Scaling for Systems Change: Rethinking Planning and Evaluation

Posted on November 13, 2018
By Mark Cabaj

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One of the most common pathways to systems change is to ‘scale’ a successful small-scale innovation.

The theory is simple. Social innovators develop and test a new model or practice that they think can make a positive difference (e.g., improve grade 3 reading rates, protect wetlands, reduce the racism some people encounter when trying to secure good housing). This is usually (but not always) organized as a pilot project. If the experiment is successful, they then work with funders and early adopters to expand the practice broadly enough that it can ‘change’ a system and generate widespread impact.

In practice, the theory rarely works out that way. Spend a few hours working through the various articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review and you will uncover a variety of reasons that the success rates for scaling efforts are much lower than many social innovators would like. 

One of the reasons is that many social innovators – and the partners, funders and evaluators that support them – operate with a narrow understanding of what is required to grow a successful innovation. Two different teams of seasoned practitioners in British Columbia agree that while the traditional focus on ‘scaling out’ – that is, replicating the model to different contexts and target populations – is critical, it is not enough to be successful (Darcy Riddell & Michele-Lee Moore, Gord Tulloch).  Instead, they argue that efforts to scale out must be complemented with efforts to address four additional dimensions of scaling:

  • Scaling up – changing policies, regulations, rules and systemic practices to support the growth and operation of the innovation;
  • Scaling deep – shifting values, beliefs and paradigms (aka ‘hearts and minds') in society to embrace the innovation;
  • Scaling scree – the creation of additional, sometimes complementary, innovations that seek to address the same challenge as the original innovation; and, 
  • Scaling conditions or infrastructure – creating the financial, technical, network supports required to support conditions for scaling.

These simple ideas provide social changemakers with a more comprehensive lens with which to think about, plan and manage their work. They also require evaluators to widen their own gaze on what activities, results and learning should be tracked when providing social innovators with feedback on their efforts. The just released resource, Evaluating Efforts to Scale Social Innovation, provides a preliminary peek about what that might look like, find the link below to learn more.

Learn More:

Evaluating Community Impact, Evaluation, Mark Cabaj, Blog

Mark Cabaj

By Mark Cabaj

Mark is President of the consulting company From Here to There and an Associate of Tamarack. Mark has first-hand knowledge of using evaluation as a policy maker, philanthropist, and activist, and has played a big role in promoting the merging practice of developmental evaluation in Canada. Mark is currently focused on how diverse organizations and communities work together to tackle complex issues, on social innovation as a "sub-scene" of community change work, and on strategic learning and evaluation.

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