Enough Innovation Already!

Innovation without replication is a waste of time.


Innovation is just so … sexy.

To attack an empty whiteboard with a fistful of markers is to experience the dawn of creation, and a wall festooned with Post-Its pretty much guarantees a break-though. Rapid prototyping sounds cool even if you don’t know what it is, and who wouldn’t want to be the subject of a breathless article in Fast Company? Someday, if you play your cards just right, you could even be summoned to the TED stage. Wow!

Everybody’s doing it: Even the big international NGOs—the BINGOs—are getting in on the action with a wave of innovation labs and rejiggered mission statements. Whee!

I hate to be the skunk at the party, but look: The most urgent challenge in the social sector is not innovation, but replication. No idea will drive big impact at scale unless organizations—a lot of them—replicate it. And there are plenty of high-impact ideas awaiting high-quality replication. More than a few of them are backed by randomized controlled trial (RCT) results and all that stuff. It turns out that replication matters even more than innovation when it comes to impact at scale.

Wait—BINGOs – isn’t that what you’re good at? Replication at scale? You should totally do that!

There’s a whole bunch of little labs out there to feed ideas to you. The most prolific are social ventures—organizations built to develop, prove, and scale the kind of poverty solutions you need. They tend to be better at it because they are completely obsessed with one big idea. They are agile enough to change course and iterate fast, and since they go out of business if the idea doesn’t work, they generally go all-in. Their save-the-world start-up vibe tends to attract talent they could otherwise never afford, and they get a lot of help from various kinds of advisors who come from the worlds of design and business. Nowadays there seems to be a pretty functional ecosystem supporting them.

And get this: You can have their ideas for free! All that research and development, the hard work that went into the proof-of-concept and eventual impact evaluation—it’s all yours for the taking. All you have to do is replicate, and if they’re smart, they’ll help you with that, too. They all dream of impact at scale, and you can help make it happen—talk about win-win! It would be nice if you gave them credit, and you really should pay whatever it costs for them to teach you how to do it right, but it’s going to be way easier and way cheaper than it would be to develop this stuff on your own.

Here’s the thing, though: High-fidelity replication is hard. You have to do everything as well as the innovators did. You can’t leave stuff out, make arbitrary changes to methods and procedures, or cut corners just because you didn’t raise enough money. If you do it wrong, it may not work at all. Replication is both a science and a high art: You must be committed to and obsessive about the details.

Here’s an example of a replicator putting in what it takes: Living Goods is a well-known social venture that fields an Avon Lady-like network of dynamic village community health promotors. These promotors sell health products (including malaria and pneumonia treatments) door-to-door, doing health education and making clinic referrals all the while. The Living Goods model went through many iterations, working through core issues like supply chain logistical systems and the right basket of goods. It turned out that the most important they learned was how to hire and train great salespeople as health promotors. They eventually got it right: A big, expensive RCT showed that villages with a Living Goods health promotor had an astonishing 27 percent drop in child mortality.

Living Goods has grown to a respectable size, with 3,538 health promotors in Uganda and Kenya. However, for the model to achieve impact at real scale, others will have to join as replicators. There’s a lot of interest out there, and Living Goods is involved with a number of would-be replicators. But there is one big catch: The Living Goods model is complicated. Its systems, talent, and overall management are world class. If you want to get the same results, you need to be serious about it. You need to invest what it takes to do it right.

BRAC— one of the best BINGOs in the world—is serious about it and has worked hand-in-glove with Living Goods in Uganda since 2007. They rolled out at a much bigger scale, and worked closely with Living Goods staff to capture all their innovations and iterations. Together BRAC and Living Goods cover a population of 6 million people.

Living Goods has now developed a state-of-the-art management platform that will help BRAC and other NGOs deliver the model at high quality. They’ve learned that you don’t just share your model with replicators; you have to give them the systems that allowed you to deliver it. With that platform, Living Goods is working to refine its approach to replication partnerships so that the process requires a shorter, less-intense engagement but yields the same impact.

A similar story is set to play out in Kenya. The BOMA Project works in semi-nomadic, pastoralist villages in the arid north. The project identifies the poorest women in these villages, trains them how to run a small business, and gives them a startup grant and the support they need to use it well. It’s an approach not unlike other “graduation from extreme poverty” models, and it’s working wonderfully. So far, 7100 businesses support 21,000 women and 100,000 kids, and BOMA’s 2016 impact data shows a three-fold increase in monthly income. In addition, 92 percent of women “graduate” from extreme poverty in two years, and 97 percent of the businesses are going strong a year later.

Two very good BINGOs, Mercy Corps and Catholic Relief Services, have decided to integrate the BOMA model into their own work. In 2018, Mercy Corps will add 3,900 women and Catholic Relief Services will enroll 1,600—and that’s just for starters. They too are serious about getting it right. Here’s what BOMA has learned:

  • Start with a low-risk pilot.
  • Get buy-in from technical and program leads at the HQ level.
  • Expect modifications to the model, but be militant about the features and methods necessary to assure similar impact.
  • Set clear expectations of performance and codify them in a technical agreement.
  • Use a digital platform to track—transparently—key performance indicators.
  • Visits aren’t enough: Embed staff into the replicating organization for a substantial period of time.
  • Have replicator staff people come to shadow BOMA staff.
  • Provide tapered support training for longer than you expect.
  • Be willing to walk away if the ability and commitment aren’t there.

Notice what this says about the role of original innovators. If they really want to go to scale, they have to become active facilitators of their own replication. They have to shift from working exclusively as direct doer to taking on at least a partial role as teacher and supporter. They need to package up their model as a systematic, doable intervention (including the systems that make it doable) and “sell” it to those most able to replicate it at scale. They then have to support—often intensively—the successful implementation of the model. For many organizations, this shift from doer to supporter represents a sea change that can be traumatic; innovators must be anticipate and manage it carefully.

As a replicator, there is still plenty of creative work to do in terms of iteration and efficiency, not to mention the kind of top-down policy work required to successfully scale-up of anything. In that sense, everybody gets to innovate.

There may be useful franchising or licensing arrangements to be had here, but whatever. People get way too hung up on that stuff, and intellectual property is largely irrelevant in the social sector anyway: Execution is everything. The important thing is to develop, prove, and scale a model.

Similarly, getting credit—and its obvious role in fundraising—often creates conflict as the work transfers from one doer to another. Get over it. For ventures, having someone else scale up your idea should be your dream. As long as the BINGO doesn’t screw it up, you should be stoked. For BINGOs, it’s rare that anything but good comes from giving credit where it is due. For both, if your communications people are worth what you pay them, they ought to be able to figure out how to authentically market a successful scale-up to your advantage.

Innovation gets all the press and prizes. It shouldn’t. World-changing impact at scale comes from the hard work of high-quality replication. BINGOs can and should do it, and they ought to get the money they need and recognition they deserve. In the long run, innovators and replicators are utterly dependent on each other. Each has to do the thing they do best if we are going to make a serious dent in the problems we’ve all set out to solve.

This article was originally published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on April 6th, 2018 with the headline: Enough Innovation Already!