Scaling up: how to spread good ideas
Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with colleagues at UNDP who are organizing an event about “scaling up”.
The idea of scaling up successful pilots or innovations has long been one of the holy grails of aid work, and it seems we’re still quite not sure how to do it, or at least how to do it consistently, or how to “pick winners” i.e. ideas that can be scaled successfully.
The conversation reminded me of a presentation I attended and an internal blog I wrote some years ago about how to spread good ideas when I was back with UNICEF. It occurs to me that quite often in looking at scaling up a successful pilot or prototype we tend to focus on i) identifying those ideas which have been successfully piloted and ii) for which we can use the evidence of success to mobilize resources from donors and domestically.
However even when new ideas have been shown to work in a successful pilot or prototype (or have even been “proven” through extensive research and clinical style testing), i’s not a guarantee that they will scale. A big challenge is the issue of “adoption” i.e. how can you persuade others to apply them other than with scientific evidence and cash – because those are not enough.
Below is a slight reworking of my old blog post that looks at some of the challenges of spreading (or diffusing) good ideas:
Colleagues working on communication for Development (C4D) at the meeting also felt that the conclusions of the paper were highly relevant to their work, and it seems there could be a promising common interest in different parts of the organization to pursue these ideas further. One obvious challenge both within UNICEF, and in disseminating innovations externally is that often quite a few of the ideal conditions for successful diffusion are not present, and we may have a varying ability to foster them. We therefore also need to do some thinking about what we can do that is useful even when we know we are not able to create the kind of environment that we would ideally like in order for new approaches to be adopted.
From the paper, one important aspect of whether a new innovation or approach is adopted is the nature of the idea itself. Below are highlighted some aspects of an innovation which can have an important impact on whether it is adopted (The text below is adapted from Nancy’s presentation with some added commentary from my side).
Is the new approach more effective than the current strategy? Is it more cost-effective? If it is not perceived to have an advantage, it could be dead in the water, though even having an advantage does not guarantee adoption. (Note: this benefit needs to be clear to the adopter and the benefit for the adopter might well be different from the perceived benefit to management or to the promoter of the approach)
Is it compatible with user’s values, norms, ways of working, and perceived needs?
Simple is good! If it is complex, can it be broken down into smaller bites? The perception of complexity can also be partly overcome with demonstrations and hands-on experience.
Is there space given to try it out on a limited basis?
Are the effects of the innovation readily observable? (and preferably measurable)
Is there room to adapt it to local realities or to refine it? This seems particularly important for dissemination of “good practices” spread through horizontal networks (and is very relevant to our work on lessons learned – and would seem to imply that these should be seen more as an idea bank than templates or how-to guides)
Fuzzy boundaries (related concept)
i.e. an innovation should have a fixed core of common elements used in all cases, but with other elements that can be adapted around the edges to meet different circumstances and needs. These should preferably emerge from repeated trails in different contexts. What’s is important here is that there is a set of core principles to the innovation that make it successful, but a n accepted range of modifications that make it suitable for different applications.
If there is a high degree of uncertainty in adopting the new approach, then it can be perceived as personally risky and thus it is less likely to be adopted (especially in a risk-averse environment).
If a new approach is relevant to user’s work and improves their performance, it is more likely to be adopted, especially if it is feasible and easy.
To spread an idea you need a support system for new implementations - help desk, training, customization, implementation advice (even if you can see the benefit, it’s hard to do something new if you don’t know how – in this context I’d also add that being able to be in contact and share experiences with others who are have tried or are also trying out the new approach can be invaluable).
An implication of this seems to be that incremental changes are easier to promote than radical ones – since they fit more easily into existing norms and values and the benefit can appear more tangible, even if the potential improvement is less. At the same time just because and idea is easier to spread, it doesn’t mean that it is better. There are some interesting trade-offs here between ideas that can be easily implemented and spread and those which might have a more profound impact.
So, what do you think of these?
Do they hold true from your own experience?
What do you think are the lessons we can learn for our own work in trying to share new approaches between offices, for adopting good ideas from the external world, or in getting our partners to take on proven approaches that for they themselves are new?
Post script: back when I wrote this I had planned to write something about the types of people and organizations that effectively spread new ideas. I never got to this but I’ve now put it on my list for a future blog post.