Book Review: Scaling Up Excellence

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Full disclosure. You should know that I’m a friend of Bob Sutton’s. You should also know that I’m a fan. I’m a fan because of the great work that he does, and Scaling Up Excellence is an example of his best work.

That’s saying a lot. He’s done a couple of books with Jeffrey Pfeffer, including Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense and The Knowing-Doing Gap. He’s done books on his own, including the book that The New York Times won’t print the full title of and Good Boss, Bad Boss. All of those books are excellent. Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, written with Huggy Rao, is the best one yet.

Who Should Read This Book

If you’re a manager in a mid-sized to large company, this book should be required reading for you. It’s how to take the pockets of excellence that form in almost every organization and spread them across the landscape.

If you’re a manager in a small organization or you’re interested in how organizations work, you’ll love this book, too. Scaling Up Excellence is so well-researched and has so many examples/stories that anyone who is interested in how human beings work in groups will find value here.

In the preface to the book, Sutton and Rao lay out the subject.

“We started calling it 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.”

What’s in The Book

The preface lays out the basic challenge of the book, after which there are eight chapters divided into three sections. The first section is “Setting the Stage.”

Chapter one is about what the authors call the most important lesson they learned: “Scaling ought to be treated as a ground war, not just an air war.”

The ground war analogy is good, because it implies that you must get down in the dirt and do it. You can’t do it from afar using technology. The ground war analogy is also good for a reason that the authors don’t mention. When you’re in a ground war, there are two things you don’t know: how or when it will end.

The first chapter also includes the authors’ seven scaling mantras.

  • Spread a mindset, not just a footprint.
  • Engage all the senses.
  • Link short-term realities to long-term dreams.
  • Accelerate accountability.
  • Fear the clusterfug. (Yes, you read that right)
  • Scaling requires both addition and subtraction.
  • Slow down to scale faster – and better – down the road.

Chapter two looks at the scaling choices and tradeoffs. The primary distinction the authors make here is between “Catholic” and “Buddhist” strategies. The Catholic model seeks to create organizations that conform to some original model. The Buddhist approach encourages local experimentation and variation.

Section two has the next five chapters, which involve key scaling principles. Here’s a list of the chapters.

  • Chapter three: Hot Causes, Cool Solutions
  • Chapter four: Cut Cognitive Load But Deal with Necessary Complexity
  • Chapter five: The People Who Propel Scaling
  • Chapter six: Connect People and Cascade Excellence Using Social Bonds to Spread the Right Mindset
  • Chapter seven: Bad Is Stronger Than Good

The third section, “Parting Points,” has only one chapter about how to put all this to work. This chapter brings together things discussed throughout the book like team makeup and size, and implementation strategies. It seemed to me that there are two important things to keep in mind. First, this is a long-term process. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. Second, there will be times when it seems like nothing is going to work, but just like in a ground war, you strap on your gear and you keep going.

Bottom Line

I think Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less is one of the best business books I’ve ever read. Period. I read it originally a couple of years ago, but I keep going back to it to dip into the research and the insights and mine the stories for more knowledge. My bottom line is simple: if you read business books, read this one.


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