Great Ideas and Great Execution Require Different Skills
Five important lessons on the relationship between innovating and achieving scale.
During a recent address I gave to social entrepreneurs at Duke University, Professor Joel Fleishman asked me about the dramatic increase over the past few years in the number of students eating subsidized breakfast at school—one of the nation’s most important nutrition programs for low-income children.
Research shows that children who eat a good breakfast tend to perform better in school, have better attendance, and exhibit fewer behavior problems. Unfortunately, many children, especially those from low-income families, do not get breakfast at home. In 1966, the government created the School Breakfast Program to help meet this need, but participation has languished at around 50 percent, leaving more than 11 million low-income children without this free or reduced-cost meal.
Recently, though, the efforts of the coalition of organizations that make up the No Kid Hungry campaign, coordinated by Share Our Strength, achieved significant progress in narrowing this gap. Over the course of just a few years, the campaign’s work increased participation in the School Breakfast Program by approximately two million low-income children. The campaign achieved these dramatic results largely by working with schools to adopt a simple change: moving breakfast from the cafeteria into the classroom.
For almost 50 years, school breakfast was served in the cafeteria before school, which meant kids had to get there early and suffer the stigma of eating a free breakfast. Moving breakfast to the classroom, where kids eat before morning instruction begins, made it universal and logistically manageable. It costs schools almost nothing to make the change—maybe the price of a few carts on wheels. And it more than doubles participation in a program that is 100 percent federally reimbursed.
“Where did the idea of moving breakfast into the classroom originate?” asked Professor Fleishman. I didn’t have the slightest idea. He persisted: “How did you hear of it, and what was your role in helping scale it?”
Implicit in Fleishman’s query was an insightful point: The competency to invent something new and the competency to scale it often reside in very different places, and require different skill sets, ambitions, and teams.
Scaling existing good ideas has always been our focus at Share Our Strength. For example, we didn’t invent food- and wine-tasting culinary events. We did, however, invent the brand and concept of our Taste of the Nation fundraising events featuring local chefs (an important source of revenue for our grantmaking), and took the idea to scale by holding the events all across the country and all at the same time. Likewise, we didn’t invent the idea of moving breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom, but we focused relentlessly on scaling it.
Through experiences like these, we’ve learned five important lessons about the relationship between innovating and achieving large-scale change:
1. Scale often requires a catalytic innovation. The growth of even the best ideas reaches a natural plateau at some point, and that almost always falls short of transformative scale. Getting to the next level requires, almost by definition, not just pushing harder, but also doing something different—innovating, rethinking, perhaps even changing the way service delivery has worked for decades.
2. Innovation may require less than meets the eye. Innovation does not necessarily require innovation labs, consultants, new technology, and the other things popularly associated with it. Instead, it may mean a small common sense tweak (like serving breakfast in classrooms) that is far enough upstream to change the entire trajectory of a program.
3. Mark Twain was right that nobody likes change except a wet baby. By that I mean even positive change can threaten the established order. No Kid Hungry met with resistance on numerous fronts—teachers and janitors were concerned about spills, mess, and pests; PTAs feared lost instructional time. Success depended on excellent execution and proving to skeptics that children who are not distracted by hunger actually get more (not less) instructional time.
4. As mentioned above, innovating and scaling are very different skill sets. Football teams don’t use the same players on their offensive and defensive lines—never mind specialty teams. Neither should social entrepreneurs. People with the talent and skills to innovate are unlikely the same people who can help scale. Organizations therefore need to build a deeper and more diverse bench. A former CEO of several family restaurant concepts, who spent his entire career building successful restaurant chains, once told me, “I could never build one great restaurant. But I could build 100 of them.” Scaling is less about resources and strategy than recasting the culture of your organization to embrace different people with different experiences and skills.
5. You can inspire collaboration, but you may need to purchase execution. Large-scale transformative social change requires distributed ownership across many partners and stakeholders. In the case of No Kid Hungry, a bold goal was sufficient to bring partner organizations to the table, but it took grants and other forms of capacity building to harness our collaborators’ enthusiasm and cultivate their participation at the level we needed.
These ingredients of scale are by no means all-inclusive, just one practitioner’s perspective based on a slice of experience—narrow but deep—that led to greater change than had once seemed possible.