Scaling (not) Up

When people talk about “scaling” they seem to generally mean “scaling up.” This is often used particularly within the business context – how can we scale up our business model to serve more customers? Or, as perhaps the more skeptical add, to make more money.

“Scaling up” is also prevalent within the non-profit sector – how can we broaden our reach? How can we connect more people with our services or convince more people of our message?

Scaling up is, perhaps, a litmus test, which divides strong companies from the weak. Great idea, I’ve heard people say, but will it scale?

It is, perhaps, nice to do something at a small, local, level, but if you can’t effectively scale up, conventional wisdom seems to say, there’s not really much point. Or at least, the conversation then turns into a (worthwhile but secondary) debate over whether it’s okay to improve one life rather than many.

But is scaling up really the only way to go?

I’m not intrinsically opposed to scaling up, but I question the assumption that it’s the only way to go – that success and upwards scale are inextricably linked.

As someone recently commented to me, perhaps some efforts could benefit from scaling down.

I am particularly intrigued by what I can only describe as scaling laterally – connecting local work in one place to local work in another place.

Scale, I suppose, is at its essence a navigation problem. How does information, or perhaps commands, get from one place to another?

The typical model of scaling up tackles this problem more or less effectively. Some centralized governing body oversees a network of smaller entities. A well articulated company brand or character can greatly help in making sure that all the pieces are working together, but it tends to be a very vertical solution.

Perhaps that is the easiest solution, and perhaps it is the best solution – I am certainly in no position to judge.

But it is not the only solution.

A central governing body is not inherently necessary. A vertical structure is not inherently necessary. What’s necessary is that information can get from point A to point B. And this information needs to flow in a timely enough matter that the two can truly communicate.

…But what kind of scale is that?


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