Scaling down

We’re often challenged on how we can scale up the small, human-scale interventions which we promote. I’ve argued here before that we don’t need to: create the conditions in which many people can think and act like this, through taking the risk out and sharing the resources, and you can have tiny on a massive scale.

I’m increasingly convinced that the more important challenge is to large organisations and bureaucracies, particularly to those which have placed many layers of process or management between the resources they control and people. The challenge is: how are you going to scale down?

In business, from where so much public service culture has been derived, the challenge is growth. Even here, the evidence consistently shows that two large merged organisations will typically create less shareholder value as one mega-entity than they did before as two smaller ones.

But, whatever your ideological bent when it comes to making profit from public services (personally I think it’s often a red herring), public services cannot have as their primary purpose making profit, but to help people live well. Recent research suggests that some of the right things become harder to do, the larger you are. That’s not to say that I buy into the small=good/big=bad fallacy. There are large organisations which work hard to stay locally-rooted and to devolve decision-making and relationship-building power down to the front line. They often have branch or franchise structures and they focus on adding back-up and resources without stifling creativity and autonomy. But there are others which have confused growth – and the trappings of large salaries, big offices, leverage with government which accompany scale – with success.

So if you work on a large scale, next time you feel like challenging a small initiative to scale up, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the people involved in even a tiny initiative, which is successfully collaborating with people and their networks to help them live well is already successful. Whereas an organisation which has grown distant and disconnected from people and human-sized goals is failing, and failing big. Spreading toxic, one-way, inflexible relationships between people and systems on a larger and larger scale is not success. It’s time to scale down.

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