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Transforming at Scale - Series Pilot

3 min read

We are making changes at Cornwall Council[1] all the time but sometimes we have grander ambitions, as we have for Digital Futures[2]. We talk about changing things at “scale” and to add more emphasis we sometimes swap out “change” for “transform”. If we are scaling across a period of time we might use a phrase like “repeatable” and if we are scaling across teams or services we sometimes talk about “standards” or “re-use”.

Humans are great at learning how to deal with scaling. Imagine you have a favourite recipe for a meal for four people. If you need to feed eight people you will have some intuition that you will need to double the ingredients but probably not double the cooking time and almost certainly not double the temperature!

It is easy to make mistakes when scaling but for some things we experiment and learn very early. When kids make models of things they might want to make a copy that is twice the size or more. Even if they don’t explicitly do the maths they start to learn that the weight of things grows (often cube of the scale) at a faster rate than the strength of the construction (often square of the scale) and you have to make changes to the dimensions or materials to keep things in shape.

If you can afford the time and materials experiments and feedback are a great way to deal with scale. One burnt saucepan or some crumpled card and sticky tape are annoying but teach lessons that pay off over a lifetime. When we are talking about large groups of people or a large organisation like the Council it becomes hard or impossible to justify a real experiment. Opportunities to learn still arise, for instance when a bold initiative succeeds or fails. Unfortunately, the celebrations, or recriminations, obscure a lot of the lessons and the complex circumstances make it hard to distinguish between causes and effect. The relentless learning machines we carry around in our heads still go to work and try to make sense of this but we won’t always learn the right lessons and that can trip us up.

The larger the scale and the more transformational the change the less reliable our intuitions become. We increasingly have to wrestle with problems and solutions which don’t scale in the way we expect or don’t work at all when considered at a different scale. Let’s work through some examples[3].

In working through this my goal isn’t to reveal the insightful answer that everyone else has missed. My personal learning machine isn’t any better than yours. I will have had different experiences to you but they are as fragmented and biased as everyone else’s. A more realistic goal is to encourage us all to be bold and humble when we tackle transformation at scale. Being humble is about acknowledging there is a lot we don’t know for sure and recognising that no one else knows for sure, even if they give the impression that they do. Being bold is about taking the next step even in the face of the uncertainty. This is the adventurer’s spirit. Have safety ropes and spare supplies but take a deep breath and go for it.


  1. Cornwall Council website ↩︎

  2. Council strategy for our digital future. ↩︎

  3. Scaling across people and organisations, processes and systems or even time and place ↩︎

Originally published on by Richard Barton