May 11, 2016

What Jeff's Reading: May 2016

Here's what we're reading this month, May 2016, on the topic of transformative scale.

I’m constantly on the lookout for fresh insights on achieving impact at a transformative scale. Here are five interesting articles I came across this month:

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1. The Real Power of Platforms Is Helping People Self-Organize: This Harvard Business Review article is written by Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of the software company Red Hat, which helps enterprise customers use “community-powered,” open-source IT tools. In the open-source communities that Red Hat relies on, “everything is self-organized by volunteers interested in tackling that job at that time,” so the company must constantly maintain those communities. As he notes, “Open systems can create markets and/or communities that enable people to participate when and where they want to.” His insights about understanding the real value of platforms to their participants is thought-provoking for anyone pursuing a platform-based approach to scaling impact.

2. Millions Learning: Scaling Up Quality Education in Developing Countries: Two Brookings Institution Fellows, Jenny Perlman Robinson and Rebecca Winthrop, have written this rich report about scaling high quality education in the developing world. Through a number of interesting case studies, the authors identified 14 key ingredients (across financing, technology, R&D, and more) for scaling education models—ingredients that could apply to many other transformative scale challenges.

3. Scaling Innovation Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Ann Mei Chang, the executive director at US Global Development Lab at USAID, explores three simple (but powerful!) rules for sustainably scaling innovative models for the developing world. One crucial insight she captures is about not assuming that if you build it, they will come. In Bridgespan’s experience, generating demand is often an overlooked issue in plans to achieve transformative scale. The other insights are equally compelling. (Separate from the argument in the article, Chang’s story about Oral Rehydration Therapy reminded me that sometimes scale requires a brute force solution. This case required a door-to-door campaign to reach 12 million mothers in 75,000 villages. Sometimes there aren’t clever, high leverage shortcuts to scaling impact.)

4. Ray Kurzweil Predicts Three Technologies Will Define Our Future: Singularity Hub has synthesized predictions from celebrated technologist Ray Kurzweil, who is known for his observations about the pace of technology increasing exponentially. The article covers three areas Kurzweil believes could most change the world for better or worse this century: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. The trio “will provide the means to overcome age-old problems such as illness and poverty, but [they] will also empower destructive ideologies.” Thought provoking, scary, and fascinating.

5. Hail the Maintainers: Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell of the Stevens Institute of Technology argue that technological innovation is often overvalued, and that the “most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago.” Although technological innovation can play a role in many transformative scale models, aspiring leaders would do well to explore how supporting existing mechanisms for scale might be the greatest lever for increasing impact. Also, the authors’ focus on “maintainers” reminds us of the importance of implementation in almost all scaling efforts: even if we know what works, there are huge variations in outcomes due to implementation—which is the work of the maintainers. (The focus on to the maintainers also recalls a great poem by Marge Piercy.)

The top five pieces from February, March, and April are available on our blog.

You can always find our latest insights on the Transformative Scale Resource Center. I also Tweet regularly about transformative scale: @JeffBradach.

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