The ‘Necessary but Not Sufficient’ Nature of Scale

Lalitha Blog 1

“Transformative scale” is a mantra that has recently taken over the development world. Scaling has become the “it” factor for start-ups, NGOs, and organizations looking to truly change the world - and get the funding to do it. Although the concept of scale is complex, what it essentially is, is the capability of a solution to adapt to a wide variety of contexts, and thereby address the issue for millions of people at once, rather than only one segment of society or region of the world. As you might be able to guess, building solutions that can inherently scale is no easy feat, and the value for such solutions is huge. By building in capabilities for scale, a solution to a problem in one corner of the world can rapidly be adopted to solve the same issue in an entirely different one, overcoming the barriers of varying political, economic, and social climates.

But scale is becoming conventional. 

By this, I don’t mean that the value of scale is diminishing- in fact it’s quite the opposite. Building a product, service, or solution that can inherently scale is becoming normalized, to the point where a solution is almost expected to have scale and be poised to reach millions of people. I was recently asked to review an application by an education initiative hoping to get funded by The Audacious Project, which aims to fund ground-breaking ideas for change at scale. The company’s application was primarily focused on the revolutionary number of people it’s aiming to reach and how it hopes to change the lives of millions of low-income people throughout India, which I no doubt thought it would, and it of course believed would impress its reviewers. But while the value of a scalable solution is indeed extremely high…it’s no longer enough.

Each application that crossed the desk of the investors of The Audacious Project would all have scale as a primary focus. Working as part of an impact investment firm here in India, the sentiments are the same. Scale is expected, required even, of those trying to get funding to make a difference in the world, because the future of the international development world lies in the hands of those that can make the biggest difference, for the most people, with the least amount of resources- and scaling is a key to solving that challenge. Everyone is now expected to be holding that key.

It’s important to note that impact isn’t just about the numbers anymore. It’s how the impact affects those you have scaled to, that matters.

Many people, I’ve realized, seem to make the mistake of thinking that impact is synonymous with scale; that by reaching thousands or millions of people with a service, it automatically means you will make a difference in those lives and be a force to reckon with. But while scale is a crucial step in accomplishing impact, it’s just that- a step. Scale must be an inherent part and a foundational building block of the solution you create, but it is not going to automatically imply great impact, nor will it particularly be a standout quality amongst your competitors.

Scale is a necessary but not sufficient component to building solutions to the world’s problems, and understanding this, is crucial for those looking to make it in the development world today.