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Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less Hardcover – February 4, 2014
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Author One-on-One: Robert Suttonand Huggy Rao talk about Scaling Up Excellence
Robert Sutton: Why don’t we start off with why we wrote this book?
Huggy Rao: We wanted to give the executives we teach and advise better answers. In 2006, we launched an executive education program at Stanford called Customer-focused Innovation. Executives in the program kept asking us different versions of the same question. Their companies all had a pocket or two where people were customer focused. The problem was that there just wasn’t enough of it. They asked how they could spread such excellence and do it fast. We scoured academic research and practical books on leaders and teams. We found a lot on topics such as leadership and innovation. But we couldn’t find a single business book devoted to this problem, which we started calling “the problem of more” or the challenge of “scaling up excellence.”
We spent the next seven years studying and writing about it. I believe that this is the first major business or leadership book on scaling. We worked hard to write an approachable and useful book, but also one that digs into this vexing challenge in some depth. We offer much hard won advice, but no instant and easy cures.
Bob, why don’t you tell people about our research? It was quite an adventure.
RS: We started by doing interviews and case studies, and digging up the most rigorous studies we could find on scaling. But we also wanted to reach out to people who were in the thick of scaling challenges. So we checked repeatedly with senior leaders such as Kaiser Permanente’s Louise Liang (who led a successful information technology rollout in the largest U.S. private healthcare system), Facebook executive’s Chris Cox and Mike Schroepfer (who grew the engineering organization), and JetBlue Airlines pilot and executive Bonny Simi (who led a bottom-up effort to create and scale up a better system for dealing with operational challenges caused by bad weather). We wanted to make sure that the challenges we discussed, the stories we told, and advice we offered rang true to these and hundreds of other scaling up veterans we talked to during those seven years.
HR: What do you say when people ask you “what do you mean by scaling?”
RS: I tell them that we fixed our focus on a simple, but tough, question: If your organization has a bit of excellence, a pocket of goodness, how do you spread it? Early on in the project, I saw an interview with the famous folk singer Pete Seeger. He said something like “Sometimes the only thing wrong with it is there isn’t enough of it.” A lovely way to describe the main problem we tackled.
HR: I was struck by how similar the scaling challenges were that different organizations faced. The challenges of growing Google, of opening 180 highly standardized Bridge International Academy schools for poor children in Africa, and spreading practices for preventing infections to over 3000 hospitals sound quite different on first blush. But they turned out to be remarkably similar in many ways once we looked closely.
RS: How so?
HR: In every case, successful scaling didn’t mean just creating as big a footprint as possible, as fast possible – it required spreading a shared mindset that guided how people thought and acted. We learned that, especially in cases of fast and effective scaling, the teams that guided these efforts often slowed down at key junctures – to think about what they are doing and to develop true excellence – so they could move faster later. Scaling takes both patience and persistence, in concert with an obsessive focus on making progress toward long term goals every hour of every day.
RS: We also learned that the key decisions and scaling principles were remarkably similar across different kinds of organizations. For example every organization and project gets more complex as it expands. More processes, layers, locations, and people are required. As a result, scaling nearly always adds “cognitive load” -- increased demands -- on people and teams. If it is not dealt with well, people feel overwhelmed. It becomes hard to get simple things done. In the best organizations, to paraphrase Twitter’s head of engineering Chris Fry, leaders use the hierarchy to destroy bad bureaucracy -- to make things easier rather than harder for people. Fry’s advice holds in every scaling case we studied.
RS: Let’s end with the question that EVERYONE asks me about you. Is your name really Huggy?
HR: My real name is Hayagreeva, but my family and friends have always called me Huggy. I thought “Huggy” would be easier for people to pronounce and remember.
RS: It’s been quite a collaboration. Huggy was relentlessly optimistic during even the toughest days. Huggy is among the smartest and most imaginative organizational researchers on the planet. The rate at which he generates ideas astounds me. One minute he might be talking about “linking hot causes to cool solution,” the next “scaling is about going from bad to great, not so much good to great.”
We worked with so many terrific people facing scaling challenges, from entrepreneurs and startups, to senior executives at big corporations, to leaders and teams in nonprofits and large healthcare systems. But we stayed focused on one goal: Writing a book would ring true and be useful to anyone who strives to develop excellence in organizations and spreading it to others.
"Scaling isn't just about getting bigger...it's about spreading exceptional ideas, systems, or business models and then persuading–ideally, inspiring–others to make them their own."
