- Steve Nguyen, PhD
Book Review: Scaling Up Excellence
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
As owner of the WorkplacePsychology.Net website, which continues to get a high number of visitors daily, I am frequently asked to review books. In fact, publicists and sometimes even authors will ask me to review their books. I rarely need or want to reach out to authors. Robert I. Sutton is one of those authors for whom I make an exception. Back in December 2013, I reached out to him for an advance copy of his new book to review.
A few years earlier, I had reviewed professor Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss book and have been wondering about the type of book he would write after it. While there were a few examples borrowed from Good Boss, Bad Boss, the latest book, Scaling Up Excellence (written with Huggy Rao, also a Stanford professor) is completely different.
Simply stated, scaling is about finding pockets of excellence and building and spreading those pockets of excellence throughout an organization and beyond.
The stories and examples Sutton and Rao shared in Scaling Up Excellence were outstanding and nicely dovetailed (as Sutton is so fond of writing) with the many research studies in support of the various scaling lessons.
Among the things I found interesting and helpful were the following:
1. Scaling starts and ends with individuals—success depends on the will and skill of people at every level of an organization. (p. xv)
2. Scaling is not about more, it’s about more and better (p. xiii). Sometimes better means subtraction (p. 27, 110), and subtraction can even mean addition [like adding a load buster to direct employees’ attention to what matters most when mental demands are high and priorities collide and when it’s easy to lose or miss important information]. (p. 119-121)
3. Scaling is a ground war, not just an air war. It’s about “moving a thousand people forward a foot at a time, rather than moving one person forward by a thousand feet” (Sutton & Rao, 2014, p. 5).
4. Watch out for the clusterfug – The terrible trio of illusion, impatience, and incompetence. Read about the story about Stanford University’s own failed IT systems upgrade in 2003. (pp. 24-26)
5. The best scaling teams know how to balance between replication and customization (what Sutton and Rao referred to in the book as the difference between Catholicism and Buddhism*).
*I personally found it really annoying and hated the use of the terms “Catholicism and Buddhism” because there was a connotation about religion, although that was not their intention.
6. Scaling is about understanding when to inject enough hierarchy, structure, and process. It’s about knowing when to add more complexity, when it’s just right, and when you need to wait a bit longer. (p. 133)
7. “To spread excellence, you need to have some excellence to spread” (Sutton & Rao, 2014, p. 181). If you can’t even deliver on your most basic vanilla promises to customers, then don’t even attempt scaling. Remember, adequacy before excellence. (p. 239)
8. Finally, you need to ask yourself whether scaling is a good idea. Is it feasible? Is it worth the cost to your own and your team’s mental and physical well-being? And, would you be happy “about the destination you will have reached”? (p. 271) Would you be happy in that world that you have built?
Seven Lessons for Scaling Up Without Screwing Up
Lesson #1: Start Where You Are, Not Where You Hope to Go
Start your scaling journey where you are and do the best with what you got regardless of whether you have a little (or none) or a big budget, staff, and resources at your disposal.
Lesson #2: Scale, Don’t Just Swarm
It is fine to have a kick-off event and infuse some energy and excitement into an initiative, but make sure that you are serious about enabling and encouraging people in your organization to live the scaling mindset, or else it will not spread.
Lesson #3: Use Your Mindset as a Guide, Not as the Answer
“[M]indsets are double-edged swords. You need them, but never stop asking whether the time is ripe to cast them aside” (Sutton & Rao, 2014, p. 277).
Lesson #4: Use Constraints as Guardrails that Channel, Rather than Derail, Ingenuity and Effort
There are always constraints, but people with the will and the skill will find ways to work around these constraints and turn them into virtues.
Sutton and Rao (2014) shared a great story about how Michelangelo finished the famous statue of David by working within the constraints imposed (must finish within 2 years; how it should look; and working with a piece of marble that a previous sculptor, Agostino di Duccio, had started but never completed).
Lesson #5: Use Hierarchy to Squelch Unnecessary Friction, Instead of Creating and Spreading Hierarchy
Leaders ought to do everything they can to get rid of friction and complexity and “not burden employees with ‘rules, tools, and fools’ that make it tougher to do their jobs and waste money and talent” (Sutton & Rao, 2014, p. 282).
Lesson #6: Work with People You Respect, Not Your Friends
“[H]ire people whom you respect and who bring new thinking to the organization; whether you like them should be secondary. . . . Diversity of style, thought, and culture can sometimes generate friction. But if it is productive friction, and if your team frames it that way, it can help build resilience . . . like allergy shots for your organization” (Sutton & Rao, 2014, p. 285).
Lesson #7: Make Sure that Accountability Prevails and Free Riding and Other Bad Behaviors Fail
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is a fantastic example of scaling up and especially about accountability. During the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel (in Mumbai, India) on November 26, 2008, employees of the hotel risked their own lives and safety to help hundreds of guests escape. While their actions were heroic, it was impressed upon them—from the initial 18-month training to the daily reinforcement at the Taj Hotel—to look out for their guests.
Sutton and Rao shared another incredible story of sawmill workers who were stealing for the thrill of it. Management, with the help of a consultant, devised a simple but brilliant library system whereby any worker could check out any equipment at any time and this idea worked! The stealing stopped because it was no longer exciting to steal and brag about it to others because the items could now be checked out for free.
Summary: Unlike, my previous experience with Good Boss, Bad Boss, reading and completing the Scaling Up Excellence book left me feeling unsettled. This is certainly not a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it reflects the complexities and the uncertainties that scaling entails. Indeed, one of the major lessons about scaling discussed in the book is that it is messy, unpredictable, and unpleasant; but the best scaling people are able to manage and even delight in it.
Reading Scaling Up Excellence is akin to the experience of enjoying a fine steak. It is wonderful, full of flavor, but also heavy. You cannot, nor should you, devour it. Instead, you savor it, making sure that you take your time to enjoy it.
When I read a book, I typically jot down a few notes here and there. However, with Scaling Up Excellence, I found that my notes added up to a total of 20 pages! There were simply too many amazing stories and examples that I felt compelled to write many of them down. In fact, I had tried to stop taking notes and just read, but upon revisiting the 85 pages where I wasn’t taking notes, I ended up “jotting down” 5 more pages of notes!
It is very clear the amount of work that went into researching and writing the Scaling Up Excellence book. Sutton and Rao have done a superb and impressive job of distilling the complex subject of scaling into mouthwatering, easily digestible morsels of goodness. Sutton’s excellent story-telling and writing style made reading Scaling Up Excellence almost like listening to him and Rao tell these stories in person. Scaling Up Excellence earns my highest recommendation. Just one warning: Do not read this book without taking notes!
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Sutton, R. I., & Rao, H. (2014). Scaling up excellence: Getting to more without settling for less. New York: Crown Business.
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