Sutton & Rao: Four Lessons in the Journey of Scaling Up

18 April 2017 | Sutton & Rao spent seven years on addressing the challenge that confronts every leader and organization: spreading constructive beliefs and behavior from the few to the many.  The result is the Scaling Up Excellence

The Problem of More. Executives could always point to pockets in their organizations where people were doing a great job of uncovering and meeting customer needs. There was always some excellence—there just wasn’t enough of it. What drove them crazy, kept them up at night, and devoured their workdays was the difficulty of spreading that excellence to more people and more places.

Although the details and daily dramas vary wildly from place to place, the similarities among scaling challenges are more important than the differences. There are four lessons they learned in the journey.

Lesson #1. Scaling well hinges on making the right trade-offs between mandating that new people and places become perfect clones of some original model (a “Catholic” approach) versus encouraging local variation, experimentation, and customization (a “Buddhist” approach).

Lesson #2. Scaling entails more than the Problem of More.  This four-word phrase is incomplete and takes people down the wrong path when they act as if they have something so wonderful that their only chore is to spread that perfection far and wide. Replication and repeatability will always be part of the scaling equation. Yet effective scaling isn’t simply a matter of running up the numbers by replicating the same old magic again and again. It isn’t enough to keep stamping out perfect clones of some original and idealized founding team, franchise, plant, quality effort, innovation process, charter school, or social services program.

Rather, the problem tackled here is one of both more and better.

Scaling well requires never leaving well enough alone. It means constantly seeking and implementing better ways of thinking and acting across old and new corners of the system.

Lesson #3. People who are adept at scaling excellence talk and act as if they are knee-deep in a manageable mess. They believe that by considering the right decisions, following the right principles, and drawing on their skill and common sense, they will have some control over their collective fate and be able to crank up their odds of success. Yet at the same time they realize that scaling is so complex and fraught with uncertainty that there will always be stretches when they are pummeled with unpredictable and unpleasant events, when frustration and confusion reign, and when the stench of failure is in the air. The best leaders and scaling teams muddle through—and even revel in—these inevitable moments and months of messiness.

David Kelley, founding CEO and chair of IDEO: “Life is messy sometimes. Sometimes the best you can do is to accept that it is messy, try to love it as much as you can, and move forward.”

Lesson #4. Scaling starts and ends with individuals— success depends on the will and skill of people at every level of an organization. It isn’t just something that senior executives need to worry about and understand. Sure, many scaling efforts start with those at the top. But it is impossible to spread excellence without the zeal, efforts, and imagination of people throughout an organization.

Former Procter & Gamble executive Claudia Kotchka: “Start with yourself, where you are right now, and with what you have and can get right now.”

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