“With a huge amount of research and insight within its covers, this is a timely read for young ambitious companies.” -Trevor Clawson, Forbes
"A great read that provides real, practical advice whether you're a team of 5 or 50,000. Sutton and Rao find just the right stories to show how almost any team can get bigger and better." –Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of People Operations, Google
“Scaling Up Excellence is one of the finest business books you'll ever read. It is rich with vivid examples, deep research, and practical advice on the toughest challenge organizations confront: how to spread success from a few small pockets of an organization to its entire fabric. Whether you're an entrepreneur who wants to get big, a CEO who wants to avoid stagnation, or a non-profit executive who wants make a deeper difference, Scaling Up Excellence is an essential read -- a playbook that belongs on the desk of every leader.” -Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell Is Human
“Innovation at scale and speed is our goal. Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao show us how to do it more often and better, knowing that scale matters.” –Beth Comstock, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Office, GE
“The Internet creates new possibilities for scaling, but scaling rarely happens because of technology alone. This insightful book shares the methods and strategies that successful leaders rely on to spread the beliefs and behaviors that can accelerate an organization's growth while simultaneously improving its processes.” -Reid Hoffman, co-founder/chairman of LinkedIn and co-author of the #1 NYT bestseller The Start-up of You
“Growth and reinvention are key to winning, especially in tech. In Scaling Up Excellence, Sutton and Rao outline a real-world view of the challenges leaders face, and provide wisdom and practical tips about how to master them. I loved the insights.” -Shantanu Narayen, CEO, Adobe Systems
“Startups sow the seeds of their culture from the very first day. Yet their ultimate success depends on knowing when and how to scale. Drawing on first hand accounts from a wide range of industries, Scaling Up Excellence is the first book to offer a detailed examination of the best practices needed to successfully scale without diluting the very qualities that made a company successful in the first place. An important book for corporations and entrepreneurs alike.” -Eric Ries, bestselling author of The Lean Startup
"Maintaining excellence while growing is full of pitfalls and pain, and requires a great deal of thoughtfulness. Scaling Up Excellence gives us a well-crafted framework for thinking about and addressing the nitty-gritty problems on the ground without getting derailed by lofty goals. Sutton and Rao keep us focused on the personal actions required for tackling this leadership challenge.” -Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation Studios
“One of the challenges faced by any complex organization is how to improve performance by sharing best practices within the organization. Too often, scaling is done as an art. To be done well, it needs to be a science. ‘Scaling Up Excellence’ elevates scaling to a core competency instead of a talent. This is a worthwhile book to read.” -George Halvorson, chairman of the board, Kaiser Permanente
“A must-read. Renowned experts Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao are the first to tackle a pervasive problem that every leader faces: spreading and multiplying success. This landmark book is full of rich examples, powerful studies, and actionable insights for anyone who cares about making groups or organizations more effective.” - Adam Grant, Wharton professor and bestselling author of Give and Take
“Sutton and Rao provide an illuminating perspective that is particularly useful for leaders and teams about to embark on their own challenging journey to scaling excellence. The stories and studies shared by the authors provide valuable strategic and practical advice, which will increase your odds of success when they are combined with the real “grit” required to make improvements.” -Ann L. Lee, senior vice president, Genentech and Global Head of pharma technical development, Roche
"We are all searching for new ways to build more effective teams, startups, and organizations that will stand the test of time. Through compelling research, stories, and narrative, Scaling Up Excellence will show you how to help your best ideas reach a much wider audience. If you want to have a big impact . . . make sure your entire team reads this book." –Tom Rath, bestselling author of Strengthsfinder 2.0
“An engaging exploration of a powerful and frequently neglected source of competitive advantage: Finding ways to spread and sustain the best ideas and practices we already know how to do. Packed with inspiring examples of how to make it happen –or miss out.” -Martin Riant, Group President Baby, Feminine and Family Care, Procter & Gamble Co.
