Summary: Scaling Up Excellence By Robert Sutton
Summary: Scaling Up Excellence By Robert Sutton

Summary: Scaling Up Excellence By Robert Sutton

To scale up excellence, leaders and teams need to keep finding ways to bolster belief in a hot cause and persuade others to live that mindset. Here are some strategies for starting, sustaining, and accelerating this virtuous scaling circle.


#1 Name the Problem

Naming the problem is a hallmark of effective scaling in many companies and industries. CEO Alan Mulally used this strategy in the early days of Ford’s celebrated turnaround. Poor communication plagued the manufacturer. Ford’s executives had been pitted against each other for decades. There was little incentive for sharing information across the business or using your expertise to help others succeed. There was often nastier cutthroat competition inside Ford than against the other car companies that Ford was supposed to be besting in the marketplace—especially between different Ford brands and regions. Mulally named this problem when, after coming on board in 2006, he decided to “create one Ford.” When asked if Ford was pursuing a merger, he answered, “Yeah. We’re going to merge with ourselves.”

Mulally started down this road with weekly review meetings where he asked each senior executive to present his or her group’s performance data and insisted that treating the gathering as a blood sport was forbidden. He made these Thursday meetings a safe place to share information (including about failures and setbacks) and to ask executives from other departments for help. Mulally made numerous other symbolic and structural changes that enabled Ford to “merge with ourselves,” such as placing operations in Europe, Asia, and several other subsidiaries and divisions under one name. After managers grew confident that cooperation was not a career-limiting move, fact-based decisions and transparency began to spread and take hold. Even today, those Thursday meetings are attended by an outsider who ensures that executives treat each other as friends rather than enemies, are open to discussing setbacks and potential problems, and act as if they are part of “One Ford.


#2 Name the Enemy

The late Steve Jobs was the master of this ploy. He routinely rallied and focused the attention of his employees and customers by provoking images of Apple’s evil, uncool, and idiotic corporate enemies. In Apple’s early days, Jobs likened IBM to an evil dictatorship bent on taking over the world with its soulless wares. He demonized and belittled Microsoft and Bill Gates, famously saying, “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste.… I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way. In the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.” He later lambasted Disney and especially CEO Michael Eisner (until Jobs sold Pixar to Disney and became Disney’s largest shareholder), and during the final months of his life, he turned to blasting Google and its CEO Larry Page for their lack of creativity and their imitation of Apple’s ideas. Steve Jobs also reportedly said to his employeess explicitly: “If you want to make Apple great again, let’s get going. If not, get the hell out.” 

This is a classic example of “naming the enemy” to crank up emotion, inspiration, and commitment—energy that Jobs funneled to provoke Apple employees to embrace a new mindset—one where pride and persistence took center stage. Jobs reinforced his emphasis on grit and taking the long view with the new stock vesting, giving Apple employees an incentive to think three years ahead. And he demanded accountability—insisting that if you weren’t there to make Apple great again, you’d better “get the hell out.”

The “name the enemy” strategy can be extremely effective. But it can also backfire. It loses its punch when you try it over and over and repeatedly fail to best your enemies. It can do more harm than good if your claims are seen as delusional or inauthentic. And it can be dangerous when people embrace it so strongly that they will do anything to destroy a rival.


#3 Do It Where All Can See

After Gandhi was jailed for planning a march on a salt factory and the protest continued without him, a Western journalist reported:

Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down.

The Salt March and related protests did not lead the British to make immediate changes in laws or eliminate the despised taxes, let alone grant India the independence that Gandhi and his followers sought. But it was still a brilliant strategy that enticed tens of thousands of people to take public actions that demonstrated their commitment to the principles and goals of the independence movement, which soon spread to tens of millions more.

Persuading people to take “public” actions that demonstrate a commitment to a mindset or a belief is a powerful means for stoking the behavior-belief cycle. As psychologist Robert Cialdini contends: “Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person.” Public commitments foster especially strong accountability pressures in long-term relationships. As others see you act in a certain way, you become surrounded by witnesses who impose pressure on you to remain true to your new behavior.


#4 Breach Assumptions

Norms can infect members’ souls so thoroughly that they are barely noticed even as they animate a host of feelings, thoughts, and actions. Dr. Garfinkel devised a series of “breaching experiments” to reveal how such taken-for-granted assumptions guide behavior. In one ploy, his undergraduates acted as if they were boarders in their parents’ homes—exuding extreme politeness and agreeing with everything that their parents said. This strange behavior provoked shock, confusion, and anger. Parents asked: “What’s the matter?” “Are you sick?” “Are you out of your mind or are you just stupid?” Those miffed moms and dads calmed down only when their children revealed that Dr. Garfinkel had instructed them to mess with their minds.

