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Eleven Lessons for Scaling Up Your Business

Fast Company Blogger Seth Kahan

Seth KahanI have had the good fortune to work with several organizations that are scaling up, growing their capacity to meet higher demands. I call this intentional evolution. My engagements have centered on helping these groups customize their growth, better serve their mission while simultaneously increasing their capacity. As a result I have learned a good deal about what it takes to successfully stay ahead of the curve yet avoid overbuilding.

Here are eleven lessons I now share with CEOs in advance of helping them with their organization’s intentional evolution:

1. At the center of dramatic growth is your organization’s mission.

It will guide every choice that is made, both strategic and tactical, as you scale up to deliver broader and deeper impact. It must be clearly understood and stated explicitly as it is your compass. This is especially true in times of stress or when tough decisions are called for.

2. Scaling up must be people and community focused.

Organizations are made up of people, inside and outside the org-chart. Regardless of imposed structure, these people work in communities and ultimately they contribute according to the social rules they have established. Therefore, every plan regardless of its logical excellence relies on engagement, support, and contribution, or it will fail.

3. Scaling up is a significant, whole-system, transformational process.

 It is not something to be entered into lightly or without due diligence. Due diligence means the major players must be involved, first in interviews and then in the construction of significant portions of the scale-up. These players are both inside and outside the organization. They certainly include leadership, but extend beyond the senior team to include beneficiaries, front line staff, partners, vendors, thought leaders, technical experts, policy makers and government officials, and media, Appropriate involvement is the approach you want. Not everyone should be in on every aspect, but apposite engagement is required across the board.

4. Scaling up requires attention to the details of circumstance.

Resources and adoption do not flow evenly. You want to stay ahead of the curve, providing a track or infrastructure for growth, but you do not want to get too far ahead of actual uptake. This requires ongoing steering, not mindless following of a project plan that has been written and endorsed.

5. To oversee the effort, you will need a Steering Group.

These leaders may include board members and other critical players outside the day-to-day activity of the scale-up effort. Every member must understand and support the potential positive impact of the scaling opportunity. This group is responsible for big picture oversight, helping to make critical strategic decisions during implementation, as circumstances will inevitably change midstream.

6. To run the effort, you will need a Collaborative Leadership Team.

Ownership of implementation must reside inside the organization and held by a select few senior staff who can work well together. These are the folks who drive the change day-to-day, address tactical challenges, help each other out as emerging opportunities and challenges become apparent, ensure that the ball is not dropped on critical initiatives, and balance the load over the span of the project.

7. You must have a Chief Information Officer / Chief Knowledge Officer.

It may or may not mean the addition of a senior team member. But, you will need someone at the executive level who understands the role of knowledge sharing and technology to realize the potential the scaling up offers. In these two areas in particular, strategic leadership is required.

8. Every successful effort examines twelve core topics.

These are your primary variables. Each situation is different, but due diligence requires an audit to set a baseline as well as a clearly defined target to establish objectives. Moreover, these twelve topics are cross-related and interdependent. So, they must be dealt with together. They are in no particular order:

  1. Leadership
  2. Business Development
  3. Partnerships
  4. Thought Leadership and Public Relations
  5. Finance and Risk Management
  6. Operations
  7. Talent and Human Development
  8. Knowledge Sharing, Training, and Support
  9. Procurement
  10. Legal
  11. Information Technology
  12. Business Processes and Administration


9. Customization is achieved by listening to the stories of your most valuable players.

To create a individualized picture of your current state and the detailed goals of your scaling up, including measures of success and value identification for the twelve core topics, conduct a systematic listening effort with your key people of influence inside and outside the organization. This will include intensive sessions with the senior team collectively as well as individual interviews across the range of existing and future stakeholders (your growing, right? You have new stakeholders on the horizon).

10. Due diligence means learning from other organizations.

Find enterprises that are a good match your critical factors and have succeeded in their own growth. Conduct a real search to find these parallels in your industry or circumstances. Engage in face-to-face knowledge sharing. The value is stunning. You can expect to glean lessons learned on scope, execution, trouble spots, strategy, and tactics… plus get some really good guidance from people who have paid their dues.

11. Use community-building techniques to engage people in the overall effort.

I use a people-centered approach that is quite different from traditional mechanistic models for scaling. Community building is about empowering people to create different types of solutions that can be fit into the larger strategic initiative. It requires a tolerance for creativity, which can succeed with a plug-and-play attitude. The payoff is long-term success grounded in innovation, ownership, and integration.

I am often asked, what is the right sequence of events to begin? How do we start? Here are some rules of thumb:

  1. Begin with the CEO or Executive Director.
  2. Convene the senior team. Expect to reconvene periodically.
  3. Build the Steering Group and establish the Collaborative Change Leadership Team.
  4. Conduct interviews of your most valuable players to set your baseline, and talk to other organizations
  5. Create a plan including goals, metrics, and value identification.

Scaling up, like any change initiative, is risky and hard. There are many moving parts. Things will come in clusters, and sometimes activity will feel overwhelming. But, the payoff is significant and sometimes immediate: increased capacity, improved delivery, and a better world. It’s worth doing right.

Posted April 20, 2010


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