Scaling Up Excellence (Review)

scalingup-cover05aScaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less

By Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao

Crown Business, 2014

I am particularly excited to review this book because I had the privilege to get an advance copy from the authors (it doesn't actually go on sale until tomorrow). I have been a big fan of Bob Sutton for some time. I’ve been reading his blog for ages, and Maddie and I made prominent reference to two of his other books (Hard Facts, and the Knowing-Doing Gap) in our book, Humanize.

Scaling Up did not disappoint. The book is about the “problem of more.” Once you have something that’s good, obviously you want to get more of it. You want more people in your organization to behave in ways consistent with those good company values. You want more people to adopt the practices that save time, save money, or save lives. If you want a strong culture, you need to scale up excellence. If you want to grow a successful company from 8 people to 28 people, you need to scale up excellence. If you want to launch and grow a successful online community, you need to scale up excellence. You get the picture.

And the first thing I love about the book is that Sutton and Rao don’t have a simplistic answer. The book is filled with a mix of very simple (but powerful) maxims, combined with advice that is complex, sometimes contradictory, and laced with a strong dose of "it depends." I like that. That is real. That is what happens in organizations. And most business books don’t respect me enough to tell me the truth like this book does.

For example, one of the simple maxims is that scaling up excellence is a ground war, not an air war. You can’t achieve scale with a fly by. It inevitably is going to be won in the trenches, inch by inch, over the long term. You’ll need to repeat yourself a lot. You’ll have to do more than just offer four hours of training to everyone. You’ll need to build momentum, sometimes person-to-person, group to group. This is important advice in our current world of "ten tips."

And where does it get complex? Consider the question of top-down versus bottom up: it’s both. Sometimes you need the very top of the chart to be visible and in people’s faces to get a turnaround (they tell an interesting story of that dynamic from the Korean War), and at other times you need to send small teams of employees out into the workplace to uncover efficiencies and new revenue streams, as one California Hospital system did, with the “leaders” staying out of the way.

If that kind of complexity feels hard to manage, well then welcome to leadership. Leaders today need to embrace this, and, as I said, this is one of the few business books that I have come across that will actually help you do that. Even amidst all this complexity, Sutton and Rao pull out five key lessons that can keep you focused on your scaling journey:

  • Hot Causes and Cool Solutions—you need to deal with both people's beliefs and behaviors simultaneously to “stoke the scaling engine.”
  • Cut Cognitive Load, but Deal with Necessary Complexity—scaling up means things get complex, so work hard on that. My favorite quote: “the job of the hierarchy is to defeat the hierarchy.”
  • The people who propel scaling—this chapter talks about “ownership,” or how to create a place where people own the system AND the system owns them.
  • Connect people and cascade excellence—this chapter explains fully what Maddie and I were hinting at in Humanize when we talked about “relationship building” as a human principle in organizations. You need to leverage a connected network to get all those dominoes to fall down the right way.
  • And Bad is Stronger than Good—a much needed message in the business world that too often turns a blind eye to incompetence and the destructive effects of negative behaviors and attitudes.

Every chapter is backed up with detailed case studies and examples. Several of the cases show up in multiple chapters, as they apply to several of the lessons. If anything, there was almost TOO MUCH evidence, as I found it hard to remember the details of the different cases (you can tell they spent seven years putting this book together). But hey, that just means I need to read the book again, which is the sign of a good book from my perspective.

Buy the book. I think it’s one of the best to come out in a while. And I hope it's a sign of things to come, where we consistently give leaders (at all levels) the tools they need to get serious about innovating management and unlocking potential in our organizations.

The video below (click here if you can't see it) provides a good overview from the authors.

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