Scaling or evolving?

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

This post really interests me: Innovation for Development: Scaling Up or Evolving?

As they complete some pilot experiments in development work the authors recognise that this is where they are expected to “scale up”. But they question whether the scaling notion really applies in complex situations:

We found this type of linear, manufacturing-style approach of running-one-good-project-and-then-exporting-it-to-someplace-else not in line with some of our own experience in applying complexity science in projects:

They quote Anna Davies of the Young Foundation:

… the concept of scaling has strong connotations of standardization. It has its origins in manufacturing, where the aim is to achieve economies of scale, by spreading fixed costs across more units of output. But in the messy social field, the potential for standardization is more limited. Here, concepts of reinvention and adaptation will be at least as important, if not more so, than standardization. Social outcomes are not products that can be easily made to formula and packaged. This is especially clear in the context of innovation in public services.

They go on to make some interesting contrasts with the process of evolution. It’s interesting that so many people struggle with the theory of evolution, wanting desperately to impose the order of intelligent design upon it. I see the same struggle played out when it comes to organisational change, where appeals to leadership and other abstractions distract from the real challenges of living in a frusratingly complex, apparently rather dysfunctional world.

And I’ve written before about the adverse consequences of the urge to scale.

I see this in efforts, for example, to “embed values” in large groups of people, as if this some simple mechanical process. My experience is that people’s values are actually more fluid than they admit, sensitive to context and fluctuation. When people talk about their values, it’s basically their rational mind simplifying a whole mess of experiences which are actually affected by a whole series of other factors they’re barely aware of. (Daniel Kahneman cites many of these, including the observation that Judges impose harsher sentences when hungry).

Social change is, surprise, a social process, not a mechanical one. I get very fidgety when people set themselves up as experts in behaviour change as if this mostly a question of analysis and cleverness. They risk seeing themselves as outside the system, lacking the humility to realise how prone they themselves are to biases of all kinds, and underestimating the complexity of the processes they want to initiate.

I suppose I’m influenced by having spent a lot of time in therapy groups watching people (myself especially) struggling, frustratedly trying to change themselves or significant others. It’s a tough, unpredictable process. That’s just individual change. I struggle to see how organisational change can be anything other than a tough, frustrating, process to be engaged with in a spirit of considerable humility. Ambition is fine, but with humility, please.

Hat tip: Tony Quinlan’s tweet

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