Scaling Up Excellence – a book review

I was pretty excited to get a copy of Scaling Up Excellence because I have really admired the work done by Robert Sutton, author of important business books like Good Boss, Bad Boss  and the ever-popular No Asshole Rule.

Author Bob Sutton may be better known for The No-Asshole Rule but that shouldn’t deter anyone from picking up his new book about Scaling Up Excellence. When I first saw the title, I was a little dismayed – another book about growth is good and we need to get bigger faster. I was honestly expecting a marketing book on how to sell more stuff to more people – or something like that. I’m glad I didn’t go with my first impressions of the title. I would have missed a gem.

Scaling-Up-ExcellenceWhile this isn’t, strictly speaking, a positive psychology book, Sutton and Rao do make reference to several positive psychology researchers, including Angela Duckworth, Daniel Kahneman and Kathleen Vohs, as well as concepts that we are familiar with such as emotional contagion, strengths, gratitude and decision-making. Those interested in the field of positive psychology will find a comfortable home here.

But what is the purpose of the book? It is, truly, about how to scale up excellence. That could be a magnificent practice in one area of your organization that you want to spread. That could be increasing safety measures, such as wearing bike helmets. That could be building on the findings from an Appreciative Inquiry Summit. Essentially, this isn’t about “scaling up” in a strict economic sense, but rather in a psychological sense – how do we take something that’s really good, and share it to make a larger something that’s truly excellent?

What I most appreciated about this book was that Sutton and Rao approach this challenge from a mindset point-of-view, not a series of do-this-not-this tactics. Recognizing that one size never fits all, Sutton and Rao have proposed a new way of thinking, not just doing.

For example – here are a few tidbits.

You need to approach the excellence challenge as though it’s a ground war, not an air war. Now while I might quibble with the analogy, the essence is that a ground war is fought over hard terrain and the long-haul. An air war means you swoop in, drop a few motivational speeches and PowerPoints, and then leave. Scaling up excellence means you’re in for consistent hard work and you need grit. You need to slow down and be intentionally deliberate – System 2 thinking in Kahneman’s model.

You also need to decide how “Catholic” or “Buddhist” your scaling-up is going to be. A “Catholic” model is replicated without variation the world over. A “Buddhist” model allows for flexibility, such as Chip Conley’s hotel model (which he shared at the summer 2013 IPPA World Congress). Though Sutton and Rao emphasize that you have to watch out for “delusions of uniqueness” that would tilt you and your organization towards too much “Buddhism” and all the complexity and customization that comes with it.

Thoughout the book, Sutton and Rao provide meaningful tips and mindsets, as well as compelling case studies. They mention smashed watermelons, air travel, forest fires and “making people squirm”. This is not a call for easy comfort – this is a call for positive change.

But it’s not simple – scaling up excellence doesn’t mean just adding more of the good stuff. Sometimes (often?) you need to subtract as well – take away the useless cognitive overload, take away the complexity, take away those who would drag you down, take away the dissonant details. They helpfully provide several techniques to oust the bad.

As I read the book, I wondered – what can positive psychology learn from Sutton and Rao. Most people I know working in the field of positive psychology – either as researchers or practitioners – are pioneers. They are forging new tools, cutting new paths and educating the masses. Those researchers and practitioners have the “excellence” – it’s a question of how to scale up and reach out. I would say that Sutton and Rao’s book is worth the consideration – it’s a new viewpoint with some satisfying insights and encouragement, as well as a realistic tone that makes you feel supported and challenged.




Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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