Some Thoughts on Sutton and Rao’s “Scaling Up Excellence”

I’ve written before about my general cynicism toward most business books. But one business book that I greatly admire – not only for its eye-catching title, but also for its sensible and forthright attitude – is Bob Sutton’s The No-Asshole Rule, which should be required reading for anyone involved in any aspect of hiring. Recently Bob offered “active influencers” preview copies of Scaling Up Excellence, the new book he has co-authored with his colleague Huggy Rao. When I saw the offer on Twitter, I thought, well, I don’t write this blog to make myself influential, but why not? I emailed Bob with a link to All About Work, Bob very politely answered back, and a few weeks later a brown envelope containing the book landed in my mailbox.

This blog’s regular readers will know by now that I am not the type to endorse a book just because I got a free copy of it. So I say in all honesty that Scaling Up Excellence is, well, excellent.

The book was inspired by the students in an executive education course that Sutton and Rao have taught at Stanford University since 2006. Sutton and Rao saw that the students constantly struggled with what they came to call the “Problem of More”. The students could identify parts of their organizations that did things really well, but they couldn’t figure out how to get that exceptional performance to spread through the entire organization. And so began Sutton and Rao’s “seven-year conversation” aimed at unravelling that problem.

The discussion in the book is framed by “rigour and relevance” – it’s based on both academic research and real-life examples, many of which are companies that Sutton or Rao have worked with or observed first-hand. As such, the discussion is well-informed and also very detailed. This book will not give you a quick fix or a few slick catchphrases – but one of its strengths is the comprehensiveness of the discussion. It’s worth your time and attention to read the book all the way through, because it contains a lot of extremely thoughtful analysis and very practical information.

The cover of Scaling Up Excellence. (credit: randomhouse.com)

The cover of Scaling Up Excellence. (credit: randomhouse.com)

Because the discussion in Scaling Up Excellence is so thorough, a summary of the book’s main themes wouldn’t do it justice. Instead, I‘ll highlight a few points that stood out for me.

  • Getting to excellence doesn’t mean continual excellence. The process of scaling up excellence will inevitably go through periods where things are not so excellent, because organizations need to discover what works and then decide how to build on that. The book’s subtitle  – Getting To More Without Settling For Less – is actually a little misleading, because at times an organization may have to settle for “less” while figuring out how to effectively operationalize “more”.
  • New isn’t always better, and growth isn’t always good. Scaling up excellence needs to happen for the right reasons – not just because someone wants to put their own stamp on the organization, or wants to show off how they can make things work differently. What the organization is already doing, and how that gets done, might already be excellent. And a single form of excellence might not be the right form for every part of the organization.
  • Scaling up excellence requires attitudinal commitment and resource commitment. Every organization is going to say that it wants to be excellent, or that it values excellence. But achieving organization-wide excellence takes a lot more than just talking about it. There has to be a genuine desire to see it happen, and enough resources have to be allocated to develop and sustain it. And along similar lines: plumbing before poetry. The frameworks and connections to facilitate excellence have to be secure before anything else happens. If they aren’t, the organization could end up with the kind of disasters that Sutton and Rao tactfully label as “clusterfugs”.
  • Scaling, not swarming. Scaling up can involve major change. Overloading the organization and its members with too much change, or too much information, all at once is more destructive than productive.
  • Bad is stronger than good. One aspect of Scaling Up Excellence that really impressed me was its considerate perspective on managing people during scaling up. Sutton and Rao emphasize respect and dignity in dealing with employees who, quite rightfully, might be unsettled or apprehensive about wide-ranging change. Sutton and Rao also emphasize, again quite rightfully, that employee resistance or opposition needs to be acknowledged and listened to, not automatically squelched. However, they also state very clearly that actions such as selfishness, infighting, and deliberate miscommunication can completely undermine even the best plans for scaling up – and when these kinds of actions happen, they need to be addressed quickly and explicitly.
  • And….don’t hire your friends. Liking someone, or feeling comfortable working with them, doesn’t guarantee that person has the skills to support scaling up – or that you’ll get the variety of opinions and perspectives that will help you effectively spread excellence.

Scaling Up Excellence is a terrific resource for anyone interested in better understanding organizational excellence and organizational change, or for anyone looking for practical and reliable guidance on how to scale up excellence in their own organization. And it’s also a great read. I’m grateful to Bob for the opportunity to preview the book, and I encourage you to check it out too.

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