Question 4 of 365: Which is better: Scalability, Sustainability or Reframablity?

I have thought a lot about how important scalability is for the success of a project, company, or idea. I have long held that unless a project is scalable to the Nth degree, it will soon die and it will not create a lasting change upon the environment from which it grew. I have said these things in the hopes of making myself obsolete and allowing me to move on from the projects I started.

I would now like to propose that there may be alternatives to scalability that might be worth exploring. Successful small pilots and intense open source communities have lead me to believe that, perhaps, scalability does not do everything that it needs to. Scalability allows a single idea to be pushed out to a large amount of people. It grows exponentially, and requires very little in the way of shift as it grows. The user experience is uniform and can be measured one against another quite easily. The sheer numbers of people using a product, adhering to a set of principles or simply working toward a common goal seem to outweigh any of the problems that a true scalability provides.

And yet, for the people in the small, unscalable pilot the experience is incredible. For the people in the open source community that will never be adopted by a major audience, the work is the reward. What they are after is less ambitious, but more authentic. What they are interested in is leaving the human element within the project. By definition, an unscalable school or business model is dependent upon the people who use it and keep it going. When they leave, the model could leave with them. They could try to package their materials and work toward making their models work for a widespread audience, but all they would be doing would be to try and squeeze their passion onto a page or try to give someone a play-by-play of what an experience should feel like.

So, perhaps  rather than scaling up our projects and trying to remove ourselves from the process, we should look for ways to sustain the gains we have made, to make them a part of the culture. Perhaps when we are trying to start a new venture, we should look at ways that other people could reframe it for their own purposes. If scalability insults the purpose that others have for what we do, then sustainability and reframability must be considered in order to allow the individual to find their place within the new idea.

After all, isn’t that what Twitter did?

Originally, twitter didn’t have hashtags or search. Originally, Twitter didn’t have automatic link shorteners. Originally, Twitter didn’t create lists of people to follow. It didn’t have archiving tools. Or a lot of other things. It was individual users who didn’t just want the product to scale (because we all know that Twitter didn’t scale all that well), they wanted it to change. They wanted to reframe exactly what the purpose of the product was and they wanted to sustain their use of it through all of the iterations and false starts, through API shifts and down time.

So, we must do the same. We must be able to sustain our work long enough for others to grab ahold of it and want it to be their own and then we have to let it truly be theirs. We must allow them to reframe our ideas and sustain those as well. We must see our new businesses, schools, and non-profits through to the point where we can no longer recognize them because others have taken the helm and reframed us out of the picture. That is the only way that we can walk away, that we can show something to be truly useful to others. That is the only way that we will be able to change the world around us.

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  1. I wonder why you didn't mention “adaptability” here. Twitter lives because it adapts. I don't know that it has so much been re-framed as adapted. For the non-profits I've worked with, their success or failure has hinged on adaptability. Teacher's, those who are good yet not necessarily charismatic, thrive due to adaptability. My head wanders to Harvey Lipschultz from David E. Kelly's Boston Public.
    The other piece I'd put out there is “share-ability.” It's kinda like collaboration without the reciprocity or interdependence. It's also kinda like anything open source – minus the reciprocity. It's more of a elementary school cafeteria, “You don't like your lunch? Here, have a piece of my sandwich.”

  2. bhwilkoff

    Yeah. In later questions I really dig into the idea of adaptability and
    iteration, but I couldn't really wrap my head around it because I was so
    focused on how much my district (and the world at large) want things to

    It was a minor realization for me when I realized that I didn't want
    scalability at all. As I figured out that people were the secret sauce (as
    they always are), I think that it really means that the only hope for the
    future is professional development and personal learning. I had always
    valued this, but it is just so much harder than psuedo-scaling a program to
    other districts and companies. People are so much harder to change, but
    truly, they are the only thing worth working toward. Their iteration is much
    more valuable.

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