December 4, 2014

Questions from the Front Lines of Transformative Scale

Here are the five most frequent questions Jeff Bradach has received over the past year about transformative scale--and his initial thoughts on what their answers may be.

The transformative scale article Abe Grindle and I published early this year struck a chord among many social sector leaders eager to crack the code for achieving massive scale. At various talks and panels over the past several months, I've fielded lots of questions inspired by the article. Here are the five I am asked most frequently—with some initial thoughts about what the answers may be. But much more thought, experimentation, and shared learning is needed on each, so I look forward to hearing the perspectives of others.

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1. How does my organization need to change to implement a transformative strategy?
Organizational and implementation questions come up all the time. They are where the action is. For many organizations, the pursuit of a transformative scale strategy requires a significant change in capabilities and culture. For example, what if I decide that training others or investing in field building is the best way to achieve massive scale? How do I go about setting up and staffing a world-class training capability, or pursuing field-building efforts that will bring about widespread change? I have been struck by the systematic underestimation of what it takes to build these capabilities in a way that would indeed achieve massive scale.

A pervasive challenge seems to be faced by many leaders embarking on these paths. They have to cope with preventing a "new" versus "old" dynamic from setting in as they explore different paths. A few years ago at Bridgespan, for example, we began to frame our strategy as "2x–100x," pushing ourselves to ask how to achieve 100 times impact while only doubling the size of the organization. An unanticipated and unintended effect of that framing was that our team wondered about the importance of the core of our work as they sought to pursue what seemed to be the new, cool, 100x things! Yet the new hinged entirely on having a robust core. This dynamic seems to play out across the organizations grappling with new paths.

2. How do I know which transformative pathway to choose?
Some leaders are exploring multiple pathways as complementary pieces of a larger strategy. For example, the potential for a policy shift often depends on proof points that come from reaching a certain scale with a direct-service program. Other leaders are exploring two or more pathways at the same time to understand which is most likely to achieve impact at transformative scale. In this case, at some point you have to make a decision to bet big on one of the strategies in order for it to have any chance to succeed at a massive scale.

Leaders commonly ask me, when have you learned enough to make such a bet? And how do you know which pathway(s) to pick? There are no simple answers, but from the beginning ask yourself (and revisit) this question: what do I need to know to believe that a path has transformative scale potential? Then, ensure that the early-stage piloting and testing are actually casting light on those variables.

3. Isn't it cheap to pursue impact at a transformative scale via these pathways?
This is one of the most surprising questions. It appears to come from people hearing that transformative scale is about "scaling impact, not just scaling the organization." That gets heard as "it's free!" But no, it's not free—and I am sorry to have contributed to confusion on this point! While a particular pathway requires a fraction of the original cost per beneficiary, serving vastly more people means costs still add up.

A hypothetical situation illustrates the point. Let's say I have a highly effective program that costs $1,000 per student to implement, and I'm currently serving 1,000 students for a total annual cost of $1 million. Yet, there are one million students who could use the intervention. Even if I can reduce the cost per student by 75 percent and maintain strong impact, it still costs $250 per student. To reach one million students will require $250 million, a 250x increase over my current annual budget of $1 million—clearly not a cheap pathway, but one with potentially massive social return on investment.

The question of how to fund such strategies is one of the biggest issues we face. It is worth noting that dramatically reducing the cost of an intervention may itself sway policymakers to allocate more resources. Lower unit costs could also open the door to innovative financing mechanisms like social impact bonds that otherwise might not make sense at a higher unit cost.

4. How do successful direct-service providers take the lead in building a movement or transforming a field?
In a number of fields, leading direct-service providers have realized that their work alone will never be enough to solve the problem. Catalyzing a broader movement or changing a field is necessary to achieve impact at a transformative scale. Yet, this is a tricky role for the lead direct-service provider to play for several reasons. The capabilities and funding model required are very different from direct-service work. Existing players in the field may view such a shift with suspicion. And the organization's existing funders may balk because they are only interested in supporting direct-service work.

Some organizations have sidestepped these issues by setting up a new, separate entity dedicated to field building. This question also comes up in a different way: who is best positioned to play the role of field architect (or backbone organization or the industry facilitator, depending on what article you read)? Might it be the leading player delivering services in the field? If not, who else?

5. How do you keep optimizing your core while exploring transformative scale options?
This is a fundamental leadership question that I hear repeatedly. Staff doing the organization's core work have built the platform from which pathways to transformative scale can be explored. Yet, the core work must continue. As noted earlier, it is challenging for an organization to stay energized around the core while acknowledging it is not enough and exploring radical new ways to increase impact. How does a leader strike that balance? How do you clearly communicate the continuing essential nature of the core while pursuing transformative scale approaches—and helping your team to excel at both simultaneously?

It is worth noting that while seeking 100x impact is the crucial question, opportunities for 2x—doubling your impact—are powerful, too. We've seen some organizations on a trajectory to strengthen their core programs by virtue of asking hard questions about what it will take to massively scale.

Finally, in some cases, we have seen the benefit of clearly delineating the structures and processes for optimizing the core (the 2x impact strategy) from the 100x impact strategy. Indeed, some organizations have created roles specifically focused on identifying and testing the 100x strategic options.

These are among the questions we will continue to explore as we move forward with our research on transformative scale. I know others are grappling with such questions—and solutions already may reside in the efforts of people at the frontier of these new approaches. Please share what you are learning by posting comments and let us know what you are doing so we can share it more broadly.

Jeff Bradach (@JeffBradach) is co-founder and managing partner of The Bridgespan Group. Before joining Bridgespan, he was on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

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