Scaling Up Excellence

"In smart organizations, people know that, although excellence might not be everywhere, it can start and spread from anywhere."

- Scaling Up Excellence, page xvii

Scaling Up Excellence took seven years to write.

From their experience of giving numerous workshops, training sessions, and general consultancy to many corporations, the two award winning professors from Stanford University, Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, began to see an underlying issue that ran as a common thread between all change or improvement efforts. They called it the Problem of More. No matter what kind of excellence of great customer focus, productivity, or motivating culture a company wanted to implement, there were usually only pockets of success, and the grand challenge was always to figure out how to spread or replicate those successes on a larger scale, often referred to as ‘scaling up’. Theoretically, it seemed easy enough. “Everyone just do what those successful people are doing.” But in practice, logical explanations or sound reasoning just wasn’t enough to translate behavior.

So these authors began a seven year journey to discover the principles of scaling well, based on two goals: uncovering the most rigorous evidence and theory, and generating observations and advice that are relevant to people trying to scale up excellence. “We bounced back and forth between the clean, careful, and orderly world of theory and research – that rigor we love so much as academics – and the messy problems, crazy constraints, and daily twists and turns that are relevant to real people as they strive and struggle to spread excellence to those who need it.”

This book captures the lessons these exceptional researchers learned from their seven year study. It’s worth taking a lot less time than that to find out what they have to say. That’s kind of like finding a diamond while hiking.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Spread a mindset, not just a footprint

"Running up the numbers and putting your logo on as many people and places as possible isn’t enough."
- Scaling Up Excellence, page 8

The authors start with the most important lesson they learned during their comprehensive journey: to scale excellence you must act as if you are fighting a ground war, not just an air war.

A ground war requires slow, deliberate moves in one-on-one combat. It means “grinding it out, and pressing each person, team, group, division, or organization to make one small change after another in what they believe, feel, or do.”

Therefore, spreading or updating a mindset requires constant diligence to state the beliefs and live the behavior over and over again.  Among other examples, the authors explain Facebook’s strategy for expanding in an unprecedented manner, yet holding on to sacred beliefs and mindsets that they instill into every new employee. (One of them being “move fast and break stuff.”)

But no single mindset is right for every organization. What is sacred for one, should be taboo for another, depending on the context of their tasks or purpose. “Move fast and break stuff” is probably not appropriate for the software developers of a nuclear submarine!

Sustaining and improving a mindset is also like a high-maintenance personal relationship: even if you have the best intentions, it’s easy to ruin everything. When people get smug and take shortcuts or go on autopilot, they can lose sight of their excellence. The authors describe the cautionary tale of Starbucks when mediocrity crept in as they rapidly expanded (as told by CEO Howard Schultz in his book, Onward.)

I fight the ground war every day. It’s called grassroots. I’ll continue to connect on an individual level and use my peer-to-peer influence to spread new mindsets throughout my corporation.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Stoke the virtuous circle

"To scale up excellence, leaders and teams need to keep finding ways to bolster belief in a hot cause (and the underlying mindset), persuade others to live that mindset (whether they believe in it or not), or, better yet, work both belief and behavior angles at the same time."
- Scaling Up Excellence, page 79

Talking about a mindset is not enough. The authors have seen too many internal champions talk about “quality” or “lean” methods but when asked where it is being demonstrated, they don’t have a good answer. The virtuous circle is one where a mindset is explained, what the authors refer to a ‘hot cause’, then a specific behavior or action is taken that demonstrates supporting the hot cause, this is what the authors call a ‘cool solution’.  As ‘hot causes’ and ‘cool solutions’ support each other they create a virtuous circle that helps to scale your excellence effectively.

The authors provide the following strategies, with detailed explanation and examples from actual company situations to demonstrate their use. But you might get a gist of their meaning from just the phrase.

  1. Name the problem
  2. Name the enemy
  3. Do it where all can see
  4. Breach assumptions
  5. Create gateway experiences and on-ramps
  6. New rituals, better rituals
  7. Lean on people who can’t leave well enough alone

These strategies are the way to ‘stoke’ a virtual circle, creating the kind of atmosphere that continues to build the excellence you’re looking for.

I plan apply these to my own efforts, without announcing them. I can just perform them in the background as my method of operation.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Cut cognitive load

"We have a rule of thumb for practicing subtraction: if you aren’t upsetting people, you aren’t pushing hard enough."
- Scaling Up Excellence, page 117

When we think of scaling, it feels like we’re always talking about more, but actually, we need to think of less. Subtraction reduces complexity. Simple things are easier to spread.

But cutting things is a difficult process. Daniel Kahneman’s “prospect theory” describes how people become risk averse and distraught at the ‘prospect’ of losing something they already have, even if they get something more valuable instead, especially when time and effort has been invested in that thing they might lose. So there will always be resistance to cutting.

However, the gains in simplicity, efficiency, and better focus can outweigh the superfluous. You just know it’s significant if someone feels uncomfortable.

If I want to apply this to myself, I’ll just have to remember that feeling uncomfortable is a sign that the change is good for me.

The authors also say that “Scaling requires a penchant for parsimony, for understanding the nuances of an organization and its people so you can make things as simple as possible – but no simpler.”

They describe five tactics for building better organizational operating systems.

  1. Subtraction as a way of life
  2. Make people squirm
  3. Bring on the load busters: subtraction by addition
  4. Divide and conquer
  5. Bolster collective brainpower: increase cognitive capacity instead of adding more people

Cutting cognitive load is a way to simplify and focus. And that always helps to scale excellence.

What ground war will you fight with a virtuous circle and less cognitive load?

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Rex Williams

ABOUT Rex Williams

I'm a curious connector of people and ideas. I crave learning new things and invoking a creative twist to my methods. By day, I work as an engineer, general problem solver (and recently video producer) at the Boeing company as I fight the status quo and start movements, but after work I hang out with entrepreneur and rabble-rouser types online (like this group...
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