How do I scale my work? I hear this question in many different ways, in many different venues and many different times a day. I hear it from startups that are trying to figure out how to become a “real business." I hear it from government employees that want to figure out how to turn their homegrown innovation into an agency-wide asset. I hear it from companies trying to get their product to support a significantly larger number of clients. I hear it from hobbyists trying to maintain the spirit of their side project while trying to evolve and grow its functionality and not upset its early adopters. I hear it a lot. However, at the core, it is the same question. How do I increase the impact of my work?
Everyone that talks about scaling should understand that they are referring to the ability of their work – whether a system, a tool or some other innovation – to cope and perform under an increased or expanded workload.
Something that scales well will be able to maintain, or even increase, its performance or efficiency when tested by larger operational demands. If I am a patent reviewer and I created software that helps get synonyms for my patent search in a tenth of the time it normally takes, then scaling could mean how I extend this software to cover more patent areas and be able to handle more than one person using it.
This particular topic is not addressing “operating at scale,” “scaling a business,” or “scaling a team." However, elements from this discussion can be applied to those topics as well.
In my experience, there are typically five steps needed to scale one’s work.
Warning to all the non-techie types, a lot of this comes from my experience as a software engineer, software development manager and product manager. The good news is that despite this warning, the insight is applicable to you and your field:
STEP 1: KNOW THYSELF
The first thing that you must do is to be clear about your work. Articulate its purpose and its main contribution. Define the core competency of your innovation. Specify the attributes that make it valuable. Specify, from the perspective of someone using or consuming your work, the things that differentiate it from other contemporary solutions. This is the starting point for discussions with your advocates, champions, approvers and those that will help you with this scaling effort. Needless to say, it is also the starting point for creating a scalable version of your work.
STEP 2: BREAK DOWN AND STANDARDIZE
Now that you have put in the work to get to the core of what your innovation does, break down the entire system into a set of simple and logical components. Identify all the interactions between your components, eliminate as many manual elements as possible and automate all the logical elements that are repeatable tasks. There is a lot of value in the church of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).
For scale, you have to ensure that your work performs consistently, irrespective of workload. Thus, standardizing and defining workflows and operations is critical. The last task in this step is to document the way your system works, the way it is deployed and the way it should be used. This documentation is a useful blueprint that will help when it comes to getting traction.
STEP 3: BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR GOAL
I have seen too many people who recognize that they need to scale, but don’t refine the goal any further. Do you want to increase your number of users by a factor of 10 or 100? Do you want to increase the services your product offers? Do you want to increase the coverage of your tool? Do you want to increase your revenue tenfold? Getting clear on the dimension that you are optimizing on, on the metric being used, and on the target value for your metric(s) will provide the focus needed to guide you to a successful strategy, and associated tactical actions.
STEP 4: KNOW YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE
Your audience, both users and stakeholders, is first and foremost the feedback mechanism that tells you if you’re heading in the right direction or not. Understanding your users’ behavior and their interactions with your work will be pivotal in determining the successful approaches to take to the land of scale.
STEP 5: EXPERIMENT, TEST, ITERATE
A lot of founders tend to believe that they can achieve scale by doing more of “the same." Their rationale is that the actions that got me here made me successful, so more of the same should be good enough.
Unfortunately, a solution built for a few thousand people will not be the same solution that is needed for a few million people, even if the core function remains the same. This is why we go through steps 1 through 4 first. They help us to figure out the essential aspects of our work and the aspects that may need to evolve.
Once you realize that what got you here won’t get you there (to your goal), you can start to appreciate the need to experiment with all the assumptions, components and processes that underpin your solution.
View this as a growth hacking experience. A growth hacker conducts multiple experiments across marketing channels, product development, sales segments and other areas of a business to identify the most efficient ways to grow a business.
This should be your mindset, working with your users and (potential) advocates to determine the best way your work can accommodate the needs of your agency, community or organization. This involves creating experiments, testing them and using the feedback to improve your work.
At the end of the day, the core function of your work will remain the same. However, expect a lot of change as you scale it to handle more, and also fit within a new environment. It is nothing to be afraid of. Embrace it. You got here because you were successful.