Scale up

That’s my New Year’s resolution: Scale up.

Huh? Aren’t New Year’s resolutions supposed to be about scaling down? Pledging to reduce your weight, consumption (or carbon footprint)?   Yes, those are the traditional resolutions. Personally I should probably consider all of them.

But my main focus this year is going to be on scaling up, not down: scaling up positive impact. My resolution is to help create a step change in real outcomes affecting sustainable social and economic development.

That may seem just a bit presumptuous.  However, I don’t think I have to do it alone; in fact, I know I can’t do it alone. That’s the whole point.

My reasoning is simple: The sum of all the great one-off projects in corporate sustainability reports and the green press isn’t enough to move the needle.  For every one success we talk, there are 99 other times it didn’t happen.  That ratio has to change.

The need to focus on “scaling up” clicked for me last summer, at a session led by the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD). After the meeting I blogged about the challenge of scaling up, of –

…driving improvements of 10X instead of 10%. … How do you bring about that level of change? Partly through great projects, great examples; you have to start somewhere, you have to figure it out, prove it, show it, do it. Absolutely. But to get scale, you have to do more. You certainly have to do more than you can do yourself. Personally, I’m pretty sure I can do 10% more by working harder or smarter. I’m very sure I can’t work 10 times harder or smarter.

There is no shortage of great needs and great ideas.  The challenge is connecting them up, getting the great ideas off the ground and up to scale with the needs.

There’s lots of good work going on around scaling up, working from the top down (starting with policy).  For example, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has focused its Action 2020 agenda on broad efforts to achieve scale. Within many companies, the focus is shifting to functions like procurement, with greater leverage over multiple partners in the supply chain. The focus on supply chain in the Global Reporting Initiative’s recent G4 guidelines’ certainly helps that effort.

Another route for scaling up is to work from the bottom up (starting with projects) instead of the top down.  Many who’ve done successful projects got them done by ignoring organizational issues.  To scale up, they have to find ways to work with (or around) those same issues. To go from one great project to a great corporate-wide process takes different approaches. To go from one new “green” product to a whole portfolio of low impact, high value products takes different approaches.

Some companies and practitioners have found ways to do this.  For example, General Motors now points out that

  • “We have 105 landfill-free facilities – more than any other automaker
  • “We recycle or reuse nearly 90% of our worldwide manufacturing waste”

That didn’t happen by accident.  Great projects were scaled up.

If we can harvest and harness the lessons of those who’ve succeeded in scaling up sustainability work, we may be able to help make that step change in impact.

To help with that learning, the US BCSD is devoting a portion of its annual meeting in February to just that kind of scaling up: “from great projects to great impact.”  We’re going to devote a big chunk of the meeting to hands-on sharing and learning about scaling up across multiple companies and sectors.

Come join us. Bring your successes and your frustrations. Or if you can’t attend, share your thoughts, challenges and lessons about scaling up.  You can post comments here or email me directly.

And maybe having greater positive impact can be one of your resolutions, too.

Happy New Year!

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]  

One comment

  1. Scott

    this is reminiscent of “Factor Four”, the book by Amory and Hunter Lovins, back in the 1990s. I have often wondered why the excercise of increasing efficiency and halving resource use has not been taken up by many companies, but it seems like not all businesses are built to listen to good ideas from employees at the ‘bottom’ of the ladder. This is where many of the best ideas come from, including efficiencies gained in Kai-zen processes. I’m all for scaling up. Isn’t that how the natural world adapts to change?

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