Stanford Day 2 – Scaling Nonprofits

Pool at the Palo Alto Sheraton

Should have brought my bathing suit – but no time anyway!

Designing for successful scaling

Day two started with a great presentation from Lisa Kay Solomon of Innovation Studio. She says that scaling is about leading the design of better futures. Scaling includes designing the conditions within the organization that are needed for change.

Start the scaling process by defining the response you want to trigger in other people that will lead to mission success.

When it comes to your own staff, the people whom you want to be successful in their work every day, Lisa says that people who believe they’ve had a good day are more successful than those who don’t. And the most significant factor in judging whether or not you’ve had a good day is whether or not you feel you made progress that day. So leaders, design your organization and its work so that staff and volunteers can know they made progress every day. Her book, Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change describes how to do this.

The key points are:

  1. Create conditions for discovery. Exploring always involves risk of failure, but the key is to fail productively. Others have said that when you fall, “Fall forward.” Encourage curiosity, zest and optimism among your staff. Have strong ideas to give clear direction, but hold them loosely to encourage creative thinking. Have fun exploring. If everything has been reduced to a Powerpoint presentation, she says little can go wrong, but then little can go right too. Risk exploration.
  2. Be an ‘otherish’ giver. Collaborate and set your partner up for success. Engage others outside the organization to think and imagine with you.
  3. Think visually. This really helps you to break away from linear thinking and it is much more creative. Dan Roam has two great goods about thinking visually: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures and Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work. She also recommends Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers because you can’t scale anything if your don’t know its business model. I have this book and it is outstanding! And yes, charities have business models just as much as for profits do!
  4. Act like a television or movie producer. They are the people who steward the vision for the show and make sure that it gets produced. You need to ensure that everyone is creatively working on the vision. Don’t let the organization drift away from what you are trying to achieve!! Sometimes we get bogged down in process and perfectionism and lose “the fire”. We lose urgency. Keep the organization stoked, active and committed.
  5. Create a culture of hope. This will help everyone get through the tough work of scaling up.
  6. Move beyond the “Yeah, but” people. They need to develop a more adaptive way of thinking. They are stuck in a rigid perspective and can’t see past their reservations. So when you hear “Yeah but”, ask “So how can…?”

Some lessons on scaling that were shared

Michael Smith of the Social Innovation Fund shared some lessons he’s learned over the years about scaling up.

  • One in eight American NFPs (Not for Profits) spend no money on evaluation, and more than 50% have no theory of change.Their typical success measures are either simply a story about a person who was a success for one of their programs (was that person the only one?) or a statistic about the number of people served (yes, but did anything actually change for them?). Evaluate results! A template for how to do evaluations (a step-by-step guide) is available for free.
  • If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.
  • The three ingredients for scaling are: 1) collaboration, 2) a fierce sense of urgency, and 3) plans for sustainability.
  • A really hard, demanding mission. A mission that is hard to figure out how to do is better than an easy mission you already know how to do. Aim high, think big!
  • You must know what the system is that you are working within. What are all the parts? How do they relate to each other? You must bring all parts into alignment with your desired end result. A great book to help you define systems is The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. This is another one I have and it is well worth reading for several reasons.

Collective Impact

Lalitha Vaidyanathan of FSG spoke about getting results at scale. She defined collective impact as having the commitment of actors from different system subsectors holding a common agenda to solve a problem at scale. To build collective impact, you must first know within what system(s) you are working. If you were to work with others across this system, who would be involved and what work would you be doing together?

Here are the elements for effective collective impact:

  • Five conditions for collective impact
    • A common agenda
    • Shared measurements (for learning and accountability)
    • Mutually reinforcing activities (no duplicate effort)
    • Continuous communication
    • Backbone support. The backbone is the people who are dedicated to making the group work effectively.
  • The mindset and disposition for collective impact
    • Shift from technical solutions to adaptive solutions.
    • Shift from focus on evidence to focus on evidence and relationships
    • Shift from looking for the silver bullet to using silver buckshot
    • Shift from taking credit to sharing credit. Ask “Who can we blame the good results on?”
    • Be willing to take risks. Nothing happens by staying safe.
  • Structure everything for collective impact
    • The old way of structuring has predetermined solutions to implement.
    • The new way of structuring has predetermined rules of interaction from which the solution will emerge.
    • Be intentional about impact and uncertain about solution

Conclusion

This two-day conference really was all about working with others in a spirit of open-handed generosity to get a common mission accomplished. The key concept woven through everything was creativity. I really liked something that was said at the end of the day:

Imagination is a preview of life’s coming attractions!

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