Simplifying to Scale: 5 Attributes of Scalable Systems
One definition of a system is…
A set of components organized and connected in an intentional way to achieve an objective.
Using this definition, systems can be products, services, or methods we use in our lives to serve a purpose. When you think about systems that have scaled to serve millions of people, what products or services do you think of?
What makes a system scalable? Why do some products and services scale successfully? Here are five attributes of scalable systems. I’ll use two modern examples to illustrate.
1 — Clear Purpose
A scalable system has a simple, clear purpose. It achieves an objective that is needed or adds value for the user. The purpose doesn’t have to be complex; it actually should be simple and still deeply meaningful.
In Amazon’s case, they focus in on getting any and all products to customers in the fastest time possible. In the case of a car, the objective is to travel to a new destination quickly and easily.
2 — Dependable
For a product or service to gain traction with many people, it also has to be functional at a low error rate in achieving the objective. It has to achieve that objective and fulfill its purpose without fail. If a system has a clear purpose but it can’t consistently achieve that purpose for people, people will not use it.
Amazon relentlessly works to deliver in 2 days or less. Though everyone has their fair share of car problems, no product or service is perfect, they meet the objective at a high success rate.
3 — Responsive & Adaptable
Scalable systems still achieve their objective despite the wide range of circumstances that can happen. When new policies, natural phenomena, new technology, or user changes occur, the leadership adapts the product quickly and effectively so the objective can still be met with equal or improved quality.
Amazon delivers to remote areas and difficult delivery circumstances. Car companies constantly add user-friendly features as the technology becomes available. By adding functionality that allows the system to work in a variety of circumstances, the system can function for many types of users seeking to achieve the same core objective.
4 — Easy to Use
A scalable system also has easy-to-use features and processes. The more complex a system is to use, the more likely people will not be able to use it or they won’t adopt it. Ease of use also involves clear communication about how to use the system. For products and services, clear communication is important in both marketing as well as user materials like directions for use and troubleshooting.
Amazon’s service is extremely easy to use. They have one-click ordering. Amazon makes it easy to get in touch with customer service. Cars have a manual and many local resources for education and policy. Cars have easy to use functions as well like breaks and shifts.
5 — Scalable Platform
Scalable systems also have a means of communication for reaching more users and a means for offering the system to more users — means for scaling! Users need to be able to find and use the product or service easily. The Internet makes it easier and more efficient to spread the message about a new system. However, you also have to have the ability to replicate the product or have a means for providing the service on a large scale.
In Amazon’s case, they have an Internet presence but their physical distribution network and labor force model has shown to be very successful in scaling. Car companies have developed manufacturing processes that make delivering products to customers efficient and scalable.
With all five attributes, you may notice that simplicity is key. It’s always tricky to find the balance between simplifying enough but not diluting the message or impact of the product or service. However, products that have successfully scaled have managed to figure it out. When we take the excess material out of our objectives, processes, and communications, we have space for responding to specific circumstances and for improving the product as new audiences emerge and global change unfolds.
What are your favorite scalable systems? Do they have these attributes?
Whether you’re seeking to a system — a business, a message, or whatever it may be — try thinking about your approach in terms of each of these attributes and identify where you’re approach could be stronger. I hope this helps.