Scaling Up Excellence: A book review by Bob Morris

Scaling UpScaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less
Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao
Crown Business (2014)

How to increase and improve “pockets of peak performance” throughout the given enterprise

Three of the greatest separate but related challenges that all business leaders face are achieving excellence, then scaling it up and sustaining profitable growth. In this book, as co-authors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao explain, they became intrigued by what they characterize as “The Problem of More”: How to scale or scale up from “pockets” of excellence to more people at more levels and in more areas throughout the given enterprise, whatever its size and nature may be.

They discuss these “pockets” as if they were “silos,” functioning – in this instance functioning very well – in virtual isolation.

The strategy of scaling “fixed our focus on developing ideas that are grounded in great research, can help people spread and preserve excellence, and will grab and hold their attention. The chapters in Scaling Up Excellence spell out these lessons.” One is that the similarities among scaling challenges are more important than the differences. This means that what scales up successfully on one organization can, with only minor modification, probably succeed in anther.

Also, scaling involves more than the Problem of More. Replication of excellence in Pocket A to Areas B, C, D, and E is insufficient. Meanwhile, there must also be improvement in all areas, what Pixar director Brad Bird characterizes as “relentless restlessness,” to sustain what I would characterize as “kaizen on steroids.” Sutton and Rao also learned that “people who are adept at scaling excellence talk and act as if they are knee-deep in manageable mess…The best leaders and scaling teams muddle through – and even revel in – these inevitable moments and months of messiness. They also learned that “scaling starts and ends with individuals – success depends on the will and skill of people at every level of an organization.”

This last point has profound implications and potential consequences for those who read this book and then apply effectively what they learned. In essence, scaling up excellence is a mindset, not a methodology. In my opinion, it is perhaps best illustrated by the Manhattan Project, one that is most often thought of in terms of great scientists who collaborated on the design and construction of nuclear weapons. Their collaboration scaled up excellence in physics and mathematics, to be sure, but scaling excellence also occurred among those who built their facilities, selected the materials, delivered them where and when they needed to be, provided security, managed the operations, and in countless other ways supported the scientists’ efforts.

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now share several brief excerpts that are representative of the thrust and flavor of how Sutton and Rao present their material.

o “Scaling is akin to running a long race where you don’t know the right path, often what seems like the right path turns out to be the wrong one, and you don’t know how long the race will last, where or how it will end, or where the finish line is located. Yet it is one of the fundamental challenges that every organization faces, whether it’s small or large, new or old, or somewhere in between.” (Page 32)

o “As organizations and programs grow, the same superflat hierarchy and lightweight systems that promoted success in the early days can gum up the works. Sometimes scaling is dragged down by the opposite problem: people are so smitten with process, structure, and grooming that the core work takes a backseat…The risk of adding too many bosses and bureaucratic trappings too soon can plague organizations that are flush with resources — especially when leaders want a bigger footprint and want it fast.” (133)

o “Hiring the tight people is crucial for scaling, but it isn’t enough. Unfortunately, too many leaders and gurus believe that, if you just buy the most skilled and motivated employees, exceptional performances will inevitably follow. They forget that team and organizational effectiveness requires weaving together people with diverse knowledge and skills — not just gathering a lot of talented people and hoping they can figure out how to work together well.” (146)

o “Ignorance, mediocrity, and mistakes run rampant when organizations fail to link the right people to the right information at the right time. This is true even when everyone involved has the best of intentions and even when someone somewhere knows exactly what to do (but no one has figured out how to get the information to those who need it.)” (174)

o “For better or worse, most workplaces are similar to high school in many ways.” As indicated in a study by Princeton researchers Elizabeth Paluck and Hana Shepherd on bullying, “the cool people have a disproportionate impact on what others construe as bad (and good) behavior — and whether or not their less cool colleagues will take individual responsibility for stopping it when it rears its ugly head. Thus an effective way to eliminate the negative is to recruit the most admired and connected people in your organization, teach them what ‘bad’ looks like, and encourage them to stop being perpetrators.” (243)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao provide in this volume but I hope that I have at least indicated why I think so highly of it. The twin Problems of More and Better will always challenge those who lead organizations. The need for both never ends because what are viewed as more and better today will be insufficient tomorrow.

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