Why so much TA to support scaling up is wasted, and what to do about it

By Jason Goldberg

So, we know that we will only succeed in pursuing the Global Goals to the degree that innovative impact ventures scale – and that this depends on Founders scaling.

But we also know most Founders don’t scale, which is why we leap headlong into Technical Assistance (TA) to help them scale.

Here’s the problem. Most of us can relate to too many cases where we’ve poured huge sums of money into TA with little to show for it. So, what’s a well-meaning development practitioner to do? Give up? Of course, that’s not an option. Instead, we need to figure out a TA solution that’s ‘sticky’ and can translate TA spend into an enterprise that’s mature and achieves scaled impact. But where do we begin?

The real reason why most TA projects fail

To answer that question, we first need to understand the nature of the problem, or more specifically, why so many TA projects have failed.

In summary, this is because TA tends to be Funder led, instead of Founder led. It’s Funders solving problems that Funders see, not taking away pain that Founders feel. It’s issuing vitamin pills to Founders who are dying and in pain. And that’s why Founders aren’t swallowing. They’re looking for immediate pain relief, not slow and incremental organisational health.

Of course, there is a profoundly valid counter-argument. Often Founders don’t see the train coming down the tracks that will take them out if they don’t take action now, but Funders do. Funders have worked with and supported multiple businesses through multiple lifecycle stages, and they know what’s coming when ventures scale, and how to prepare for it. That’s why they spot the train and spend money to get Funders off the tracks of their impending doom.

But therein lies the fundamental issue: only the Founders can jump. And if they don’t see the train, they won’t take the leap. Scream all you want, but there is essentially only one thing that matters: Does the Founder see the train? If they do, they’ll jump. If they don’t… well… crunch.

Transfer the pain  

You could call it the Agony Principle, inspired by the movie, The Godfather. If the person worried about a situation and the person who can act to change the situation are different people, you’ve got a problem.

What the person worried about the situation – typically Funders – needs to do is transfer that angst to the person who can act to change it – typically the Founders. Put the monkey on their back.

Somehow, you have to trigger a situation that causes them to agonise over the issue more than you do. The Godfather has an extreme way of achieving this goal: “Do X or your most loved person will die.” Now the right person is agonising over the issue: the person who can act to change it.

In our world, the Founders (who can act) must be the ones who agonise over the risks to their success. Only then will they act to address those risks. If they don’t agonise over the risks, they won’t act, and nothing will change, and then… well… crunch.

Successful TA is a headache pill that Founders will gladly take

The reason most TA spend is wasted is because it isn’t really Founder led in design and implementation. We’re trying to address issues that Founders simply aren’t agonising over, because as much as they conceptually get what you’re saying (the better ones), there are 50 things that will kill the business long before the thing you’re talking about, and they only have time to deal with 20 (which is already super-human and costing them immensely, by the way).

So is there an answer to preparing for scale?

In our experience, there are 5 key principles of the ‘black art’ of TA that does work, of which this article will cover the first two (and most foundational) principles that lay the foundation for ultimate success.

Principle 1 of TA for Founders: Let pain lead. Look for the nexus of high-priority organisation development priorities, and urgent pain-points for Founders. Once you’ve determined what those pain points are, you can issue headache pills instead of vitamin pills

It’s important that you’re focusing on headaches that the Founders are actually feeling, however, not ones that you think they have but which they actually don’t. Here’s the truth, if you’re taking away pain (current or immanent), the Founders are in. If you’re not, they’re not.

Principle 2 of TA for Founders: Create headaches. Unfortunately, since most Founders are scaling for the first time, they mostly don’t know what to expect and what to do about it. In other words, they don’t have the headaches that they should have – or when they should have them. Then, you have to start the TA journey by giving them a headache! That is, open their eyes and engineer a paradigm shift on the journey that lies ahead. Now you’ve transferred the agony to them, and they’re in. They now understanding and own the issue, and will now do what Founders are good at: solve the problem.

You’ll know it’s worked when they shift their priorities and ask for help. Time to bring out the headache pill they didn’t want to take until now!

In a way, successful TA for Founders centres on the art of delivering ‘Aha moments’ – getting them to ‘get it’ so that they acquire headaches, which in turn leads them to a place where they are willing and grateful to swallow the headache pills they need.