Why is it so difficult to replicate stories of success?
Why is it so difficult to “scale” good solutions when we find them?
Why there are no simple recipes for solving today’s biggest challenges?
You might have indulged in questions of this kind before. Why when something goes really well in one situation, it is so hard to apply the learning points from that solution in another context / domain / in another country’s offices? And yet we see that a lot of time when we ask this kind of questions, the answers are either a seemingly vague “It depends” which sounds reasonable to some and frustrates others; or a well-meaning “Of course it will work here too” which will fail the moment this assumption exits the realm of textbooks and nice-looking theories and meets the real world.
In this blog post I explore our temptation for “rollout strategies”; then we will take a look at a complexity framework to understand the role of context in different situations; we will see the journey that context has travelled through over the last decades; and how this could have very practical consequences in our work when we deal with complex situations like environmental sustainability, climate change, aid and development.
Let’s start from where this is all too familiar.
The need to “scale up” good solutions is evident (see climate crisis) and the temptation for quick wins and highly replicable solutions is strong in us. Institutions around us are geared to reward this potential to ‘scale things up’, be it an accelerator for start up’s (first question they asked to my consultancy: “how will you scale your product?”) a government grant (“could this be replicated and positively impact more people?”) or aid money (“let’s roll out this new technology in other countries”). Now, the temptation is for a linear pathway made of: testing out something -> looking for what works -> identifying a recipe of sorts -> do a big roll-out implementation. Progress is achieved, the world is changed, we are all happy. This is fine in situations where replication is easy -except that in the most complex scenarios we have to forgo this hope that a copy-paste approach to roll-out solutions be a viable option.
The whole notion of scale implies ‘standardization’ and comes from the idea that you do a replica of your successful project elsewhere. The trick with a standardization is that it minimizes (or better say: bypasses) the importance of context. We get excited about scaling an idea that works: it becomes a trend on twitter and makes the headlines and we all get excited around flashy headlines of the type
“this [new technical solution] could end [systemic problem] in [developing country we are addicted to mention]!”.
Other than some obvious considerations like the lack of a systemic approach to the challenge, at times ignoring the context could be the most troubling of all blunders. This “theory of action” usually works well in a mechanical/technical system, where the level of adaptation to a local context is minimal. The reality though is that when we apply a solution to a rich, complex human system, context becomes everything and the solution we devise needs to be emergent: an answer that is so context-specific that will only work in that context, with at best the possibility to teach us something about a blue-print for actions in other context, but that can never give us a manual with the inspiring headline “here is how you can initiate change in your community!”
Continues in source: From an isolated laboratory to a world where “context is everything” | LinkedIn