Scaling Up Excellence: Get more without settling for less


There is something in this for everyone. Small business owners, project managers, large organisations, public bodies, the lot. The main theme is that, while many good practices exist in organisations, they either get lost or there are difficulties when attempts are made to spread them (scale them) across the organisation. They discuss when a single corporate mindset is best (‘Catholicism’) and when a local variation is preferable (‘Buddhism’).

Mastering “the black art of scaling a human organisation”

Requires learning when and how to shift gears from fast to slow ways of thinking. As Daniel Kahneman suggests in Thinking Fast & Slow, slowing down and thinking about what you are doing and why—shifting to that laborious, reasoned, deliberative, and conscious “System 2” thinking, as Kahneman calls it—is the best defence when “you are in a cognitive minefield”—when you don’t know enough, risks are high, or you are stuck. Shifting to “System 2” often requires forcing yourself to pause rather than plough ahead.

What customers are looking for

Surveys of over seventy-five thousand customers revealed that most aren’t looking for over-the-top service; they enjoy it when it happens, but what drives them away—and really hurts companies—is bad service.

Make it simple

Netflix executive, who said the company’s entire policy on expensing, entertainment, travel, and gifts is encapsulated in this simple directive: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.”  As Sutton and Huggy note: this minimalist approach creates a positive, virtuous cycle: “Employees with impressive skills and motivation are attracted by the pay. Then they stay — and work like dogs– because of the autonomy, pride in their work, and lack of friction.

7 Scaling Mantras:

  1. Spread mindset, not just footprint.
  2. Engage all the senses. (Personally, I want every lobby to smell like coffee or popcorn.)
  3. Link short-term realities to long-term dreams.
  4. Accelerate accountability.
  5. Fear the clusterfug.
  6. Scaling requires both addition and subtraction.
  7. Slow down to scale faster – and better – down the road.

Why you need to be a plumber first and a poet second

James March’s distinction -the theory suggests that getting people to focus on the small, mundane, and sometimes gritty details of organisational life is an effective path for eliminating the negative. In March’s lingo, you’d better fix the plumbing before you start spouting out the poetry.

Nip It in the Bud

In 1982, criminologist George Kelling – The broken windows theory suggests that allowing even a little bit of bad to occur or persist is a mistake because it signals that no one is watching, no one cares. and “there is a difference between what you do and how you do it.” The best bosses nip bad behaviour in the bud but treat people with dignity in the process.

Look back from the future

“The premortem.” Kahneman credits psychologist Gary Klein with inventing the premortem technique and applying it to help many project teams avert real failures and the ugly postmortems that often follow. A scaling premortem works something like this: when your team is on the verge of making and implementing a big decision, call a meeting and ask each member to imagine that it is, say, a year later. Split them into two groups. Have one group imagine that the effort was an unmitigated disaster. Have the other pretend it was a roaring success.

Do you have a Murder Board

Many firms use “murder boards,” committees that not only kill ideas but subject the people who propose them to withering criticism, even ridicule. Colleagues who witness such ugliness tend to keep their ideas to themselves lest they suffer the same fate. “for a relationship to succeed, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones by at least five to one.” There is sound evidence that “bad is stronger than good” in organisational life too.

Is Gamification an answer?

Compared to popular multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, most organisations don’t engage people, don’t bond them together, and have poorly designed incentives—but do create unnecessary friction and status differences. Some workplaces are so inherently boring and stressful that more basic changes are needed than “putting the lipstick of gamification on the pig of work.” but “gamification” is a promising approach for making work more fun, creating stronger bonds among people, and helping them develop…

Scaling isn’t for everyone

The founders had built a world that rejected people like them. Kapor stepped down as Lotus’s chairman in 1986 because “it wasn’t my ambition to run a big company. I wanted to do this great product and make a big business out of it. But I didn’t find the positive parts of running this big show to be very gratifying…. I like to be left alone to do my own thing. But instead, I was a prisoner of the spreadsheet.

Your people

  • To spread excellence, it helps to hire, spot, and connect energisers.
  • Employees are advocates of the customer, rather than ambassadors of the company—their job is to look out for the customer first, last, and always.
  • A simple way to encourage the forty-eight employees in their “Division of Psychology” to pay for their fair share of coffee, tea, and milk. The division had an “honesty box” randomly alternated two posters behind the “honesty box” over a ten-week period: pretty flowers versus a pair of eyes that stared back at the employees. Which worked?

Annual compensation reviews are treated as rehiring decisions. Managers ask:

  • What would the person get elsewhere?
  • Is this person so good that he or she would be difficult or impossible to replace?
  • What would we pay for his or her replacement?
  • What would we pay to keep the person?
  • Netflix makes clear to employees from day one that merely “adequate performance” results in a “generous severance package.”
  • If you want to make good decisions as the day wears on, watch for signs of fatigue. Even seemingly trivial levels damage performance.

Who’s along for the free ride

Economists call this the free-rider problem. The more people who must band together, the tougher it is to overcome. No matter how hard you work or how much you assist coworkers, your impact on the bottom line, overall reputation, and culture is negligible. Similarly, national or local elections


The “myth” that “it’s good to mix it up” because “the longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. This finding holds, for example,

  • in string quartets,
  • aeroplane cockpit crews,
  • basketball teams,
  • product development teams,
  • architecture projects, and surgical teams.

If you want to increase the odds that your heart surgery will turn out well, pick a surgeon who does many operations in the hospital where your procedure will be done and who has done many operations with the other surgeons…

Where scaling has turned ugly

Three elements kept popping up:

  • Illusion: Decision-makers believe that what they are scaling up is far better and easier to spread than the facts warrant.
  • Impatience: Decision-makers believe that what they are scaling is so good and easy to spread that they rush to roll it out before it is ready, they are ready, and the organization is ready.
  • Incompetence: Decision-makers lack the requisite knowledge and skill about what they are spreading and how to spread it, which in turn transforms otherwise competent people into incompetent ones.

When big organisations scale well, they focus on “moving a thousand people forward a foot at a time, rather than moving one person forward by a thousand feet.”



sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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