Saul Kaplan: Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast

We need to try more stuff.  Innovation is never about silver bullets. It’s about experimentation and doing whatever it takes, even if it means trying 1000 things, to deliver value.

Making progress on the real issues of our time including health care, education, and energy will require a lot more experimentation than we are comfortable with today.  These are all systems challenges that will require systems solutions.  Tweaking the current systems will not work.  Technology as a sustaining innovation may improve the efficiency of current systems but will not result in the transformation that we all know is needed.  We need to learn how to leverage technology for disruptive innovation and to experiment at the systems level.

My mantra is Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast. The imperative for all innovators is R&D for business models and systems.  We know how to do R&D for new products and technologies.  We need to also do R&D for new business models and systems.  It is not technology that is getting in the way, it is humans and the intransigent organizations we live in that are both stubbornly resistant to change. We have plenty of technology available to us. We need to learn how to leverage it to open up transformative ways to deliver value.  Designing and experimenting with new system approaches, particularly those that cut across sectors and silos, is the path to the transformation that we need.  We must design around the end user and learn how to harness the potential of social media platforms and storytelling to enable purposeful networks.

photo-saulI recently watched a 60 Minutes segment highlighting the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC.  Listening to Geoffrey Canada, the program’s founder, was inspiring and reminded me of the importance of systems level change.  Everyone wants to know the one thing that makes a program like HCZ successful.  What is the silver bullet that will allow the program to be replicated with ease across the country?  We are always looking for an easy answer.  There is no silver bullet and it is not easy to transform systems.  At HCZ it is doing 1000 things with passion to help those children succeed.  It is about focusing on the customer, in this case, the children within 100 city blocks in Harlem and doing what ever it takes to help them secure a bright future.  There is no one thing.  There are a lot of things that were tried, many that didn’t work or add value, and a strong appetite for trying new approaches to achieve the goal.

Systems transformation is all about experimentation. It is about combining and recombining capabilities from across silos until something clicks and value is delivered in a new way.   It is never just one thing.  It starts with a big idea that gets the juices flowing and attracts others with similar passion to the purposeful network.  The big idea has to be translated from the white board on to a real world test bed to demonstrate that the idea is feasible.  Starting small and demonstrating progress is key to building credibility and expanding a network of interested stakeholders.  An ongoing portfolio of small-scale experiments to fail fast on those without merit and to prioritize those with the potential to scale is critical.  Those experiments that demonstrate the feasibility of a new model or approach become candidates for expansion.  Scaling fast becomes more likely with the ability to leverage the proof point of a successful real world experiment and the opportunity to leverage a network of passionate supporters.

Systems level innovation is about enabling purposeful networks with the capacity to Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast.


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