On Pinterest Fails and Program Implementation

For a replicable cake pop - or program - ask How?
photo courtesy of


This SSIR piece from the leadership at Educate!, a nonprofit based in the US and Uganda, gives some very practical, operational advice for organizations ready to scale an existing model. One part of the article really stood out – probably because of my love of cake. “Imagine that instead of a social impact organization, you are a baker with a groundbreaking new recipe and one week to bake six wedding cakes, each with six differently flavored tiers. You have a strategic decision to make: bake six bottom tiers the first day and add a tier to each cake each day, or bake a full cake each day.”

In their work, Educate!'s leadership learned that "building a full-size unit immediately enables you to work out the kinks up-front. Once you clear that hurdle, you have a model that you know you can implement at scale. All that is left is to replicate it." In other words, it's preferable to bake a full cake each day, so you've got time to tweak as needed. It doesn't make sense to figure out the day before the wedding if the recipe is a good one. 

Even for organizations not thinking about scale, but focused on the earlier stages of developing and understanding their current work, recipe metaphors are useful. Because whether you’re new or established, understand your impact or not quite there yet, what’s key to success is understanding the how - aka understanding implementation.

Think of developing a program model as perfecting a cake recipe. A big part of the project is specifying inputs/ingredients as well as the step-by-step work needed to achieve successful outcomes - whether they’re constituents whose needs are addressed or delicious cake. The goal of model/recipe development is to create detailed instructions that produce strong results not just once – but over and over; and that can be done not only by the program/recipe developer, but by anyone with knowledge of the field/baking.        

But if you’ve seen pinterest fail - or unsuccessfully tried to replicate mom’s cooking – you know there’s more to a good recipe than what – how is crucial. How should items be measured (cup or scale, sifted or not); how can ingredients and steps be replaced, omitted or embellished; how do changes in oven temperature effect cooking time; what brand and freshness must the ingredients be; how much time and skill does the recipe really require? Without this kind of information it’s hard to replicate that promising recipe once, let alone time and time again. [For a fantastic example of someone who understands the importance of how, read Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune.]

So it goes with program development. The what of the program model gets the work started, but the how of day-to-day field operations shapes what the program is and the results achieved. Without examining the how of implementation – including adaptations and quality as well as fidelity –  and its relationship to the what of the program model, you’ll never develop something that can be consistently and successfully implemented – let alone scaled. 

In case all this food talk hasn’t made you sufficiently hungry, I’ll share the story of the Vienna Beef Company (you can read more about it here or listen to Act 14 of this episode of This American Life). When the company moved to a brand new, state of the art factory in 1972 they noticed a disappointing change in the flavor of their smoked sausages, one they couldn’t explain. The ingredients were the same; they were following the same recipe as before - but something was off. It wasn’t until workers began to fondly reminisce about a retired coworker that they got to the bottom of the flavor change conundrum. When the factory moved, Irving - the coworker – retired. His job had been to transport the unsmoked sausages from refrigerators to the smoking room. Because the old factory had grown haphazardly, his path wasn’t logically laid out. The trip took Irving 30 minutes and led him through many of the warmer rooms in the factory – allowing the cold sausages to warm up before they entered the smoker. Those 30 minutes – how the sausages got to the smoker - had been a vital part of the recipe all along, and the company didn’t even know.