What We’re Reading: Scaling Up Excellence

Another book that helped us think about design question #3 – “What is the optimal fidelity for scale?” – is Scaling Up Excellence, by Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao.

“The first major business book devoted to this universal and vexing challenge” – Amazon

The authors walk us through decades of case studies on how various companies and initiatives found the right place on the continuum of customization versus replication as they scaled.



My favorite part? This little bit of wisdom:

“Organizations that scale well are filled with people who talk and act as if they are in the middle of a manageable mess.”

The wall of crazy is slowly taking over

Well hey… if office space is a reflection of this sentiment, then maybe the Accelerator is well on its way!

messy office
What exactly were we thinking?

What We’re Reading: “The Doer and the Payer”

Development projects often have an end goal of perhaps being picked up by the local government. Or, perhaps the goal is for activities to be sustained by the local community. Historically, much of our focus was placed on sustaining the results of a particular project, but not necessarily the scalability of our work.

So two simple but often unasked questions, then, are: if this model goes to scale (nationally or globally), who will replicate it and who will pay for that replication?

In our lab on Designing for Scale, we’re thinking about five key design questions. Question #2 is “Who is the doer and who is the payer at scale?” – a question inspired by the Mulago Foundation and a fantastically simple article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The question is particularly powerful, because there are actually very few options.  Who might be the “doer?”  You have three options:


And while it might seem that there’s a dizzying array of confusing funding sources for our “payers,” which are NGOs, government or business, at the end of the day, there are really only three sources of funding:

  • Private philanthropy: From large foundations to individual donors
  • Taxes: Whether that’s funding huge bilateral donors or direct government service delivery
  • The Market: Which could encompass customers and investors, but ultimately it will be revenue generation through customers that will support the scaling of market based approaches


Why is this design question helpful?  Sometimes we have an idea of the doer and the payer from the beginning, but often we’re very narrowly focused on “proving” the efficacy of the innovation first and worrying about scale later.

Why do we need to determine this from the beginning?

Knowing who we think is eventually going to adapt and replicate our model will help us design for the user.  When we think about going to scale, our user actually becomes the organization or individual who will actually be doing the scaling. Will it be an NGO worker, a government staff person or an entrepreneur who will be replicating our model? We need to know that information so we design with them in mind.

Depending on who we expect to replicate, we can consider from the beginning what type of evidence we’d like to generate. Historically, we’ve been more focused on proving impact. However, if we identify that we want to be scaling through government or the private sector, evidence around cost-effectiveness or profitability may be more critical to understand how feasible it is to scale the innovation.

Finally, we need to have the relevant stakeholders for scale with us from the beginning. If we aren’t clear up front on our goal for scale, how do we know if we’ve identified and are working with the right stakeholders?