Scaling Up Excellence | Robert I. Sutton

Summary of: Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less
By: Robert I. Sutton


Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, by Robert I. Sutton, delves into the fascinating process of scaling an organization and its performance. This book summary explores the ‘problem of more’ and the ‘problem of better’, highlighting the ways organizations can implement change, adapt to different situations, and enhance their overall practices. Be prepared for a marathon journey as you explore varied themes such as endurance, balance between standardization and local variation, effective communication, tackling complexity, and leveraging the power of connections and diversity.

Scaling for Success

Scaling refers to spreading good performance to more people and places. It is a major challenge faced by leaders in successful organizations, but it is also necessary for growth. However, scaling is not just about replicating best practices, it requires improving performance along the way. Bridgewater International Academies, a chain of elementary schools in developing countries, scaled up from one to over 210 schools by focusing on growing the organization and improving their practices. Effective scaling requires innovation, changes in organizational behaviors and structures, and finding better strategies for delivering products or services. Successful examples provide some fundamental principles and strategies for success, even though there is no easy recipe for effective scaling.

Scaling Your Organization for Long-Term Success

Scaling your organization requires endurance and a ground war approach rather than an air war. Facebook’s success shows the value of investing time and resources in training employees. Persistence and people-orientation lead to better performance, as demonstrated by Andy Papa’s success in scaling up a pit crew for a motorsports company. Therefore, rather than pushing one person a thousand feet forward, focus on pushing a thousand people one foot forward to achieve long-term success.

Balancing Standardization and Variation in Scaling

As companies scale, they face the trade-off between standardization and local variation. The authors call these poles “Catholicism” and “Buddhism.” Standardization entails a pre-determined ideal model, while local variation allows for specific actions to vary under a commonly shared mindset. To find the best balance, companies should consider a mixed approach, like healthcare company Kaiser Permanente. They defined non-negotiable points while allowing for regional adjustments. Practical principles, methods, and tools for successful scaling are discussed in the next parts.

Starting Your Scaling Challenge

When embarking on a scaling venture, you must communicate your strategy in a way that inspires your team. There are two ways of achieving this: changing people’s beliefs or their behavior. Changing beliefs helps people make conscious choices while changing behavior leads to a shift in beliefs. To illustrate this, Stanford University “changed belief” by demonstrating the importance of wearing helmets to prevent accidents. Meanwhile, modifying behavior by encouraging students to wear stylish helmets also led to belief changes over time. Ultimately, both methods work, and it is up to you to decide which approach to adopt. However, the key takeaway is that getting people to buy into your scaling plan is more important than the starting point.

Scaling Up Without Getting Dumb

Scaling up can make things complicated quickly. Adding too much complexity too soon leads to a “big, dumb company.” Redundant rules and practices are one of the main pitfalls of scaling up. To avoid this, you need to be on the lookout for these deficiencies. Leaders at Adobe abolished formal annual performance reviews, which allowed for more frequent and personal check-ins between line managers and employees. This change cut out unnecessary documentation duties while providing space for more effective talks that support personal development. Always be mindful of the unnecessary burdens that can build up over time and change course accordingly.

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