Helping front office teams grow better

But will it scale? - Issue #320

People at a certain kind of growing software company are always asking if a thing will scale. You can win meetings by asking the question, "will it scale?" every so often.

Usually, what people mean by "scale" is whether a process will be even more efficient or profit margin will be even higher if you increase its size by double or triple or 10x. They're looking for operational leverage. Such leverage can be there for the finding: if your process is being run by software, that system usually doesn't cost incrementally more as usage grows. But in the real world, leverage is often a mirage: if you use a direct sales team, it's hard to do anything but hire more salespeople to grow revenue. Beyond a certain point, it's tough to rationalize getting more production at a lower incremental cost.

Outside of those real business decisions, the idea of trying to scale something up can be a trap. In my old office building, the office cleaners hung signs on the refrigerators telling us that they'd toss everything left in the fridge every other Friday because, they couldn't be expected to only toss the rotten stuff if they were to "scale." Of course weighing whether to bin good food may take more time than it's worth, but that's not really a question of scale. The "but, will it scale?" question in a meeting is usually designed to poison a good idea or make the asker seem smart, not really to make the business better.

Facebook's CTO, in the first link below, makes a slippery slope argument based on the logic of scale. Boz thinks that good things, like corporate charitable giving, don't "scale" because when companies become huge, such efforts become distracting. I'm not so sure we should agree. A thing perhaps would be better judged on its merits. An idea either does or does not fit with your company's purpose, and that purpose shouldn't be contingent on your company's size.

Put another way, scale doesn't really matter. The ratio of a company's size to the number of efforts it can reasonably undertake doesn't really change when a company grows, even by an order of magnitude. The number of things you can reasonably undertake does grow, but only because your workforce (or resources or whatever) has grown. At "scale," it just becomes harder for a given boss to exercise control over it all. This has less to do with scaling, staying efficient at a bigger size, and a lot more to do with the reason your company exists in the first place. Bloat isn't more costly when your company is larger, it's just more apparent.

Escaping the thin logic of "will it scale?" isn't easy. There's a reason I repeat meeting tropes about action items, alignment, etc. all day: they're in the air. Escaping such nonsense is wise, though. You don't see much above the fog if the only things you consider are the ones happening now. This is why I included the link about old books and the quote below. We won't escape the category errors of scale thinking unless we consider ideas that predate it by centuries.



What seems like an unalloyed good nonetheless has hidden costs at scale.

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C. S. Lewis on Why We Should Read Old Books

We can steal a little wisdom from C. S. Lewis, who wrote about the importance of old books in a generation far less hooked on screens than ours. Our peril is greater, but his way out remains just as good.





C. S. Lewis

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.