Creative Tensions to Improve Scale

The Perspectives We Share and the Ones That We Don’t

Jocelyn Ling Malan, Business Model Specialist
Asma’a, 6, in her KG class in Za'atari Refugee Camp

03 July 2019

How and when should innovative projects/ initiatives scale? What does it mean to scale systematically and is there a universal playbook for scale?

In early June 2019, UNICEF’s scale team at the Office of Innovation hosted an event to explore this topic of Scale. Given the complexity of the topic, myself and Tanya Accone, Senior Advisor on Innovation, turned to a fresh approach called Creative Tensions, which was developed by IDEO and Sundance Institute. This new conversation take on having an open space for sharing, active listening and continuous practice of empathy invites the audience to participate in the discussion instead of just being talked at. Participants are physically active and when prompted by a facilitator that reads out a statement on the topic, they literally take a stand by virtue of where they move in the room.

During the event, we explored several key dimensions of scale: how it’s defined, what type of projects would be most impactful: equity (reach the most marginalized) or reach (most the most number), and how to get the most traction (building internal solutions or external partnerships).

The responses were wide-ranging, diverse and equally compelling, showcasing the richness of perspectives of not only UNICEF colleagues but also colleagues from other UN agencies including DESA, UN Women, OCHA and UNDP. Some highlight perspectives include (edited for brevity):

On how to define scale:

“It is as important to think about scaling up as well as scaling down. One needs to learn to let things go in order to let the right initiatives flourish.”

On roles:

“What role one takes in relating to a project scale is key. If we believed that we are best positioned to catalyze and take a project to scale because no one is doing it, then we should take the lead. However, if someone else is better positioned, we should take a supportive stance and let others take the lead. The impact and the outcome is what matters.”

Participants at the Perspectives on Scale Event
UNICEF Innovation/Ling Malan
Participants at the Perspectives on Scale Event

On roles:

“Our work in being successful is understanding our role in a larger ecosystem and how we could cause a ripple or a current to create the change and scaled impact that we need.”

On when to think about scale:

“ In the early stages of the project, one should build in considerations for scale so that there’s a structure to build upon later.” 

On equity vs. reach:

“There’s often a trade off of resources and ethical responsibility to consider, that is dependent on a case by case basis.”

One of the biggest takeaways as facilitators of the event is that these tensions exist for a reason. Two individuals who have the same reasoning, could end up on different sides of a spectrum. Only by receiving perspectives openly, looking to listen and understand and not necessarily force agreement at every step can we find patterns in our responses and how one personally and organizationally relate to scale. 


If you would like to learn more about scale, please read UNICEF’s Lessons on Scale that we have compiled over the years of scaling multiple projects in many countries. 

Credits: Thank you to IDEO and Sundance Institute for the Creative Tensions workshop format and some of the prompts that were used.