Scaling Up Excellence by Sutton and Rao

Robert Sutton is one of the business writers this blog discusses the most. A professor at Stanford Management School he made himself famous in the business literature with his best seller No Asshole Rule. Though an excellent book and provocative read, #Hypertextual still prefers The Knowing Doing Gap he wrote together with Jeffrey Pfeiffer which, in my view, really nails down what management success is all about.

Another key question for leaders is being dealt with in Scaling Up Excellence (“spreading constructive beliefs and behavior from the few to the many”) an essay he wrote with Huggy Rao. A very interesting read with a spectacular amount of examples from all different types of industries and professional activities (hospital, education) you may think of, and many inspirational thoughts from psychologist and behavior researchers … 

Ground War Vs Air War

The book is structured around the 7 principles the authors see as key to succeed in Scaling excellence. The first two chapters (in the Setting the Stage part) can be seen as an introductory. It’s a Ground War not a Stage War insists on the relentlessness required by leaders who want to scale such initiative. These leaders have to go on the field, walk the talk, meet with people and confront with real on the fields problems, rather than going the air war way, i.e dropping power points or news letter from far above the field.

Buddhism Vs Catholicism

The second part focuss on the question related to the Corporate Culture Vs Macro Cultures (nations, occupations … ) : should we replicate scaling method as is in different parts of the world for global organizations ? The obvious answer is “it depends” : sometimes it is better to keep the principles and to adapt to the local culture (Buddhist approach), sometimes it is better to stick to the replicate approach (the Catholic approach).

The authors offer some actionable questions to make sure you’re not moving too much towards Buddhist approach : do you suffer a delusion of uniqueness ? Do you have a successful template to use as prototype ? Thrive, Starbucks and Xerox case studies show how this can be a great way to minimize risk and increase efficiency. Loved this great quote from psychologist Kurt Lewin : “If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.” 

The challenge is to strip away as many unnecessary constraints as possible to select a few guard rails and crashing onto these produce unpleasant consequences.

Hot Causes, Cool Solutions

The third chapter really is about change management. It proposes a seven step strategy to break the deadlock and the status quo in the organization to make the change spread and last. We can find items already discussed by the likes of John Kotter (Do it Where All can see), 37Signals (name your enemy), Create on-ramps (Mike Orzen presentation) in the strategy itself. The real value of this part comes out of telling examples.

Consider the crashed watermelons at Stanford Schools to sensibilize bike riders on the campus to wear helmet. Or more impressive, the story on how new appointed Fiat CEO Serge Marchionneget rid of senior managers insulated in a clubby environment where titles mattered more than competence and lean on young and talented executives who felt free to take initiatives“.

Cut cognitive load

In his TEDx talk about the book, Huggy Rao introduces an excellent organization as one where any person doesn’t need to have 3 managers breathing down is neck to make the right decision and do the right thing. This may require a hierarchy aiming at defeating hierarchy as Salesforce executives put it, to have just enough tools, procedures and processes to get the job done but no more.

A spectacular example is how Adobe get rid of their annual review. It cost 80,000 hours (40 full time employees) each year to the company with a result of lack of motivation. They changed it with regular and informal one-on-one between managers and their people. This approach may not suit any company and could prove to have drawbacks, however what is remarkable is that the company tried it with some gret results from their perspective.

The right people to propel scaling

The authors provide some advices on how to make sure you take on board the right people for the scaling initiative. The people to focus one are the ones who take pleasure from new challenges, are prone to change their mind when new information comes along and are keen to try something new in a view to make things better for themselves. These people must feel like they own the place and the place own them.

This accountability feeling is something to preserve by eliminating any free-riding posture and by bringing in guilt prone leaders. A great way to nudge people to take greater responsibility is to direct a team or organization attention toward the people affected by what it does. ( shame this advice is not given in that chapter but in the one related to Bad is Stronger than good).

Connecting people to cascade excellence

Having the right people on board is a good start. Still, the initiative must ensure it provide some means for these people to connect. Even though Strategy are for the amateurs and logistics are for professionals (as the US army saying goes) a good strategy here is start with multi-cultural non-overlapping core teams. This will allow to spread throughout different communities where cultural bonds are greater.

The second advice is to locate people who are energizers (easily identified through 3 question survey to people who work with them) as they are contagious for spreading excellence. Another interesting recommendation is to find nodes or knowledge brokers as Ronald Burt define the who bridge different organization silos. These people are curious about strangers and their ideas, lives the mindset, have strong opinions, they listen and learn, introduce and connect.

Getting Rid of the Bad

The takeaway here echoes The No asshole rule : to clear the way for spreading and sustaining something good the organization has got to take away the bad and keeps it out. This is a idea you also find in Freedom Inc [FR] by Isaac Getz. The bottom line is that the absence of negative interactions is far more important then the presence of positive ones as bad is stronger than good. A stunning example if the one of student that when encouraged to cheat are thirty times more likely to encourage other students to cheat.

This probably is one of the most powerful recommendation out of this book : the outcome of spreading excellence depends on a process that enables people to prevent and eliminate destructive attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

Premortem and dealing with initiative risks

Together with Nobel prize Daniel Kahneman, Sutton and Rao recommend psychologist Gary Klein premortem technique to deal with such large initiatives. The premortem consists in a workshop set up with two teams looking back from the future : the first on describe in many details failures encountered by the initiative while the second team applies prospective hindsight to its success. This approach helps in generating better predictions, decisions and plans. The great trick here is that looking back from te future helps people in bridging short-term and long-term thinking.

Scaling Up #hypertextual

This is a very dense business book, full of many vivid stories, inspirational leaders decision and hindsight by psychologist. The authors have spent 7 years working on this essay and you can tell by the quality of the material. Yet, compared to Sutton standards and excellent previous work, one may find it slightly disappointing at it is not very actionable. Probably due to the fact that I’m not native english speaking, I’m not very comfortable with the metaphors as principles. Besides, some ideas are spread around the book which may give a sense of fuzzy structure (cutting cognitive load, developing people responsibility etc …) and make the read not so fluid.

A far more inspirational than practical book about Change Management. Scaling Up Excellence brings loads of great stories leaders can draw on to ignite, plan, scale and make change initiative lasts. But it may lack a clear roadmap to do so. Which could prove to be a blessing in disguise as many change projects have failed just because they strictly followed a given map.

See Sutton and Rao interview :

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One thought on “Scaling Up Excellence by Sutton and Rao

  1. Scaling Up Excellence is Sutton at his finest. Everything he and Rao write is visually and annectodatally substantiated. Having taken one of Bob’s classes at Stanford and read his previous book, I had big expectations for this book. And I can confidently say this book will not disappoint the reader.

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