Giving Compass' Take:

• Kevin Starr shares how Mulago Foundation uses three simple questions to guide the development of scalable solutions.

• How can you use these questions to guide decisions around scalable solutions? 

• Read about why it is hard to be both innovative and scalable

Our job at Mulago is to find and fund organizations with scalable solutions that meet the basic needs of the very poor. When you make your living looking for scalable ideas, you need a systematic way to know one when you see one. Over time, we’ve developed an effective tool in the form of three deceptively simple questions. We ask: Hey, is this solution:

  • Big enough?
  • Simple enough?
  • Cheap enough?

So what is “enough?” Fair question. The answer depends on your “doer” and “payer”: You need to know who is going to replicate your solution—“do it”—at big scale and who is going to pay for it. You can’t answer any of the “enough” questions without knowing who will someday do the heavy lifting at problem-solving scale.

1. Is It Big Enough?
This is about the potential scope of your solution. Big enough means big enough to matter given the scale of the problem (or, perhaps, the scale of your ambitions).

To figure it out, you first have to understand the nature and magnitude of the problem you are taking on and where the need is most acute. Next you have to figure where your solution would work. You may already know the answer, or you may be in the middle of learning it the hard way. Think of it as a list of elements that must be in place.

2. Is It Simple Enough?
Here’s the full question: Is your solution simple enough for your doer to do it? You can use this as a useful design tool from day one, but proving it out requires that you replicate your solution enough times to understand just how simple you can make it. Even then, you never really know what simple enough means until you try to help someone else replicate it. Generally though:

  • You—as a single organization—might be able to do something complicated at biggish scale, but you’ll have to build a large organization and endlessly raise a ton of money. (Again, with the possible exception of a few tech solutions, “you” is pretty much never the answer.)
  • Businesses can do pretty complicated stuff if it’s profitable enough, but simpler is still better.
  • NGOs don’t have a very good track record of replicating others’ solutions while maintaining high quality. To repeat: the simpler, the better.
  • Governments need things simple. Really simple.

3. Is It Cheap Enough?
Again, the full question: Is your solution cheap enough that your payer would pay? Everybody has a price point, whether it’s a poor mother considering buying a clean cookstove for her family or a government minister looking at the cost of a new community health worker model. It’s your job to figure out what that price point is. Of course, the best way is to look at what people are already spending. If the lesson from a zillion efforts to sell clean cookstoves is that very poor people can’t or won’t pay more than about 10 bucks (it is), you’re going to need some very creative thinking to get your $50 stove into their homes. If a government currently spends $30 per person for health at the district level, and your district level model costs $60, you’ve got a problem.

Read the full article about the three questions by Kevin Starr at Stanford Social Innovation Review.