Six strategies for crossing the valleys of death and scaling social innovations

Steve Davis

Get a weekly pulse on news and trends in impact investing with our free newsletter.

*I agree to receive marketing emails from ImpactAlpha, its affiliates, and accept our terms of use and privacy policy.
By signing up you agree to receive marketing emails from ImpactAlpha Inc. and accept our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.
Guest Author

Steve Davis

This post is part of ImpactAlpha’s “Frontiers in Social Innovation” series with Stanford GSB Center for Social Innovation. The posts in the series are adapted excerpts from the book, “Frontiers in Social Innovation,” edited by Neil Malhotra of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The pitch is perfect. Another great social enterprise is about to launch and bring the world a game-changing innovation. Maybe it’s a new vaccine delivery method that could save millions of lives, or a service to improve education worldwide, or a novel idea for business financing that will allow marginalized populations to participate in the global economy as never before. The idea has been proven to work. It clearly matters. The team is fantastic. What could go wrong?

Check the lower right-hand corner of the final slide in the PowerPoint. Note that small asterisk next to the words “then scale up”—as if this act was as simple as flipping a light switch. A no-brainer, mere busy-work. Someone else’s problem to solve. 

Ignore that asterisk at your peril. To actually transform society, an innovation must move from drawing board concept to a solution that can be deployed—at scale.

Yet, during the past few decades as technological invention surged, most innovators have focused on devising ever more ingenious inventions, leaving the complex nuances of implementing their ideas to others. As a result, we have foundations, think tanks, entrepreneurs, and academics treating the work of scaling as an afterthought, and thousands of effective innovations that could solve many of the world’s problems sitting unused on laboratory shelves. 

Valleys of death

The art of scaling is a vast and complex undertaking. It involves developing, adapting, and financing an innovative product or service. Then securing the necessary approvals, generating demand on the ground, building channels for distribution, and ensuring that the innovation reaches its intended users. This journey, a gauntlet often referred to as multiple “valleys of death,” can take years to cross, even decades. It is not for the faint of heart.

For more than a century these challenges have bedeviled the social sector. But there is now new attention on the art and science of scaling. Part of it has been driven by worldwide recognition of the need to do something—fast—about climate change and widening economic inequity. Some of it came out Covid-19, which made clear how quickly global innovation communities can respond when necessary. Whatever the reason, we are at a moment in history—one of simultaneous urgency and technological ability—that portends a new era of commitment to bringing more solutions to scale. 

A focus on scaling was growing well before the pandemic. During the past 20 years, we’ve seen the emergence of “Big Bet Philanthropy,” in which consortia of major donors join to target problems in education, energy, agriculture and health, funding solutions from conception to implementation. The creation of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which aggregates demand, provides financing, and serves as a conduit for moving commercially developed vaccines to the poorest communities in the world, is another example. But such well-funded mechanisms are few.

Capital is not the whole story. In the grant-making models of many large philanthropic organizations, implementation science traditionally has not been a priority. The (predictable) result? Many well-intentioned ideas stall, due to inventors’ failure to heed the needs of their intended users, or stumble when faced with government roadblocks, a dearth of infrastructure, limited data demonstrating value, or partnership-management problems. The recent recognition of implementation science is a welcome innovation in itself.

Art of scaling

No simple algorithm can ensure that a social innovation will scale. But there are several phases that all successful efforts must navigate:

1. Focus on the innovation, and be willing to let go. Social innovations frequently beget social enterprises, and vice versa. But ideating an innovation and bringing it to the world are entirely different skill sets. Almost always, scaling an innovation requires that its founders cede control of the original idea and turn it over to others for distribution. Social innovators tend to resist this hand-off, even if it would spread the impact of their work more effectively. The end goal—getting the innovation into as many hands as possible—must carry the day.

2. Think cross-sector partnerships. Virtually every innovation that has scaled successfully needed buy-in from the public, private, and social sectors. That is, a working partnership between government, business, and nonprofits. Each offers important capabilities to usher an innovation along the road to scale, and the future of social innovation as a field depends on strengthening these multi-sector alliances.

3. Align impact measurements early and often. To ensure that such partnerships thrive, all stakeholders must see the impact of their work. This is no small matter, as measuring social impact can be complicated. But it is essential to moving beyond the pilot stage. Social innovators must develop more sophisticated means to analyze social impact and ensure that their metrics align with the needs of stakeholders. 

4. Focus on demand creation and behavior change. Many social impact projects struggle with product-market fit. Successful innovators understand that behavior change may be required for broad community uptake, and they solicit expertise on the art of implementing effective behavior change programs—addressing the psychological, cultural, or economic assumptions that might inhibit adoption—as part of the scaling-up process. 

5. Look to the Horizon. Too often, regulatory questions and distribution concerns are ignored until late in the process—sometimes on the verge of launch. But successful scaling is like playing chess; it requires innovators to think three or four moves ahead and adjust in advance. 

6. Find Relentless Champions. To scale a social innovation, the importance of individual leaders cannot be overlooked. Having cheerleaders to steer a product or service through each phase of its journey and help it cross the various “valleys of death,” is the distinguishing feature of all successful innovations. 

While the hard work of scaling may lack the thrill of ideation, or the deep satisfaction of last-mile success, it is the battlefield where innovations that could change our world will thrive or perish. Scaling is an art, a science and, for my money, the most important endeavor of social innovators in the 21st century. 

Steve Davis is Executive Strategy Advisor at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and a Lecturer in social innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.