Scaling Up Excellence by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao

 

Simply stated, scaling is about finding pockets of excellence and building and spreading those pockets of excellence throughout an organization and beyond.

The stories and examples Sutton and Rao shared in Scaling Up Excellence were outstanding and nicely dovetailed (as Sutton is so fond of writing) with the many research studies in support of the various scaling lessons.

Among the things I found interesting and helpful were the following:

  1. Scaling starts and ends with individuals—success depends on the will and skill of people at every level of an organization.
  2. Scaling is not about more, it’s about more and better. Sometimes better means subtraction and subtraction can even mean addition
  3. Scaling is a ground war, not just an air war. It’s about “moving a thousand people forward a foot at a time, rather than moving one person forward by a thousand feet”
  4. Watch out for the clusterfug – The terrible trio of illusion, impatience, and incompetence.
  5. The best scaling teams know how to balance between replication and customization.
  6. Scaling is about understanding when to inject enough hierarchy, structure, and process. It’s about knowing when to add more complexity, when it’s just right, and when you need to wait a bit longer.
  7. To spread excellence, you need to have some excellence to spread. If you can’t even deliver on your most basic vanilla promises to customers, then don’t even attempt scaling. Remember, adequacy before excellence.
  8. Finally, you need to ask yourself whether scaling is a good idea. Is it feasible? Is it worth the cost to your own and your team’s mental and physical well-being? And, would you be happy about the destination you will have reached? Would you be happy in that world that you have built?

Seven lessons for scaling up without screwing up

Lesson #1: Start where you are, not where you hope to go

Start your scaling journey where you are and do the best with what you got regardless of whether you have a little (or none) or a big budget, staff, and resources at your disposal.

Lesson #2: Scale, don’t just swarm

It is fine to have a kick-off event and infuse some energy and excitement into an initiative, but make sure that you are serious about enabling and encouraging people in your organization to live the scaling mindset, or else it will not spread.

Lesson #3: Use your mindset as a guide, not as the answer

Mindsets are double-edged swords. You need them, but never stop asking whether the time is ripe to cast them aside.

Lesson #4: Use constraints as guardrails that channel, rather than derail ingenuity and effort

There are always constraints, but people with the will and the skill will find ways to work around these constraints and turn them into virtues.

Sutton and Rao shared a great story about how Michelangelo finished the famous statue of David by working within the constraints imposed (must finish within two years; how it should look; and working with a piece of marble that a previous sculptor, Agostino di Duccio, had started but never completed).

Lesson #5: Use hierarchy to squelch unnecessary friction, instead of creating and spreading hierarchy

Leaders ought to do everything they can to get rid of friction and complexity and “not burden employees with ‘rules, tools, and fools’ that make it tougher to do their jobs and waste money and talent.”

Lesson #6: Work with people you respect, not your friends

Hire people whom you respect and who bring new thinking to the organization; whether you like them should be secondary. . . . Diversity of style, thought, and culture can sometimes generate friction. But if it is productive friction, and if your team frames it that way, it can help build resilience . . . like allergy shots for your organization.

Lesson #7: Make sure that accountability prevails and free riding and other bad behaviors fail

Sutton and Rao shared an incredible story of sawmill workers who were stealing for the thrill of it. Management, with the help of a consultant, devised a simple but brilliant library system whereby any worker could check out any equipment at any time and this idea worked! The stealing stopped because it was no longer exciting to steal and brag about it to others because the items could now be checked out for free.

Reading Scaling Up Excellence is akin to the experience of enjoying a fine steak. It is wonderful, full of flavor, but also heavy. You cannot, nor should you, devour it. Instead, you savor it, making sure that you take your time to enjoy it.

 

 

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