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Agile 2012 Keynote: Bob Sutton on Scaling Up Excellence

by Craig Smith on Aug 14, 2012 |

The introductory keynote at Agile 2012 in Dallas entitled Scaling Up Excellence was delivered by Bob Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University and author of numerous business books including "Good Boss, Bad Boss" and "The No Asshole Rule".

The core of the session was around the premise that most organizations have a center of excellence, but the challenge is in spreading it from the few to the many without screwing it up. A shared mindset is crucial to scaling up (as well as being successful at Agile) and it cannot be gained by reading a book or attending a conference alone, rather, you need to grind out the message, live by it and do the same thing day after day.

Bob presented a number of choice points to being successful at scaling up:

  1. more versus better - a strategic tradeoff, being aware of "voltage loss" the "learning curve problem" and the "overload problem"
  2. alone versus others - the extremes of going it alone or opening up to others, with the mid-point being collaborating with your competitors
  3. replication versus localization (also described as Catholicism versus Buddhism) - being aware of the replication trap versus localizing for the target market

He then went on to share his seven scaling principles and shared a number of examples and stories along the way:

  1. Link hot causes to cool solutions - fire up contagious emotions first, then have a cool solution to channel their energy
  2. Live a mindset, don't just talk about it - do actions that are consistent with the direction you want your people to go
  3. When in doubt, take it out, cut cognitive load - reduce cognitive load but deal with necessary complexity
  4. Use little things that pack a wallop, the power of subtle cues - music, language, smells and sounds affect peoples behaviour, think about the cues that you are sending
  5. Connect people and cascade excellence - get one group to mentor the next to spread the excellence once they get good
  6. The mindset is the steering wheel and the incentives are the juice - money is an incentive, as is pride and shame
  7. Don't put up with destructive beliefs and behaviors - bad behaviours are stronger and ingrained more deeply than good, don;t spend more time dealing with them than the work

He finally suggested some traps to be aware of:

  1. don't mistake swarming for scaling - raising awareness is not enough
  2. be aware of too fast, too far - people who want to scale quick and fast are looking for the easy way out

  Bob's final advice was:

Successful scaling requires being a master of both addition and subtraction! Everytime you add something good, find unnecessary and bad things to remove to make way for the good.

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