The education system I grew up in didn’t teach me why I should celebrate knowledge discovery, learning and Science that explained why we can speak to one another even though we are thousands of miles apart using a thin slab (that we call mobile phone) nor how we can be transported by machines that flew like birds in the air.

Perhaps that is how many of us live, being oblivious to theories and scientific first principles that hold together the civilisation we built on this planet. I recalled vividly one professor in university telling the class that the ultimate goals of science is to describe how the world works with a single equation. I suppose that is the “Theory of Everything” (interestingly, there is a movie by this name)

In workplaces there is no lack of the topic on “scalability” whether in the form of a corporate culture tenet or in meetings where people just want to sound intelligent by quoting this term. Scalability is believed to lower costs and improve productivity because it amortises investment and multiplies output in tandem. Nevertheless is “scalability” really scalable? Just as scientists start to disprove parts of Einstein’s Relativity Theory I have come to realise that common concepts of scalability in technology business does not necessarily always hold water.

No one-size fits all model

Design for scale sounds enticing however the world is generally complex because it is made up of people (people are complex), it is therefore impossible to develop a single framework for a business’s product that scale across markets. For example, people need food but not everyone likes sandwiches; swiping through mobile phone keyboard to get word suggestions is a great technology but that doesn’t help a single bit for non-English users.

The sum of all non-scalable things do scale in time

How do we prioritise product features to be developed? There are “Napkin 101s” where expert would spend time to dissect the intrinsic value of a service delivery or product idea so as to help sharpen the business’s sense in terms of placing bets on the investment with highest return on investment. However often these RoI assessment are perceived with short term narrow views and miss the critical understanding that the sum of “non-scalable” things can be substantial over time. To illustrate, an e-commerce company choose to develop features that have the best conversion opportunities at the top of the prioritised backlog such as improving the search experience instead of dedicating resources to help customers track or change their orders.

Since the backlog is dynamic and progression of development is never linear new features that creep into the backlog may continuously stifle and snuff out those at the bottom. The net effect is the sum of these lower priority things will impact the real value of the product offering or service quality. Japanese products are renowned for their meticulous attention to details especially on the way products are packaged for consumers and evidently Apple picked this up to deliver a complete customer-centric shopping experience. Would the quality of a ribbon on the packaging box get prioritised for attention in your business?

Scalability is time-invariant

First, we discussed “scalability” is non-adaptive (no “one size fits all” approach) then we examined the inadequacy of scalable features (that they cannot serve all customer interests). Finally I believe scalability is a function of time, that is there is no single scalability model that works across time. Just as corporate strategy changes over time to adapt to changing economies, markets and demographics, the scalability mindset on developing products has to change as well. A good example is no one would believe that post dot-com Bubble e-commerce can scale from just blogshops. That is how it went from large online retailers (B2C) to the marketplaces (B2B, C2C) we have today.

Just as everyone aspires to find that single perfect equation that governs our imperfect world (that is the scalability quest I guess) I believe the right approach to finding scalability is to constantly examine, rethink and reposition our strategy based on the three pit-falls aforementioned.


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