“If you want your organization to expand and grow without losing what makes you special, this is the book for you. Sutton and Rao have written a must-read handbook for scaling.” -Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick
“Scaling Up Excellence offers a strong antidote to the common pap--the delusions, impatience and incompetence-- that too often frustrate reforms and keep many good ideas from achieving their goals. Through engaging accounts of both organizational successes and colossal failures, Sutton and Rao offer practical wisdom for scaling improvements in complex institutions. Anyone involved in the work of improvement should hold this book close at hand.” -Anthony S. Bryk, president, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
“Rather than a one size fits all recipe for what to do in scaling up your company, Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao offer guidelines for action in easy to read terms, based on case studies and research conducted over the last seven years. If you are interested in excellence using the principle of Less is More, this is the book to read." -Riccardo Illy, Chairman, Grupo Illy, S.p.A
“Scaling Up Excellence is the best book I’ve ever seen on making an organization’s vision come true. Sutton and Rao have created a deeply practical guide that is also a great read, grounded equally in astonishing stories and rigorous research. No matter what you do for a living, read this book to figure out how to link your “short-term realities to long-term dreams.” - Teresa M. Amabile, professor, Harvard Business School and coauthor, The Progress Principle
“Taking a small, manageable organization and making it into a big, successful enterprise is a major challenge in healthcare or any other industry. Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao take the mystery out of ‘going large’ with memorable mantras and fascinating case studies. Scaling Up Excellence shows the high roads – and the pitfalls – on the way to bigger and better. Delos M. Cosgrove MD, CEO and President, Cleveland Clinic
“Inspiring stories, compelling research, and actionable ideas masterfully woven together and immediately usable by any entrepreneur or manager.” -Clara Shih, CEO and Founder of Hearsay Social, member of Starbucks Board of Directors
“Sustaining exceptional performance in growing organizations is critical in today’s world. Sutton and Rao bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to identifying best practices in a straightforward and accessible way. If you want to grow your business, you need this book.” – Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone
"Rao and Sutton have hit on an important challenge for leaders in every organization - companies, social sector and government: how do you scale what works, and do it faster. The challenge of finding pockets of excellence and changing mindsets and behavior so that success becomes the norm not abnormal is very real for those who want to make excellence stick. Scaling up Excellence is a useful roadmap for today's change leaders" -Lenny Mendonca, Director Emeritus, McKinsey and Company, Founder, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company
“Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao’s book provides insights on the key principles of scaling for excellence. For entrepreneurs or business leaders at the forefront of organizational growth, “Scaling up excellence” is a treasure trove of case studies and industry showcases.” -N. R. Narayana Murthy, Executive Chairman, Infosys Limited
"Scaling Up Excellence is a masterpiece. I have been wrestling with the same conundrum for 30 years, and I simply marvel at the way Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao have disentangled this supremely important Gordian knot."-Tom Peters, bestselling author of In Search of Excellence
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MAIN THEME & WHO SHOULD READ
The main theme is that, while many good practices exist in organizations, they either get lost or there are difficulties when attempts are made to spread them (scale them) across the organization. The breadth of this theme means that this book will provide value to anyone who would like to see organizations improve. The benefits are not limited by industry, functional area, or organizational size.
KEY IDEAS: THE SEVEN MANTRAS
Sutton and Rao are far more direct than most academics; it often takes a lot to get a professor away from an “it depends” answer. In this instance they have enough background to be confident with the following:
We’ve identified reliable signs that scaling is going well or badly, and we’ve distilled these signals into seven mantras. If you are embarking on a scaling effort [I’ll add if you are doing anything to make your organization better], memorize them, teach them to others, and invent ways to keep them firmly in focus -- especially when the going gets rough.
Spread a mindset, not just a footprint. This first one is their, and your, protection against being labeled a fad.
Engage all the senses. From my perspective, this is where you consider how to weave together human, technical, and organizational practices such that they work together, not against your goals. It’s also where I realize that my presentation of these ideas is much less colorful, and perhaps less likely to scale.
Link short-term realities to long-term dreams. Organizations that can do this have mastered ambidexterity -- the ability to both get work done now, and not let that get in the way of great things in the future. (In my mind, this is a precursor to solving the The Innovator's Dilemma.)
Accelerate accountability. This one sings to me as a focus on transparency. I’ve asked in the past, “What evidence, tools, and techniques do people in mainstream organizations think they need to move in this direction?” The examples provided here may move us closer to my ideal.
Fear the clusterfug. Yes, they are using a euphemism, but it gets across that we can't allow even mundane bad things to get worse. Speak up. For those wanting to use their business research background: Don’t escalate commitments to bad situations. Think about the Denver baggage-handling fiasco and fear a similar outcome on your watch.
