Social innovators tend to think big.  We want our organizations/companies to change the world.  Not just impact one community, but thousands; not just a million people but billions.  And we want to do it through awesome, disruptive innovations.

Here’s the catch.  Broad reach and large-scale impact don’t get along well with big-time innovation.

You probably think I’m nuts.  Every noteworthy idea in existence somehow reached scale.  I’d say you’re guilty of selection bias.  For every one idea that makes it big, there are 1,000 others that die on the vine.  When innovation and impact work together, what you’re seeing is the exception, not the rule.

Charles Leadbetter, in minutes 6:45-8:10 of this fantastic TED Talk, does a wonderful job of articulating one reason why.  

(Click here to watch only that section of the talk or watch the full talk below… WordPress doesn’t allow you to designate a starting point)

Organizations with the greatest reach and the resources to generate massive impact are also those with the most limited capacity to support disruptive innovation.  This is almost a foregone conclusion.  Some huge companies like Google, Apple, Cisco, etc. have cracked this nut.  Most others “innovate” through acquisition or simply fail to innovate and fall into the dark depths of irrelevance over time.

There are numerous lessons for social entrepreneurs here:

1. Your best bet is probably to start from scratch.  Don’t expect that a larger, existing org will be able/willing to support your big new idea.  According to Paul Light, in his recent SSIR article, you probably already know or suspect this: 

“Funders seem to prefer new organizations as platforms for change. At best, they dismiss old organizations as incapable of change. At worst, they view them as protectors of the status quo. Yet I find considerable evidence that old organizations can produce change, especially if they are able to rejuvenate themselves. In short, socially entrepreneurial organizations do not have to be new.”

While Paul is right that big, old organizations can produce change, I would challenge you to think about whether yours will. The organization and its executives have to be willing to take big risks and put significant organizational resources behind something that is relatively unproven. Then, they need to be willing to see it through despite painful resistance, failures and setbacks.  BP, with its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign is a good example of half-hearted commitment to change (listen also here). 

2. Scale is something that will have to be achieved the hard way.  Big organizations have big networks and numerous channels through which new products can often be funneled.  If the channels don’t exist, they can be created.  So reaching scale is much easier within the confines of a big company or org.  But, since your small business won’t enjoy the same privileges, scale will have to be achieved slowly, over time, through a huge amount of effort.  So… is your stomach as big as your eyes?

3. The bigger you get, the more you become one of “them.” Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your big, new idea will always be relevant.  It won’t.  And don’t assume you’ll always be on the leading edge of change.  You won’t. If you achieve scale and don’t find ways to enable innovation, you will become one of your former worst enemies.

There is one other lesson here for all of us.  That is the importance of building institutions to support ventures from start-up through to “big.”  What we’re seeing right now in the sector, it seems to me, is an abundance of orgs and structures targeted at supporting brand new ventures.  But the successful among these ventures will, at some point, need access to much larger pools of capital in order to grow.  Not thousands of dollars but millions.  If they can’t get that from traditional financial institutions, because they are generating below-market returns, for example, then we need to figure out how to provide it to them.  Is anyone working on that now?

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