Lesson 1: Embrace complexity and adaptability
The question of scale is a burning one for social entrepreneurs. They are exhorted to “scale what works”, emphasizing business principles, such as programme standardization, to replicate efficiently and rapidly. However, many entrepreneurs have developed and piloted an effective intervention only to find that, when applied to a different population, country or context, the results are far from the same. Solutions applied in a limited environment – with high-touch, carefully calibrated programming – will almost certainly be different when scaled across geographic and cultural boundaries. Yet, it seems that the myth of the silver bullet, the solution that magically solves a complex problem, still prevails.
Social systems are often defined as complex adaptive systems – complex because they are made up of many dynamic components, and adaptive because participants in the system learn from past behaviour and thus change their actions. Every social system is inherently different and constantly changing; social problems, therefore, have no “stopping point”, no definitive solutions. By embracing systems thinking and considering social issues as a function of systems behaviour, systems entrepreneurs are moving beyond delivering solutions and instead are focusing on systems architecture.
Each of the organizations profiled in this report have scaled their operations to an impressive degree, all reaching at least 1 million beneficiaries. However, despite such significant gains, these entrepreneurs have become frustrated with what they foresee as the limits of organizational scale. As Jeroo Billimoria, Founder and Managing Director, Child & Youth Finance International (CYFI) describes it, “Looking beyond scaling a particular organization requires a major mindset shift.” These systems entrepreneurs are distinguishing between organizational scale, which scales a programme or solution through an organization’s operations, and systems change, which influences the rules, norms and values that make up social systems.
In some cases, this shift of mindset can lead to very different assumptions about how to grow an organization. For example, in the case of CYFI, Billimoria decided to transition from her existing organization, Aflatoun, which provides a curriculum for financial education, to create a much smaller organization dedicated to the concept of “economic citizenship” for children.
From 2000 to 2011, Billimoria grew Aflatoun to reach 1 million children through affiliates trained to apply Aflatoun’s curriculum-based programme for financial literacy. However, Billimoria became discouraged by the barriers she encountered in the financial and educational systems where Aflatoun’s affiliates worked. She found that educators and administrators did not place a high priority on financial education, while financial regulators and institutions were not convinced of the value of promoting child-friendly banking products. During this time, Billimoria came to believe that the path to scale was not through incremental service delivery, but rather through a shift in the underlying systems that were failing to support children as future economic actors.
Therefore, in 2011, Billimoria decided to spin off a new organization, CYFI, to focus on bringing together decision-makers in finance and education from around the world to support economic citizenship for children. To do this, CYFI hosts annual events, such as Global Money Week, which raises awareness of money and finance for children, as well as global and regional summits, which encourage national leaders to learn from progress made in countries. CYFI also consults with education ministries to include financial education in their national curricula, and with the finance industry to assist in creating child-friendly banking practices for children and youth. CYFI measures its success by the number of countries that have adopted new curricula and banking regulations, and it is currently well on its way to influencing education policies and financial regulations in 132 countries.
Other systems entrepreneurs studied are reconsidering how to develop their programmes so they respond to the dynamic communities where they operate, promoting a set of values and principles rather than a prescriptive solution. VillageReach is a health systems-strengthening organization working in Sub-Saharan Africa, with its flagship vaccination programme in Mozambique. Considering itself to be a health systems innovator, VillageReach takes healthcare delivery to the most underserved populations in rural areas. The organization piloted its holistic approach to the immunization supply chain in two provinces of Mozambique for five years; once the solution was proven to work, VillageReach expanded its approach to further provinces in the country, intent on proving its ability to scale up.
However, as many social entrepreneurs have discovered, simply applying the same approach across multiple geographies rarely works in practice. In its work with government health systems, VillageReach has had to learn to work from within the system, and then remove itself from the system. In the design of vaccine delivery, the organization has been challenged to first look at the system’s constraints – funding, capacity, human resources – and then design a new approach to use these resources to their best advantage. The primary change has been to transfer leadership, namely giving front-line health workers more information and decision-making capability. VillageReach believes people are at the core of any successful innovation, and building the capacity of health workers at the front line to deliver new innovations is critical to its success. But this requires a far different approach than delivering a product or service efficiently.
The process has been difficult; according to Emily Bancroft, Program Director, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.” However, VillageReach has been willing to learn through the process and to continuously teach those around the organization. To do this, the organization has been challenged to look at the capabilities of public-sector health workers, and invest in team members who can assume a learning and teaching approach. With time and patience, it has now applied this style of continuous learning across the organization’s portfolio of innovations in 13 African countries.
Complex adaptive systems, such as public education and health systems, are comprised of many actors, each making decisions and changing behaviour based on the learnings from the outcomes of those decisions. Rather than limiting external influences, organizations like CYFI and VillageReach are highly responsive to their environments, bringing out the best in the actors and communities where they operate.
Organizations like CYFI and VillageReach challenge the idea that scaling operationally is always the best way to create extensive change. In some instances, neutral and nimble organizations may be best positioned to influence the actors and decision-makers who have the power to change the rules. In other cases, flexible programme models built on values and principles, rather than tightly scripted process flows, are the key to triggering systemic change. Entrepreneurs and organizations seeking to create systems change should consider the principles and values that drive systems behaviour, and then envision the type of organization or programme model that can shift these fundamental systems drivers.