Leading Blog






02.12.14

The Problem of More: Scaling Up Excellence

Scaling Up Excellence

HOW DO YOU scale up excellence? How do you spread constructive beliefs and behavior from the few to the many?

Scaling Up
Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao tackle these questions in Scaling Up Excellence. What they found is that it simply isn’t a matter of just running up the numbers by replicating the same old magic again and again. In fact, they write, “Scaling well hinges on making the right trade-offs between mandating that new people and places become perfect clones of some original model versus encouraging local variation, experimentation, and customization. Something they refer to as the Catholic approach versus the Buddhist approach.

Scaling up can be is messy because it is unpredictable. It’s never clean and well-run. But the best leaders revel in these inevitable moments and months of messiness.

The process requires the mindset of a marathon. It’s like building a bridge as you walk on it. It requires faith and perseverance.
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….[And yet] plenty of people and teams find ways to master this mess, take satisfaction in their daily accomplishments, and take pride in spreading constructive beliefs and behaviors far and wide.
The book is centered on seven mantras of scaling up excellence. They serve as signals as to whether your scaling is going well or badly. Here are the mantras and how Sutton and Rao define them:

Spread a Mindset, Not Just a Footprint
Scaling unfolds with less friction and more consistency when the people propelling it agree on what is right and wrong—and on what to pay attention to and what to ignore. It requires relentless vigilance. It requires stating the beliefs and living the behavior, and then do so again and again. Key point: When people get smug, operate on autopilot, take shortcuts, and chose the path of least resistance too often, they lose sight of the essence of their excellence. In their lust to run up the numbers and plaster their logo on as many people, places, and things as possible, the temptation to accept mediocrity—or worse—often proves irresistible.

Engage All the Senses
Mindsets are spread and sustained by subtle cues that activate all the senses. Our beliefs and behaviors are bolstered—and undermined—by the colors and kinds of images we see, the sounds we hear, the smells we encounter, the things we taste, and the objects we touch. We are influenced by the voice tone and facial expressions that accompany the words people say, whether they look us in the eye, their posture, and many more seemingly inconsequential and irrelevant cues in the world around us.

Link Short-Term Realities to Long-Term Dreams
Make sure that short-term stuff gets done and done well, while simultaneously never losing sight of the big picture. Scaling requires the wherewithal to hound yourself and others with questions about what it takes to link to the never-ending now—the perpetual present tense that every person is trapped in—to the sweet dreams you hope to realize later. “Let’s not decide based on what is best now, let’s decide based on what will be best in two or three years.”

Accelerate Accountability
The trick—and it is a difficult trick—is to design a system where this tug of responsibility is constant, strong, and embraced by everyone, and where slackers, energy sucker, and selfish soloists have no place to hide.

Fear the Clusterfug
When scaling goes bad, three elements are usually present: Illusion, Impatience, and Incompetence. Decision makers think this is going to be far easier than the facts warrant; they are quick to rush the rollout thinking that when they are ready everyone is ready; and they frankly don’t know what they are doing. A related hallmark is that decision-makers don’t recognize when they are on the verge of subjecting victims (and themselves) to overwhelming mental load, distress, and turmoil.

Scaling Requires Both Addition and Subtraction
Strategic subtraction clears the way for people to focus on doing the right things. As organizations grow larger and older, as the footprint of a program expands, and as the consequences of past actions accumulate, once useful but now unnecessary role, rules, rituals, red tape, products, and services build up like barnacles on a ship; to make way for excellence to spread, these sources of unnecessary friction must be removed. Scaling isn’t just a problem of more, it’s a problem of less too.

Slow Down to Scale Faster—and Better—Down the Road
Mastering “the black art of scaling a human organization” requires learning when and how to shift gears from fast to slow ways of thinking.

A few other thoughts to consider when considering a scaling an idea or initiative is to conduct a premortem. Ask participants to imagine that it is a year from now. What success or failure has occurred? Was it a good idea? Are we happy living in the world we’ve built? “Looking back from the future helps people bridge short-term and long-term thinking—a hallmark of successful scaling.”

While excitement may be there in the beginning, it will soon wear off if steps are not taken to live it. “Although creating enthusiasm and spreading awareness about new beliefs, behaviors, and initiatives are useful first steps for mobilizing a mindset, they aren’t enough. People have to live it or it won’t stick.

Along the way, you need to continue to evaluate your beliefs and mindsets. “You should never stop asking whether the time is ripe to cast them aside.” As part of this approach, it is important to remember that “although more roles and processes are needed as organizations and projects expand, skilled leaders wield their power to eliminate needless friction and complexity—not burden employees with ‘rules, tools and fools’ that make it tougher to do their jobs and waste money and talent.”

While scaling is often thought of in terms of growing a company, it is also about spreading an idea. Scaling Up Excellence is an excellent guide on both counts.

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As we grow, how do I build on what worked without being undone by my own success? Scaling Up Excellence deals with the issues of spreading ideas and duplicating success that every leader faces. Sutton and Rao offer valuable insights for your consideration.


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Posted by Michael McKinney at 10:48 PM
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