Do Less With More
Towards scale and sustainability.
The word ‘Scale’ has always evoked mixed, but extreme reactions from those of us, working in the development sector. There are champions of scale thinking, and then there are staunch believers of ‘small is beautiful’.
This article is not about evangelising either of the two positions. One thing that I have come to deeply appreciate due to my immersion in the development sector is perspectives. Our beliefs and perspectives are shaped by our own lived experiences and worldview; thus, there is no need to categorise them in the binary of right and wrong. This article is my meaning-making of the word ‘scale’ and the intention is to solicit thoughts and perspectives from the readers.
It was the year 2017. My team and I were presenting our organisational strategy to our mentors. One of them asked, “Are you planning to grow or to scale?” I don’t remember what we said at that moment, but I clearly remember making a note for myself to ‘understand growth vs scale’. And thus, the journey started.
Discovering the measuring scale of scale.
I work in the school education domain. In India, with the Right to Education Act, every child has a fundamental right to free and compulsory education till the age of 14. Why we do what we do as educational change organisations is fundamentally centred around this. We work to ensure that our education system offers what it promises – quality education – such that pathways to new possibilities emerge for our children.
If our idea, our work, and our approach – all have to be relevant, we need impact at scale. Now the question was – What does working at scale mean? Impacting 100 schools or 1000 schools or 10,000 schools? What is the measuring scale of scale? And that’s when I learnt – through conversations with mentors like Sanjay Purohit, reading books on Scale & Systems Thinking and reflecting on my experiences – that for a mission, scale must be defined against the size of the problem.
India has over 1.5 million schools. So instead of asking ourselves whether we are working at scale, we started asking, what percentage of scale are we working at – 2.5%, 10% or 30%.
Omne Trium Perfectum – Scale, Speed, Sustainability
Philosophers have an all-time favorite Latin phrase, Omne Trium Perfectum. The rule of three is omnipresent – in music, sports, literature, science, spirituality etc. It is believed that three signifies perfection and harmony. The conversation of Scale becomes complete and harmonious only when we bring together the trio of scale, speed and sustainability.
Consider this. Our school-going children will be out of the school system in 10 years. If we can’t support them in these 10 years, the problem will transform into another one. So, time and hence, speed is of essence. I’m sure all of us agree with this fact. But all of us are also limited by the resources we have. So the question that occurs to me is – how might we provide quality education to our children across these 1.5 million schools in a sustainable manner with speed- while being fully aware of the reality of time and resource constraints.
We do it together. There is no chance that we can do it alone.
Doing Less with More
The thought of working at scale is scary because we assume that we are operating as a lone warrior – we are the one organisation that will solve the challenge of education inequity. Then automatically, the idea of doing more and more in a small geography – deep, multi-pronged interventions – seems comforting, and rightly so. When one is doing everything with one community, attribution to impact is evident. As practitioners, attribution gives validation to our work.
In 2014, we started working on the idea of Systemic School Improvement. The first question that we tried to answer was, what does a school improvement framework look like? Like any quality maturity model, schools too need an organisational maturity rubric listing the parameters and criteria on which they need to improve. So we studied existing frameworks and designed a STEP framework (as part of our School Transformation and Empowerment Project).
The next question was how will school leaders assess their schools on this framework. So we created a self-assessment tool with questions and scoring algorithms. We also designed capacity building initiatives to enable the school leaders to understand the framework and the tool. Once the schools had their rating, next question was how might the school leader plan their improvement journey from point A to point B. So we borrowed the idea of the ‘School Development Plans (SDPs) and created a tool that helped leaders create their SDPs collaboratively with teachers. The tool suggested micro improvement projects that schools could take up against their scores. This was followed by a series of other questions, as you can anticipate. What capacity building will be needed for leaders and teachers? What spaces need to be created to shape this into a continuous exercise and not a one-time event? etc.
This culminated into STEP – a comprehensive school improvement program. We could implement STEP in 20 schools. We could have taken it in its entirety to possibly, 100 schools at a time. But could we have implemented STEP in even 2.5% of the scale that our country offers? The answer was a resounding no.
Could we make the framework available to all? Yes.
Could we partner with other organisations who could further design contextual assessment tools based on this framework? Yes.
Could the partners invite other organizations to design and work on relevant capacity development initiatives for teachers and school leaders, locally? Yes.
The list can go on. Each of these are layers that build the STEP program. Can I identify such +1, micro solutions that are designed to scale? Can I catalyse a network that can contribute to this collective problem solving and building beyond?
To me, the idea of working at scale is doing less with more. Focus on bringing one micro, +1 shifts to the way the system works today. And in parallel, put efforts on consciously weaving networks, evangelising the idea and facilitating partnerships that will bring more value-adding +1s across the spectrum in an aligned manner towards a shared purpose. This will help shift the equilibrium and thus, create conditions for changes to sustain. In this approach, everyone contributes to the impact.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” – Aristotle
It necessitates engaging with partners of different kinds – policy makers, co-creators, amplifiers – including the Samaaj, Sarkar and Bazaar actors & institutions. We need to liberate the idea and the approach from the organisation, such that they are shaped, co-owned, adopted and evangelised by a larger community. This will enable us to collectively lead impact at scale.
Organisations need not scale, ideas must.
Easier said than done. This necessitates
(a) letting go of the sense of control, which is never easy,
(b) constant effort on unbundling the idea, and removing the layers of complexity that get added as we design programs, and
(c) Shifting away from seeking attribution and celebrating contribution to impact.
In our work at ShikshaLokam and Mantra4Change, we have multiple examples and experiences of facing these challenges. As I continue my learning journey and quest to understand the concepts of scale, speed and sustainability, I invite you to become a fellow traveler and to share your experiences.