I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this notion that there might be two primary ways to go about accomplishing spread/scale in the social sector: broad and deep.

When I think about broad I think about getting an intervention to everyone who might benefit as quickly as possible, and doing so as a matter of justice. I think about Rotary Clubs (among many others like the World Health Organization, the US CDC and UNICEF) pulling together to ensure that every single child on the planet receives the polio vaccine. They helped the world go from 350,000 cases of polio in 1988 to 22 in 2017. I even read that they stopped the Civil War in Sudan for four days so that every child in that country could be immunized. Now that’s getting an intervention to everyone who might benefit!

Broad is often good and I think it’s often the default mindset of many foundations and non-profits seeking to scale when they come to the Skid Row School. My only caveat to going broad is be sure your intervention is truly “read for prime time” by being attentive to any unintended consequences that might actually cause harm. Otherwise – get to it!

Then there’s deep. Deep doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, especially in a culture where more + bigger + faster = better. I want to put deep out there as equally valid with broad as a scaling objective. By scaling “deep” I mean fully transforming an existing system. This is not something I have as much experience with, but my hunch is going deep and broad can be complementary strategies.

A friend at the National Equity Project recommended this article to me: “Seven Lessons for Leaders in Systems Change” written by the folks at the Center for Ecoliteracy and I’m happy to share it with you. Cliff’s notes version – the lessons are:

  1. To promote systems change, foster community and cultivate networks.
  2. Work at multiple levels of scale
  3. Make space for self-organization
  4. Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise
  5. Facilitate – but give up the illusion that you can direct – change
  6. Assume that change is going to take time
  7. Be prepared to be surprised

Alumni of the Skid Row School will note some similarities with this and our Model for Unleashing 1.0 (yes, we have a MFU 2.0 now) in that #4 and #7 map to “play jazz” and #5 maps to “lose control.”

This week I’ve been focusing in on Lesson #5: “Facilitate – but give up the illusion that you can direct – change.”  I want to share their instructions on #5 directly:

“So what can you do? In the provocative maxim of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, “You can never direct a living system. You can only disturb it.” How do you disturb a system? By introducing information that contradicts old assumptions. By demonstrating that things people believe they can’t do are already being accomplished somewhere. By inviting new people into the conversation. By rearranging structures so that people relate in ways they’re not used to. By presenting issues from different perspectives.”

What a breath of fresh air. This is a direct challenge to all of our inner control freaks, right? It’s true – we can’t control a system, but we sure can disrupt it – and they offer five concrete tactics ready for us to try today. I can think of a lot of systems and structures that could benefit from disruption, and this is useful for everything from our current (in)justice system to our organizations, no matter how big or small.

Whether you’re wanting to create change broad or deep, or both, I’m happy to share these five tactics as inspiration and provocation. I’m curious if any of these resonate for you and how it’s working out for you as you apply them. 

Disturb on!

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