Scaling requires both addition and subtraction. This ties directly to the idea of managing for now and for the future. Sometimes activities that have worked to create excellence stop working as you scale. As Sutton and Rao note, having an all-hands meeting every week makes great sense for a small organization, but you are likely to have to shift the form of this activity as you grow. Information flow and commitment are still important, but you need to be willing to find new ways that fit your growth.
Slow down to scale faster--and better-- down the road. I completely agree. I am wondering why, in my writing, I start with this one (in the form of “Stop-Look-Listen”), and yet they end with it. Perhaps thinking of this as a list is the problem. It’s not a list, it’s a cycle or a weaving, which also goes along with their borrowing Michael Dearing’s image of whether this is Buddhism versus Catholicism (see Chapter 2).
APPLY THESE IDEAS
My goal with this review is to get you to read the book. You will benefit. Your organization will benefit. The next time I teach a general graduate management class, Scaling Up Excellence will be a required reading.
I’m still trying to decide how much experience in organizations you need to have to gain value from their ideas -- and I’d love your opinion. Is this a book to help undergraduates trying to understand the complexities of organizations? If you are a mentor, is this a book you would suggest to a person in their first full-time job? Without a doubt it’s a book I’d give to someone taking on a new leadership role at any level.
Disclosure: My review copy was provided by the publisher. I’ve also purchased a copy to gift to a colleague.
That’s saying a lot. He’s done a couple of books with Jeffrey Pfeffer, including Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense and The Knowing-Doing Gap. He’s done books on his own, including the book that The New York Times won’t print the full title of and Good Boss, Bad Boss. All of those books are excellent. Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, written with Huggy Rao, is the best one yet.
Who Should Read This Book
If you’re a manager in a mid-sized to large company, this book should be required reading for you. It’s how to take the pockets of excellence that form in almost every organization and spread them across the landscape.
If you’re a manager in a small organization or you’re interested in how organizations work, you’ll love this book, too. Scaling Up Excellence is so well-researched and has so many examples/stories that anyone who is interested in how human beings work in groups will find value here.
In the preface to the book, Sutton and Rao lay out the subject.
“We started calling it the Problem of More. Executives could always point to pockets in their organizations where people were doing a great job of uncovering and meeting customer needs. There was always some excellence— there just wasn’t enough of it. What drove them crazy, kept them up at night, and devoured their workdays was the difficulty of spreading that excellence to more people and more places.”
What’s in The Book
The preface lays out the basic challenge of the book, after which there are eight chapters divided into three sections. The first section is “Setting the Stage.”
Chapter one is about what the authors call the most important lesson they learned: “Scaling ought to be treated as a ground war, not just an air war.”
The ground war analogy is good, because it implies that you must get down in the dirt and do it. You can’t do it from afar using technology. The ground war analogy is also good for a reason that the authors don’t mention. When you’re in a ground war, there are two things you don’t know: how or when it will end.
The first chapter also includes the authors’ seven scaling mantras.
1. Spread a mindset, not just a footprint.
2. Engage all the senses.
3. Link short-term realities to long-term dreams.
4. Accelerate accountability.
5. Fear the clusterfug. (Yes, you read that right)
6. Scaling requires both addition and subtraction.
7. Slow down to scale faster – and better – down the road.
Chapter two looks at the scaling choices and tradeoffs. The primary distinction the authors make here is between “Catholic” and “Buddhist” strategies. The Catholic model seeks to create organizations that conform to some original model. The Buddhist approach encourages local experimentation and variation.
Section two has the next five chapters, which involve key scaling principles. Here’s a list of the chapters.
Chapter three: Hot Causes, Cool Solutions
Chapter four: Cut Cognitive Load But Deal with Necessary Complexity
Chapter five: The People Who Propel Scaling
Chapter six: Connect People and Cascade Excellence Using Social Bonds to Spread the Right Mindset
Chapter seven: Bad Is Stronger Than Good
The third section, “Parting Points,” has only one chapter about how to put all this to work. This chapter brings together things discussed throughout the book like team makeup and size, and implementation strategies. It seemed to me that there are two important things to keep in mind. First, this is a long-term process. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. Second, there will be times when it seems like nothing is going to work, but just like in a ground war, you strap on your gear and you keep going.
I think Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less is one of the best business books I’ve ever read. Period. I read it originally a couple of years ago, but I keep going back to it to dip into the research and the insights and mine the stories for more knowledge. My bottom line is simple: if you read business books, read this one.