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From Pilot Concept to full Scale Transformation: Leveraging change, fast: managers of social innovation (MSI)



“Change has three stages: in the first stage, it is impossible. In the second stage, it is improbable. In the third stage, it is inevitable.”


Barack Obama, community organizer,

44th President of the United States



“The pilot experience (or prototype) was a success, and we got the funding for scaling up…”


Sounds like good news to most social entrepreneurs, no? For those who succeed, it’s still, however, a mixed blessing.  Two-thirds of successful startups -for profit or social- fail to respond adequately to early success.


Most, like the McDonald brothers, chose to sell their business or collect their share of it before they become too big to manage and they lose the excitement of that “first time”. That was what Steve Wozniack did with Apple, Paul Allen did with Microsoft and so on. They moved on to the next challenge. Or just to enjoy life after having made a difference.


The few startups that make it have one key difference: they have people with the skills to scale it up.



That kind of people can think like the chess player in the Indian tale that after defeating the king, asked only for a few grains of rice… delivered in the following manner: a single one in the first chess square and doubling it every consequent one of the remaining 63. The total was a staggering 210 billion tons of rice -enough to cover the territory of India with a thick layer of rice.


In this analogy, the king plays like the creative entrepreneur, looking at one game at a time. The rival plays like an innovation manager, looking at the “long game” of growth and scale.


What is the difference? 


In chess and in Math problems, it’s managing a formula for leverage -exponential instead of linear, in the case of the chess game-.


In organizational and social change, the lever is more complex: juggling with vision, people and organization, But not any kind of people.



Only the Ray Kroc (McDonalds’ Corporation founder) or Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO)-kind of people. Those who can manage and lead growth by leveraging other people’s performance and creating scalable organizations and cultures.


Schmidt helped creative entrepreneurs and Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page to scale up Google from path-breaking search engine and knowledge management concept to a large public-owned corporation creating hundreds of new products, services and jobs globally.


In the nonprofit sector,  there were people like Mario Etchelecu, Panama's Minister of Housing  led the transformation of Colon, Panama, from a crime-ridden, urban slum into a new, self-reliant community. 


Etchelecu put in practice the City Doctors proposal and managed the pilot stage of Colon transformation



The City Doctors model    


During this stage, the Ministry of Housing worked on a City Doctors blueprint developed by PII with all local stakeholders -from real estate to neighbors, unions, local business chambers, even the gangs that occupied the dilapidated center of the city.


A first "demo block" was selected to showcase to locals and the rest of the country that the change was possible.               





 The pilot implementation 


The demo block was transformed following the City Doctors approach, and the process was directly managed by the Minister of Housing and supported by the President of the country publicly.


The success sparkled enthusiasm and demand for expanding the transformation to the entire city and the Colon district, with a fourth stage involving other cities in the country.





In Argentina,  leaders like Diego Fernandez, Secretary of Urban Integration of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who started the transformation of Villa 31bis, the oldes slum in Buenos Aires, into Barrio 31 are also bringing about high expectations for social change.                          


The plan and preparation (2013-2015)      



Diego Fernandez, the Secretary of Urban Integration started planning the transformation of the oldest and largest slum in  Buenos Aires , Villa 31bis, in 2013. He studied previous failures and proposals never implemented because of political rodablocks and lack of funding, as well as success cases in other countries.










The pilot project (2016-2017)


Diego decided "not to reinvent the wheel" and lead personally the pilot experience with 60 houses. He and the mayor set their headquarters in a former gang hideout and set to lead by example.


By October, 2017, the first 60 houses will be finished, self-remodeled by its dwellers, now turned through their own labor into neighbors and home owners.



Panamenians and Argentineans justly celebrated these historic achievements, but new challenges now loom ahead.



The next step in transforming slums into neighborhoods is quite steep in Latin America, Just in Argentina, a recent first census shows that  almost 4 million people live in 4,100 villas across all states and regions of this large country. (see map on the left)


Panama faces similar challenges, with over 50 percent of the population living in similar conditions to those of Colon City dwellers.


















How can these projects go ahead and multiply to the next level? We cannot "clone" Etechelcus and Fernandez, neither wait for them and their original teams to carry one block and city at a time when problems are so pressing and expectations shoot up to the skies with their success. 


We need people able to manage complex changes, applying and adapting the models and lessons learned to other context, and fast. 


In the Performance Improvement Institute, we call those people MSIs: Managers of Social Innovation. They are those who take the successful experience and turn it into a scalable model.


Let’s look at  how leverage worked in the transformation of Colon City, Panama.



It started small, as a big change (as we recommended in a 1997 article in Management Review), by developing a demo block in a special sector of the old, rundown historical center of the dilapidated city, now invaded by crime, disease and unemployment.


But the creative team of social workers, economists and architects that made it possible also though the next phases of the game carefully in advance, and started preparing a new team of MSIs to replicate and scale up the model to the city, then the district.


The pilot experience helped them learn the ropes and become familiar with the realities of the city and their neighbors. But that wasn’t enough to guarantee that other blocks and the rest would go the same way. Moreover, we couldn’t “clone” our Secretary of Housing nor waiting for a single person to deal with manifold iterations of the initial experience.


That’s where the MSI program kicked in.


Its purpose was to develop well-rounded generalist leaders, able to deal with three areas of change: results -developing a shared vision, mission, concrete success and progress indicators-, organization -managing processes, tasks, technical experts- and people -motivation, skills, attitudes and relationships-. And most importantly, keeping all three dimensions in balance and in motion. Managing chaos and uncertainty, the unexpected and, most fundamentally, themselves: working on their weaknesses and using their strength,


They all had experience from the pilot. The MSI program’s purpose was helping them turn that one-in-a-lifetime experience into replicable learning.


Escalating results: social impact


 Using the MSI approach, the Performance Improvement Institute PII formed more than teams of leaders in Mexico and Panama to leverage and replicate each successful pilot model in other multiple neighborhoods and cities across the country.


Each program was different, as much as the communities, their transformation experiences and their culture and goals. But all had in common the “City Doctors” methodology and core programs adapted to each case.


The MSI program involved a combination of concepts and methodology, developing skills and on-the-groung practice to develop the new groups of leaders and spcial managers.


During the 2002-2015 period, this approach helped replicate and extend initial experiences in Mexico and Panama.


Mexico – Southern Sonora region – Arizona-Sonora Mega region


Eight cities in the Southern Sonora region, with over 30,000 jobs and 10,000 homes in five years. Most importantly, all these communities became independent and self-managed.


Colon Panama  Transformation


Ten neighborhoods, three districts and two cities in Colon, with a total of 15,000 new jobs and 5.000 new homes built in just three years. And most of our MSIs became permanently engaged along the road.


Learn more about how to implement a City Doctors, MSI program:   






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