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Scaling Up in Higher Ed: Important Scaling Principles and Overcoming Roadblocks to Success

The EvoLLLution | Scaling Up in Higher Ed: Important Scaling Principals and Overcoming Roadblocks to Success
Maintaining quality and buy-in from staff and faculty can be a challenge for leaders during scaling processes, but the improved impact on the student experience makes the effort worthwhile.

At its most basic, scaling up is advancing and sharing an effective practice more widely so that people can benefit from the practice. In other words, it is taking an idea that has been proven to work and doing that in more locations.

Widespread scaling of excellence in higher education can help avoid Groundhog Day scenarios where the same mistakes are repeated over and over and “new ideas” are just a rehash of past ideas. A useful analogy is the process used for software development. In software versioning, software is developed and improved on by adding to the existing foundational building blocks of code. In the case of higher education scaling up of educational improvements, previous building blocks often go unused.

Presently, many educational reforms have not successfully spread because ideas are tried in isolation, with no coordination or osmosis across the institution. The challenge is to find a more reliable way to support successful innovation and spread those ideas widely.

Any plan to scale is dependent on staff engaging and supporting the plan, otherwise the project is doomed to failure. So what can be done to make scaling successful?

In order to have effective scaling education leaders need to know the following:

  • Taking an idea to scale is traditionally a leadership role and can be thought of as the ultimate leadership test. It requires leaders who put the institutional mission before their own interests.
  • You are creating a mindset and instilling beliefs and behaviors in people in your organization. The importance of buy-in is huge and cannot be overstated. Garner as much support as you can for your solution.
  • Leaders must identify pockets of excellence and use them as examples for scaling.
  • It is up to leaders to authorize and coordinate scaling activities by employees. Scaling teams should be encouraged and leaders must avoid getting in the way of creativity. Small innovations in one area can be the building blocks to support institution-wide scaling. The scaling team should create a written plan that includes strategies and measurable goals. Make sure the team has a clear recording of what they consider success of the plan to be and what they are trying to achieve.
  • Be prepared to eliminate what no longer serves the institution. Practice essentialism. Look at core functions that are moving the institution and be prepared to jettison tasks that do not. Look at instances where staff say “we’ve always done it this way” and question why? How does this serve our students? If you are adding more people and additional processes you must decide what to stop doing or you will overwhelm your staff.
  • You must have clearly laid out repeatable processes in order to scale up and you must have a clear and consistent message.
  • Training of employees is critical

Roadblocks that could make scaling fail:

  • Having no good mechanism to pass on processes or collect the data.
  • Negative patterns of thinking that produce resistance to change. Bad behavior by employees can crowd out the good you are trying to institute so make sure you have managers that will confront and stop bad behavior and negative attitudes.
  • As a leader you must take care to avoid getting involved in too many operational decisions. You will limit the scalability of the organization if you become the bottleneck through which all things must pass. Delegate effectively and use your time wisely.
  • If you don’t pace scaling properly you could end up providing bad service to students, which could create additional problems and possibly contribute to a lack of retention.
  • Scaling up plans can become too complex for staff to execute.
  • Can your current employees grow into the new roles that are needed after change occurs? If you want to scale with excellence you must root out or train people that lack the knowledge they need in order be carried along with the others.
  • On a state and national level we must overcome the competitive nature between institutions to serve the greater good. Higher education in this country could make huge progress in educational improvements if they worked on scaling projects together. Think of what is good for students first and foremost.


The hardest thing about scaling is widespread adoption while maintaining quality. Great solutions to higher education problems are already in existence but how do you get those ideas to spread across the organization? Tremendous value could be realized if we can scale up innovations that have already proven effective.

Remember as a leader, you are creating a mindset. Messaging must be clear and concise and you must take care to involve all the necessary people to advance the scaling effort. Make sure employees are well trained and understand what you are trying to achieve.

At a local level if we can stop reinventing the wheel again and again in isolation and find ways through existing or newly created networks to spread innovation there is much to be gained. At a state and national level, we can take proven local ideas and spread them to multiple locations nationally through scaling. State and the federal governments could make investments in taking to scale evidence-based best practices that improve student success.

As with any activity in higher education the primary motivating question is “How does this plan serve students?” Any scaling up must follow our primary mission to serve students.

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Huggy Rao and Robert I. Sutton “Scaling Up Excellence: Getting More Without Settling for Less.” Crown Business; First Edition (February 4, 2014)

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