It will cost you more than you think

Blog entry
Date: 
05.04.2013
Author: 
Chris Mould

“It will cost you more than you think and take much longer than you expect” is advice that more people involved in social reform need to hear and to hear more often.  Because it’s unfair to single people out, unfair to tell tales out of school, this is going to be an unusual piece: a set of reflections without references; based on recent encounters but deliberately generalised to spare my friends’ blushes.

Trust me though, time and again in our work at the Shaftesbury Partnership we find ourselves observing how underdeveloped are the ideas we see being taken to pilot and how premature are the attempts to declare a pilot successful and to make what it does mainstream.

Invariably there are consequences:

  • Ventures in operational or financial trouble;
  • the potential for impact only half realized;
  • Interventions that had had many hopes for effective social change pinned on them fizzling out after only a few years rather than scaling up.

If asked why this happens, I note some volatile comings together:

  • Individuals who care passionately about an issue that requires a long term, multi-staged approach to developing an intervention will collude with organisational funders who have been charged with finding a quick fix solution.
  • Radical or simply refreshing ways of thinking will acquire an inappropriately powerful allure when presented in the context of social problems that have themselves acquired a public or political profile.

In these situations scrutiny and discernment will be played down.

I also note that stakeholders, including the social entrepreneurs themselves, are intolerant of the scale of the initial costs and impatient regarding the time required to test an idea, to take it through pilot implementation and to refine it in the light of the learning.

Norman Dixon in his seminal book about military incompetence exposes the psychology behind leaders frequently pressing ahead to execute a strategy despite it looking increasingly unlikely to succeed. He shows how new information that throws doubt on a stratagem is rationalised away once minds are made up. The same sometimes applies to social venturing. Recently I’ve engaged with a variety of initiatives which have sounded great at first encounter but unravel when you ask the question “how, precisely, will this work?” I’m looking for rigour, for thinking at a very granular level, for evidence that the innovators have run multiple scenarios and “gamed” how the idea or innovation will respond in a variety of scenarios. I’m looking for evidence that execution has been thought through end to end and not just over the first few steps.

Instead of envisaging pilot as a single step in the process an idea goes through on its way to becoming an answer to a social problem, we should adopt a multi-stage model. We should press to see something practical tried out early and small scale with the focus at that stage being proof of concept. But we should also insist on:

  • larger scale piloting across multiple locations or contexts;
  • for sufficient time to be allocated to ensure the full life cycle of an intervention is uncovered;
  • and an approach to intermediate, part-way-through review and learning that ensures all aspects of the processes that a venture depends on for success are refined.

Wanting it quick and wanting it cheap is a serious problem. There are grant making programmes around now that offer £6K to a project for it to work out a business model and business plan for replication. The reality is this work will more likely cost £30K to £50K, but people still respond to what’s on offer despite the fact that the results will be inadequate.  

There are pilot projects that do not test key parts of the business model but press on to attempt scaling up when the foundations are still insecure and the answers to central questions about the how are not yet written.

Because social reform is so often about innovation we are routinely in uncharted territory once we start execution on the ground. Despite this the intolerance and impatience I referred to earlier makes it hard for those involved to make the right decisions in the face of emergent information, especially if it is unexpected and adverse. Norman Dixon again: “It seems that having gradually (and perhaps painfully) accumulated information in support of a decision people become progressively more loath to accept contrary evidence. As Edwards and his colleagues have shown, the greater the impact of the new information the more strenuously will it be resisted.”

Getting from a set of good ideas to a resilient programme of action is a hard thing indeed. Driving out complexity and cleverness in the design requires stamina. Responding appropriately and effectively to bad news in the pilot takes collective courage, good judgement and an elasticity of the key resources of time and money. Social investors and social venture intermediaries will do long term good the more they look for evidence of rigour, of granular consideration and of precision in the ideas and ventures they support; and the more they promote a multi-stage approach to how they develop those ideas and ventures into social reforms that bring lasting benefit.

If you would like to comment on the scaling report, please email: feedback@shaftesburypartnership.org.

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