A New Intersection on Scale: What are the Critical Success Factors?


A few years ago, I started writing about the role that disciplined design; bottom-up strategies; narrative, networks and influencers play in scale. My thinking was shaped by the investments I was making at the Gates Foundation to support teachers. I was on a journey to update what I knew about “systems thinking” and large scale change. What we are good at in education is creating one off solutions that never scale across systems. I realized over the last few years that I needed a good dose of what I call “engage ology” or what Dan Heath calls “people-ifying” the change.   Both terrible names summed up in Dan’s guiding questions: Who is it that needs to change? What’s the goal? A focus on those led to months of personal inquiry into human-centered design thinking; research on behavior change; and getting to know more about movement making and how it happens. I hit another intersection this week.

For the past month, I’ve been working on an effort to develop a strategy around what we have been calling “big bets” in innovation. It forced me to take a step back from just working on teacher-centered problems and engagement and look at a series of bigger, more daunting challenges in education. Opportunities for us to think beyond place-based implementation and consider a set of big bets worth making. We have discussed several issues from overcoming adversity/trauma to creating more college going opportunities for ELLs to solving the STEM pipeline issues for girls, African Americans and Latinos.

A colleague challenged me to figure out what all of these issues had in common and how we might organize the work. Of course a network map came to mind. I had a vision of the Wood-Wide Web article Alan Daly introduced to me. How would I figure out the synergies, dependencies and nodes?

Well, remember that blog about Lindsay and Porterville? So you know, it’s a four-hour ride from Oakland so my colleague Emily and I had a lot of time to figure it out. We realized as we looked at the research (she was “googling” and I was driving to keep it safe and delegate) that all the “solution sets” we had come up with could be organized into four critical success factors (Sara Allan added a fifth later that is less user centered and more on the development than the scale side).

We stopped looking at the solutions and put on the hat of a student, a parent and a teacher. We took more of a human-centered design approach. How did students/kids view the barriers vs just identifying what was wrong with the system? Typically, at the Gates Foundation we tend to fund solutions to big problems from an availability and access standpoint. We do a landscape analysis of the market/players. We analyze a lot of data. We identify barriers and then we take on a few of the most significant ones on and start making investments. We use different tactics like challenges or R/D or implementation grants. There is often a bias towards technology or products as a solution. Take the literacy challenge we launched a few years back. We saw a dearth of Literacy based tools in the marketplace aligned to the Common Core. We funded a challenge. New entrants rose-up and we then left it to the vendors/developers we seeded to figure out how to design their products to meet teacher/student needs and drive adoption.

But what if we approached innovation differently and instead looked at investments with an eye towards four critical success factors from the viewpoint of the student, rather than simply stopped at availability and access and we took on four factors together:

  • Access (How do I get the people and programs I need?)
  • Engagement (Is it interesting enough for me to want to do it?)
  • Mindset (Do I believe I can do it?)
  • Social forces (What are the bigger challenges in society that I will face?)

Nearly every one of our solutions sets fell into one of these categories. This is our hypothesis at least. Pressure test it yourself with whatever wicked problem you are working on now to change the world. Does it work? We’re on to test it with experts who know much more about our big bet topics than we do and ensure a little social listening and maybe even some empathy interviews to see if these resonate with what students, teachers and parents say are the challenges to their success. To be continued…

-C.