Bill Smith. CC BY 2.0

The challenges of scaling up innovations

It’s been six years since The Lean Startup was published, offering hope that small lightweight pilots could be the secret to game-changing innovation within the humanitarian and development sector.

Since then, innovation labs and embracing a culture of failing fast have increasingly become part of the common fabric of donors, agencies and NGOs. These are real investments that feel like a genuine break from business as usual, so there’s been lots of energy around the experiments.

While there’s been a demonstrated ability to produce promising minimum viable products and pilots, the ability to take these ideas to scale has been much more problematic. Assumptions that great ideas would be naturally adopted have proven false. Disruptive ideas didn’t diffuse into everyday practice. Nor were they easily put into a traditional “turn the crank” management process that was used to replicate other established practices.

Mostly pilots just sat there. They did not lead to sustainable operations in the real world or impactful innovations across multiple contexts.

The “missing middle” of the innovation cycle

Our analysis has shown that there is an unappreciated “missing middle” in the innovation life cycle: pilots were missing the complex connections and capabilities needed to perform in the real world. We saw that the challenge was surprisingly messy and requires new practices in solution architecture, programme management, funding, measurement and evidence. Scaling emerged as a big job with work stretching out over a far longer time than pilots earlier in the innovation life cycle.

The last two years have seen pioneering efforts to understand the complex, messy missing middle of the innovation life cycle. New programmes have been developed to provide a different kind of support and guidance as an intentional follow-on to innovation labs and pilot grants.

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These programmes focus less on the conceptualising and early testing of an idea, and instead work with teams to tackle complex challenges of building networks of support, long-term business models, sustainable management structures, and plans for dealing with ongoing change.

It’s still early days for these programmes, but we are beginning to see initial insights emerge.

Challenges of scaling up innovations

Managing and supporting the scale-up of innovations produces new challenges that are quite different from those incubating early stage pilots.

  • How is a pilot programme’s readiness for scale assessed?
  • Which factors are most likely to contribute to success at scale (or undermine it)?
  • Do scale success factors vary based on the context or nature of the innovation?
  • Which scaling support practices provide the greatest push toward success?
  • Are the challenges faced by humanitarian or development innovators when going to scale different from those that commercial start-ups experience?

Reaching success at scale

The Bond Conference session on Success at scale will provide an update from the frontlines of these efforts. The session will look at the scaling challenge as it exists today in a post-Lean Startup world. Alice Obrecht will highlight recent ALNAP research insights into the specific challenges real-life innovations in the sector have faced as they work to go to scale, while Claire Dusonchet from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund will provide insights into the practical challenges of designing and executing a programme in support of scale.