Don't Scale. Platform

“Scale” has become the Holy Grail of many social innovations from corporate environmental stewardship to international development programs. So much so that “scale” deserves a spot in your game of Jargon Bingo. It has become one of those throwaway questions middling execs toss around to make themselves look smart. Doze off in a meeting? Cover your yawn with, “Yeaaaahhh….but does it scale?”


It’s not just that “scale” has become de rigueur. As a concept it may, in fact, be dangerous, leading to enfeeblement, rather than enablement, of communities. In practice unfortunately, “scale” has come to mean “mass replication.” This has three major downsides:


  • The cut and paste fallacy. Almost by definition, solutions that seek to scale through replication fall victim to the false assumption that, “because it worked here, it will work there.” See Exhibit A: The PlayPump.​​
  • Smartypantsness. Approaches to achieve “scale” also bring with them a certain outsider’s arrogance. We — from HQ, NYC, DC, Brussels, GRI, USAID, DFID, or fill-in-the-blank — know better how to solve your problems than you do. So just sit down and shut up.​​
  • Lack of stickiness. As a result of their cut and paste mentality and outsider’s arrogance, these approaches are like a thunderstorm in the desert: lots of noise, some sloshing around on the surface, maybe a quick burst of growth in the aftermath, but ultimately a return to an arid status quo ante. They lack the necessary organic undergrowth to sustain themselves. ​​


In part, I blame Silicon Valley for this obsession with scale. Venture firms and entrepreneurs started talking scale years ago, and the social sector followed suit. But this comes from a superficial understanding of what true scale means, and a failure to learn from the real masters of scale: the FANG. Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google have become the predominant players in tech because they didn’t scale. They platformed.  


They “platformed” by developing a set of platforms that others can use, thus establishing their own ecosystems of value creation. Some will say this is “scale” just with a different name. I argue, however, that platforming differs from scaling-through-replication in four important ways. Social innovators — from corporate sustainability execs to NGO leaders to donors — should take note:


1. Simplicity: There’s an apocryphal story about how Apple developed the AppleTV remote. Engineers originally designed a remote much like any other, with lots of buttons and features. After showing it to then-CEO Steve Jobs, he drew a rectangle on a whiteboard that had a single round button with a triangle on it (the “play” button). That was it. “Design that,” he allegedly told them. Jobs always pushed Apple to strip things down to their essence, removing unnecessary features and functions with a mandate to make sure the technology just intuitively worked. Or consider the Google search page. Before Google debuted its plain white homepage with a single search field, competitor search pages were cluttered with lots of non-search content and functions. The simplicity of many of the tools and apps developed by the FANG have embedded them in our lives in ways that more complex and feature-rich products have not. Social innovators should learn to strip down the changes they want others to make to their bare essence. Most social innovations, at their core, seek to change a prevailing mindset, belief, or behavior. These changes might involve changing the corporate mindset about what constitutes “waste” or “externalities”. Or changing traditional beliefs around birthing practices. Many social innovations, though, end up looking like the original engineer-designed remote, with lots of (at times contradictory) objectives, features, and approaches. Zone in on the fewest, most impactful changes in mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors you seek to change.


2. Openness: The FANG platforms include tools for others to develop applications that run on their platforms. Instead of giving everything to us or trying to control everything, they created a development space, made tools and training available in that space, and then stepped back to see what others would create. This approach becomes an invitation to create — not a mandate to change. Social innovators should think about how they can make their tools available to the people and communities they seek to change and how they can invite them to create value for themselves.


3. Stretchiness: Advocates of scale often also advocate for adaptation. That’s their cure for the cut and paste fallacy. Sometimes that works. Platforming, though, brings adaptability-plus. A virtue of simplicity is that it doesn’t require a lot of customization. Stretchiness builds off of simplicity and openness to create an almost unnoticed ability to customize and adapt — without looking or feeling like you’re customizing or adapting. FANG platforms like the iPhone or Facebook have taken off across the world because they allow both developers and users to stretch and bend the platform to their needs. Their barebones nature allows even basic users to create their own experiences. Social innovators should create simple, open, and stretchy environments. Stretchiness also requires recognizing the inherent sovereignty of the individual and their community and a willingness to let go. I spoke recently to an environmental manager at W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., the makers of GORE-TEX(R). At Gore, there are no bosses, just Associates. Acknowledging someone else’s inherent sovereignty unlocks a level of respect and overcomes the smartypantsness pitfall. Social innovators should think about how they can create platforms with tools and training that others can use and then invite them to create new value for themselves. Give them the tools to DIY, enrolling them as co-innovators, not beneficiaries.


4. Rules: While the above may sound a bit utopian to some, make no mistake, the FANG platforms are not democracies. They still maintain tight control by setting rules for developers and codes of conduct for community participation. While some of the FANG platforms have come under scrutiny for lax enforcement of their rules, it is nevertheless the existence of these rules that provides the boundaries necessary for unlocking creativity and widespread use by both of developers and users. Social innovators should provide clear guidelines for the kinds of problems they are trying to solve and therefore to which types of problems their co-innovators can apply their simple, open, and stretchy tools. They should also articulate clear rules and codes of conduct for their co-innovators, letting them know how and when they can use their platforms — and when they cannot.


We have programmed our way to the status quo. Many social innovation programs, with their obsession with scale and impact have, in some cases, created a cycle and culture of dependence. They want to have attributable results and impact. While admirable on one level, it misses the point. They enfeeble rather than enable.  


Platform creators enable others to create value for themselves. By shifting to a platform mentality, social innovators can enable more resilient and self-reliant communities. In recognizing the inherent sovereignty of the people they intend to help,  enrolling them as co-innovators instead of as beneficiaries in need of aid, and supporting them with a platform of tools and training they can use to create value for themselves, social innovators will sidestep many of the pitfalls that have beset their predecessors. Don’t scale. Platform.

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