Scaling Up Excellence: Sutton and Rao Reveal How It's Done

Feb 17, 2014
6 Min Read

One of the most difficult problems a leader can face is how to spread and grow success throughout a team or organization. Companies like Facebook and Google have added thousands of employees successfully without sacrificing excellence, while Starbucks and Yahoo faltered as they focused more on creating a big footprint instead of ensuring the right mindset permeates an organization.

In a new book based on seven years of research, Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao look at how successful leaders and companies worked to spread a culture of specific beliefs, behaviors and practices. The book, “Scaling Up Excellence: Getting To More Without Settling for Less,” provides case studies and insights from those who have been in the trenches of scaling challenges.

For example, in the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was close enough to workers to constantly hammer home his vision. But as the company grew, that no longer became possible so employees are now sent to a six-week “boot camp,” where they performed various small assignments for about a dozen diverse groups before they are given a specific job within the company.

During this time, the company’s credo of “move fast and break things” is reinforced, along with the company’s core beliefs. In addition, each new employee is given a non-management mentor to help him or her navigate boot camp. This practice helps Facebook scale up talent because it lets mentors “stick a toe in the management waters,” the authors explain.

Rao says that those organizations that scale well do so not by spreading change “like a thin coat of goodness over the whole system,” but instead treat the process as a “ground war.”

“Hearing a few speeches, giving people a couple days of training, or coaching now and then isn’t enough to instill and spread excellence,” he says.

He adds that effective scaling takes patience and persistence, and organizations must have an “obsessive focus” every day for making progress toward long-term goals. If organizations think carefully about what they’re doing and develop excellence, then they can move faster later, he says.

In the book, the authors discuss taking a Buddhist approach and a Catholic approach to scaling. (See Sutton’s interview where he discusses this issue with Guy Kawasaki and Peg Fitzpatrick.)

Sutton explains that organizations must decide how much to insist on standardization and replication, which they call Catholicism, in comparison to encouraging local customization, which they refer to as Buddhism. While noting it is possibly the most “vexing” scaling decision and that there is no easy answer, Sutton says organizations must consider when to insist on standardization and when to move toward customization.

“For example, although we may think of McDonald’s as standardized, they actually have extensive local customization in different countries. They serve beer and wine in Europe, and the burgers are made out of lamb, not beef in India,” Sutton says. “But In-n-Out Burgers, which was founded about the same time as McDonald’s, are highly standardized – with a short menu that is identical in each restaurant, and that is one of the reasons they are only U.S. based.”

The authors say that some of the key lessons for leaders and organizations on scaling up include:

  • Spread mindset, not just footprint. It’s not enough to just increase size, you must spread and sustain excellence as you expand.
  • Scaling requires not just adding, but also subtracting. Sometimes you need less.
  • It’s okay to stand still. You need to be slow and patient to scale correctly and reap the rewards later.
  • Get rid of the awful. As the organization grows, you will require more hierarchy and process – but use them to get rid of bad bureaucracy. People should not feel mired in muck trying to do their jobs.
  • Make connections. The best way to spread excellence is by linking those who do it best with those who need to learn it.
  • Develop character. Build teams and organizations where people act as if they own the place, and it owns them.
  • Think bad to great, not good to great. If you want to clear a path so excellence can spread, first get rid of distracted beliefs and actions.

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