I still remember when I read In Search of Excellence# early on in my career. It was a suggestion from my mentor and my first introduction to the work of Tom Peters.
My one take away was that successful organizations and teams focus on people -- customers and the individuals who serve them.
Even as many of the examples chosen in Peters/Wasserman's book were later challenged due to apparent lack of rigor, the themes they highlighted are still monitored and talked about in some form or another today.
For example, active decision-making, learning by observing customers, lean teams and autonomy, value-driven management, etc.
Built to scale
We are still talking about them in the digital/social technologies and U.S. start-up culture world for two reasons:
- once resilient companies and business models are being challenged at a faster rate;
- new businesses continue to either be built-to-flip (likely an acquisition), or have a hard time scaling what made them good on the onset.
The point is finding excellence in companies and teams takes an organization only so far. Whether it has been around a while, or it is just starting out, unless it can spread the good practices of a group of individuals to every department and group, it will face difficulties surviving long enough to last.
As this image shows, while average US lifespan has increased by sixteen years from 1937 to 2012, over the same period of time, the average time companies remain in the S&P 500 has fallen from 75 to 15 years. [h/t Tim Kastelle]
Mindset, subtraction, slowing down, and snowballing
Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao took seven years to research and documents the practices that help organizations, teams, and leaders spread constructive beliefs and actions.
The result is a book due out February 4. In Scaling up Excellence: Getting to More without Settling for Less, Sutton and Rao take us on a journey to understand the trade-offs companies make as they grow. Things like:
- spreading mindset, not just footprint
- how scaling requires subtraction, not just addition
- slowing down to scale faster
- how sometimes snowballs are better than no balls
- linking hot causes to cool solutions
- how thinking "bad to great" is better than "good to great"
- building teams and organizations where people act as if they owned the place
And my favorite: learning how to make the right trade-offs between Buddhism and Catholicism. This chapter provides ample evidence of the wisdom of thinking for yourself and making informed choices even as it explains the importance of structure to ease our cognitive load.
Having worked in both very centralized and bureaucratic corporations and in very informal startups I have seen evidence of how a meritocratic culture that gets things done is not automatically the domain of one structure or the other. Rather, it comes down to how people think about what they do and how far reaching their practices and positive beliefs are within the company culture.
Further, I am a strong believer in hiring people for attitude, mindet, and cultural fit once the appropriate base technical skills are met. Many of the pragmatic lessons in the book require both short-term thoughtful action, and long-term creative thinking.
Download a digital sneak peak at the authors' site, and get a copy of the year of subtraction calendar when you pre-order by January 24 (Friday).
[Disclosure: I received a copy of Scaling Up Excellence from Random House on behalf of Robert Sutton as part of their media outreach program. I have long admired Sutton's work and put my name in the hat to receive a review copy ahead of publication. This review and recommendation is based upon the quality of the material -- and not on how I obtained it.]
Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.