Breaching experiments reveal the contours of unwritten social rules. Garfinkel saw them as “aids to sluggish imagination” and added that “they produce reflections in which the strangeness of an obstinately familiar world can be detected.” These “aids” reveal—and challenge—existing mindsets. Gandhi’s Salt March was a breaching experiment that induced millions of Indians to question British rule and all the taken-for-granted assumptions about how they ought to act that came with it.


#5 Create Gateway Experiences and On-Ramps

When Fiat CEO, Serge Marchionne took over Chrysler, Marchionne detected “the smell of fear” among Chrysler employees—an aroma he had encountered when leading Fiat’s turnaround several years before: fear of the firm’s death, loss of income and camaraderie, and loss of control over one’s fate. Marchionne decided that restoring pride and confidence ought to be the first order of business. For example, the Jefferson North plant in Detroit was lousy with leaky roofs and decrepit bathrooms and was down to a single shift. Instead of closing the plant for renovation and laying off assembly workers in the interim, Chrysler paid the workers to clean up and repair the plant.

They painted the place, installed new locker rooms, and constructed an atrium break area. They repaired conveyance systems that moved parts and cars around the plant. Then, rather than having industrial engineers tell these hourly workers how to design and do their jobs, Marchionne brought in two dozen Fiat workers from Italy to teach them “World Class Manufacturing” methods—to “use analytical tools to help them understand each process. The cleaning of the Jefferson North plant demonstrates how the right transitional experience can serve as a stepping-stone to scale up a new mindset and turn hope into reality.


#6 Lean on People Who Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone

Picking people who will jump at the chance to live the new mindset—and sidelining or even firing those who resist such change—is often the first step to scaling up a new mindset.

Cornell professor Shaul Oreg developed a “resistance to change” survey that reveals the kinds of people best—and worst—suited to embrace and live a new mindset. Four hallmarks of “change resisters” emerged from this research:

  1. “Routine seekers” who agree with statements like “I would rather be bored than surprised.”
  2. People who have strong negative emotional reactions to change, those who become “tense,” “stressed,” and “uncomfortable” at the prospect of doing or dealing with new challenges and chores.
  3. Short-term thinkers, those who agree with statements like “When someone presses me to change something, I tend to resist even if I think the change may ultimately benefit me.”
  4. People who are “prone to cognitive rigidity,” who agree that “once I come to a conclusion, I am not likely to change my mind.

You want people who get bored with stable routines, don’t stress out, take pleasure from new challenges, have a penchant for long-term thinking, and are prone to change their minds when new information comes along. You want people who—even when they express skepticism or outright disbelief—still can’t resist the temptation to try something new, to make things a bit better for themselves and others, and who don’t freak out and freeze up when confronted with the confusion and dead ends that are inevitable as we learn new ways of thinking and acting.


Conclusion: You Can’t Follow Your Compass Blindly

Every skilled executive, manager, and supervisor is both a “poet” and a “plumber.”

The poetry part is mostly about communicating hot causes: creating beliefs via words, stories, ceremonies, mission statements, goals, and strategic plans to inspire and guide others. The plumbing part is mostly about cool solutions—especially the nitty-gritty behavior required to ensure that planes or trains run on time, widgets or cars are built and grapes are grown.

The art of scaling up excellence is very much about knowing when to create a tight connection between poetry and plumbing versus when to stretch, flex, or even set aside your most precious beliefs.

Poetry reflects the sometimes useful “ability to refuse to accept the constraints of reality”; skilled and savvy poets can sometimes lead people “to accomplish wondrous things that would not be deemed possible in a ‘rational’ world.” But compelling poetry also has a dark side. Dogmatic, mindless, and inflexible application of any mindset can get you or your organization in big trouble.

Mindset should be treated like a compass or the global positioning system in your car or on your phone. It is something that points you in the right direction most of the time. But you can’t follow it blindly; otherwise, every now and then, you will plow into obstacles that you should have steered around or miss your destination.

Consider Apple’s obsessive penchant for protecting its intellectual property. Apple is infamously secretive and aggressively attacks any competitor or person that puts the company’s ownership claims at risk. In explaining why the company was pursuing a lawsuit against HTC, Steve Jobs offered typical Apple poetry, “We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it.”

This mindset has served the company well many times, such as during the billion-dollar lawsuit it won against Samsung in 2012 for encroaching on Apple’s smart phone patents. There have been other times, however, when such mindless devotion has made Apple come across as a band of idiotic bullies, as when nine-year-old Shea O’Gorman sent Jobs a letter with some suggestions for improving her iPod. Apple’s lawyers responded with a letter “stating that the company doesn’t accept unsolicited ideas and telling her not to send in any more suggestions.” This caused Shea to burst into tears and generated bad publicity for Apple—earning them a place on Fortune’s list of “101 Dumbest Moments in Business.”