea or intervention. Think about a new approach to managing diabetes that someone at a local clinic developed. If it helped the people at that clinic, why shouldn’t we use it at all our clinics?

Running a program like that costs resources: staff time, supplies, and other costs. Scaling a program can save money by centralizing decisions. We can buy supplies in higher quantities. We could cut staff hours by splitting workers’ time between many clinics.

A successful program like that can scale even larger than our own company. If we’re a nonprofit, we could gain publicity or funding for our high-profile idea. We could also sell, license, or franchise the idea to others.

If you’re an executive reading this, I’m sure your heart leapt at the idea of selling a successful program. But not everything needs to scale! There are real risks to scaling a program, too. And we don’t have to scale something to prove that it was a good idea.

how problems magnify

One thing I dislike about scale is the centralization that often comes with it. Many times we transplant a homegrown idea and expect it to flourish somewhere else. But the context of the idea matters too: where it worked, who was doing the work, and how they did it.

I once supported the rollout of a new health questionnaire at a local clinic. The question process worked well at the clinic where it began. The doctor who led that change was well-liked by his patients and colleagues. He oversaw minute changes to the program while it developed. But porting the process to other clinics proved difficult. My team came from HQ; the providers at other clinics were already suspicious of us. Those providers weren’t a part of the original design team. They had genuine concerns about asking those questions to their clinics’ patients. What’s more, they didn’t have a reason to buy in to the program or its goals. And that meant they didn’t have a reason to want the program to succeed. Even successful programs can falter in an environment like that.

the bigger they are

Another risk of scale is that the failure at one site can lead to failures at other sites. The youtube series Bankrupt tells stories about companies that go bankrupt (obvious).  The history of most of these companies follows the same path. They started small. They grew to dizzying and unsustainable heights. And they collapsed when the market did.

Here in Seattle, Rite Aid bought the region’s favorite pharmacy, Bartell Drugs. Rite Aid promised that nothing would change about the chain when they purchased it. Across the nation, they allegedly made millions by filling prescriptions they knew were fraudulent. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of massive lawsuits. This led to the abrupt closure of stores across the nation, including many of the Bartell stores in my city. Rite Aid’s decisions, made nationally, harmed local people who relied on those stores.

alternatives to scale

Scaling a program is not the only way to spread its intentions or impact. Rather than applying scale to a good idea, try these instead.

Inspire and fund other programs. One site may have a good idea; that doesn’t mean another site won’t. Instead of trying to drop in a program like I once did, begin a conversation. Talk about your goal for change and see if they share that goal. Give funding to create a program that is unique to that area. Or be the reason another organization starts a project of their own.

Disconnect scalability from success. Not every successful program can scale. That shouldn’t detract from its success. Develop metrics that let the people at the heart of the change define what success means to them. Center human-oriented metrics like satisfaction or convenience. These are often more important to people than how much money you make.

Embrace overhead. One approach to cost reduction is to see how much we can cut before the program starts to break. This often means longer lines for clients, burned out staff, or bare shelves. Instead of looking for ways to cut costs, think of these program expenses as investments. Why should workers spend every day feeling overwhelmed? Why must success look so barebones? Hiring extra staff means more people get paid. Spending money in a local economy does a lot for the stability of that community. It’s better than shipping those savings to a main office somewhere far away.

on balance

Endless growth for growth’s sake isn’t a given good. Sometimes it works! The u.s. postal service is a nice example of scale done right. It’s a program run nationwide with branches in neighborhoods across the country. But even the postal service risks cost-cutting and sabotage to their core services.

If you have a good program, celebrate that! Before you jump to scale it, think about who will feel the benefits and who will feel the impacts.


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photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space