The Myth of Scaling Small Success

There’s a myth of scaling.

It’s the idea that if we create a small local success then we can replicate it everywhere else. In other words, “to scale up.”

I think that’s a well-intended wish, but that just doesn’t represent the reality of innovation very well. Because that line of thinking is derived from the first industrial revolution, where manufacturing was linear, stable and predictable, and where the dominant theme for problem solving was tied to the analytical tradition of the West.

But if we read all the innovation literature, it’s not hard to see that innovation is not something that can be planned as if we’re planning a linear, stable and predictable process.

Innovation is coupled with a lot of societal, economical, scientific and cultural circumstances.

Innovation’s key theme is synthesis, not analysis.

And that makes innovation a wicked problem. It’s not a normal problem where we can take a manufacturing approach to solve it. Wicked problems can not be solved, they can only be resolved.

One of the key considerations for scaling innovative successes is to develop good models for us to analyze properly our own local successes.

We need to be able to identify the elements of our success, and articulate which elements can actually be scaled.

For those elements that can NOT be scaled because they’re so coupled with the local circumstances, we need to articulate far more than replicating a process, a structure or a function.

Many circumstantial contexts merely can not be replicated elsewhere. We need to think about what environmental conditions that facilitated them, and think about what that means if we’re to create those conditions elsewhere.

That’s something very very similar to the myth of design process.

A design process is just an incomplete attempt to capture the most visible part of how design works. That doesn’t mean you can create good design by following the process, because there’s just so much more that needs to happen to create good design.

Likewise, whatever reusable elements we can extract from our small, local and innovative success, they’re only an incomplete attempt to capture the most visible part of how innovation works.

We need to do a lot more than replicating processes, structures and functions to make innovation happen elsewhere.

Just like the myths of innovation, the myth of scaling sells faster than truth.

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