Eventually, leaders growing their companies will wonder if they can scale their idea, product, and/or impact across other locations or the larger system. A lot of energy has been put into how to do it, but most strategies begin with the assumption that their organizations are mechanistic. This is an unfortunate assumption for one reason – machines don’t scale on their own. 

The fact that machines don’t scale naturally makes scaling itself challenging.  To begin with, an infrastructure and scaffolding must be generated to support scaling and this often lies in addition to the daily work of the organization. Scaling this way just isn’t easily integrated with day to day work. That’s why scaling anything requires an outlay of staff, time, money, and structural change. Those resources must also be continually budgeted to hold the scaling strategy in place, adding more complexity.

But there is another way. Once again, we need to learn from nature and living systems.

Living systems scale naturally.

When I started to experiment with gardening, I discovered that some plants and bulbs were naturally designed to “naturalize” or “spread” and “pollinate”. A naturalizing bulb (like daffodils) would continue to split and generate more bulbs and blooms. An annual flower would reseed itself to come back the following season. And other plants, like daylilies, for example,  would spread through their root systems. New plants of the same variety would crop up across the garden. All these naturally occurring behaviors were literally designed to be part of the actual makeup of the plant species.

Any living system is fundamentally different from a machine in this way. Living systems are designed to grow on their own. They cultivate plant life – and the entire ecology for that matter – across seasons, years, and centuries. They are designed to continually grow and evolve into more diverse resilient ecologies.

The fact is that living systems evolve naturally. They don’t need a CEO to direct the evolution. 

Living organizations can scale naturally too

One of my clients sees her work as a movement that integrates non-traditional health and healing methodologies into the health system and helps people shift their thinking from primary healthcare – your family doctor – to self-care as the primary driver of health and wellness. She has experimented with several unique strategies to scale her work, including the funding of small mini-grants to community groups who carry local knowledge and instincts on what works best for their communities to align with their own “livingness” and dynamics. Local ownership of these ideas helps my client’s work scale more naturally. Not unlike the daffodils, individuals spreading these practices continually experiment and evolve what works. And when the mini-grant runs out, the ideas are already deeply embedded. They continue to grow and scale on their own!

This is the promise of scaling that begins with the assumption that the system we are trying to scale is alive, growing, and evolving. If we shift from a mechanical starting point to one that is more natural, we can see how ideas, products, and/or impact spread, pollinate, and naturalize across a larger system.