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Before You Grow Your Organization, Do This

By Laura Weidman Powers

I was at a cocktail party recently when I felt a tap on my shoulder. “I am ready to scale my venture. I hear you’re the person to talk about scale.”

Thell Robinson, a 2018 Echoing Green Fellow and founder of Halt Violence, had hit upon a mediation-based model that was reducing violence and recidivism in his city of Columbus, OH. It was perfectly natural that Thell and his fellow Fellows should be thinking about growth—even at a reception.

And, of course, I had scaled a venture myself. In 2012, I launched Code2040 in San Francisco, and oversaw the organization as we grew from a five-student pilot to a summer career accelerator serving 20x that—plus a 5,000-person community we were training to be racial equity advocates. At one point we were running summer programs in three cities with nearly 100 company partners who were committed to re-examining their entry-level hiring practices. So, as Thell knew, I did have experience with growth. But a topic like expanding an organization could take a whole strategy session—how could I possibly summarize the steps to take?

As Thell explained his successes and his aspirations, I was transported back to another professional experience of mine—one of my first, actually. While I was in college I ran a community service organization called CityStep on Harvard’s campus. The organization brings teams of college students into the local public schools to supplement the cut-back arts curriculum while providing mentorship. When it was time for me to graduate, I raised funds from Harvard to support me as I spent a year replicating the CityStep model in West Philadelphia public schools with University of Pennsylvania students (the program is still thriving there 15 years later and is now in several other communities, as well).

While replicating and scaling aren’t the same (more on that here), I realized that the first step I took replicating CityStep could help organize Thell’s thinking as he prepared to expand his work. This is actually a step that too many entrepreneurs miss when considering growth.

Break Down Your Work

The desire to scale often comes from the feeling of, “We’ve found something that works, so we want to spread it.” But early entrepreneurship involves intuition, experimentation, and organic processes of testing and experimenting. Social entrepreneurs are often trying things that have never been tried before, and a certain amount of throwing stuff at the wall is healthy. But the approaches that help you start something new are not the same as the approaches that help you scale what works.

Before growing an initiative or an organization, the first step is to deconstruct the components so that you can be clear on what pieces are working and what pieces are incidental.

“Break down what you do into at least 20 different steps and decisions,” I advised Thell. This can be a challenging undertaking because unlike examining more mature businesses, those 20 component pieces probably weren’t designed up front. Some of them flowed naturally from a single choice, and some of them happened without conscious choosing at all. But those may be the exact things that contribute to your effectiveness. On the other hand, there may be some things that you thought long and hard about that turned out to be irrelevant when actually implemented.

Deconstruct the ‘Why’—Even When Everything is Working

When things are going poorly, we tend to dive into a deep analysis to find out why. However, when everything is working, it’s common to not spend much time deconstructing the ‘why.’ After all, that time could be spent throwing more fuel on the fire and getting more impact. But it’s important to regularly take that step back and deconstruct all the various moving parts that go into your product, service, or experience. Understanding which of those are core to the impact or success, and which are incidental, is the best thing you can do if you want to grow.

Once you’ve gone through this analysis, you’re empowered to make informed decisions about what growth could look like for your work. Perhaps what you thought you’d replicate or scale is not actually the core piece that is driving impact!

This practice of deconstruction is especially important when part of your plan to scale involves entering new markets. It’s imperative to balance keeping the core of what you do or provide with the flexibility to adapt to market conditions. Only by deconstructing the essence of your work and understanding which pieces are essential can you also understand which pieces are flexible. As you grow, a regular practice of examining the component parts can help make your work more efficient, more effective, and more scalable.

Finding the Core of Your Work

As I ran through this analysis with Thell, I checked in with him to see if it was resonating. It made perfect sense, he confirmed, and he understood his next steps to take stock of Halt Violence’s work and identify its core impact. In the spirit of scale, I hope sharing this methodology helps my fellow Fellows and other social innovators out there go big.

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