Notes: Bob Sutton on “scaling excellence”

I recently attended a guest lecture at Citrix by renowned Stanford Professor Bob Sutton. Very quickly paced, insightful and thought-provoking, filled with nice stories and anecdotes to help qualify the broader principles Sutton advocated in support of “scaling excellence”. Below are my notes and key takeaways…

Scaling excellence refers to spreading “superior ideas from the few to the many” in some organizational context (a team, a department, an entire company, etc.), based upon promoting a “mindset” which Sutton defined as “a set of beliefs centered on the why (motivations, drivers), that guide behaviors”. He smartly pointed out that you should pave forward a “mindset”, not just leave behind a “footprint” that’s easily forgotten.

On Facebook…

In particular, Sutton referenced the Facebook ethos and their model for cultivating a “Facebook” mindset and scaling that across the organization sans dilution and dispersion as more people join the company. He pointed to Facebook Product VP Chris Cox as a literal embodiment of the Facebook ethos, and grand promoter of it internally, via his “sweet, genuine” personality that is highly admired within the company. This ethos is reflected in certain key phrases uttered by Cox:
– “understand the whole codebase”
– ” move fast and break things”
– “touch the metal”
– “any job you have is temporary”

Clearly it’s a dynamic, iterative model of thinking and working! Gotta be flexible and roll with the punches. This is inculcated within new Facebook engineers from day one as part of a 6 week bootcamp (!), whereby new recruits don’t know what their specific job duty is and are rotated among several projects (like 12-13)…but in the first week they have to do something that they could show their Mom to make her proud. Ha! So that really encourages the engineer to get hands dirty very quickly, a literal “bias towards action” (to borrow a phrase from Stanford d.school). But it’s also very cultural, to get that mindset and habit established early on, from the get go. Sutton mentioned that Cox is very afraid of watering down and losing this core truth to the Facebook culture as more engineers join the company and they become geo-distributed (apparently they just opened a NYC office). Time will tell…

Key Principles

Moving on from Facebook, Sutton ran through a set of broad principles for “scaling excellence”…

** More vs Better tradeoff
— Just like with feature creep, too much info/rules/policies/structures as the org grows is a burden on cognitive load, increases complexity and difficulty, degrading the cultural core.

** Alone vs Cooperative
— Highlighted several companies like P&G, Mozilla, and Pixar which took several approaches to dealing with competition and retaining their core culture (connect & develop vs. open source vs. going alone)

** Catholic vs Buddhist approaches
— Ah, the eternal struggle ;-) Do you declare a cultural value system and force everyone in a Catholic manner with strictness, or create a general value framework that each team/locality adjusts for their needs? Pros/Cons either way.

** Hot Causes need Cool Solutions
— How to get teammates excited and emotional about a dire deep cause that drives the company, and generate cool solutions for customers? Gotta have both to succeed. Hot emotion, and valuable outcomes. Else folks get excited for nothing, a waste.

** Connect and Cascade
— A way to foster connectivity and trickle out the learnings and values across teams, etc.

** When in doubt, cut it out
— Sutton highlighted the Intuit Design For Delight initiative which had tons of complex info and raised lots of doubt initially. After revamping their “pitch” into a pithy triangle diagram, more Intuit employees bought in.

** Little things have big impact
— Things like word choice, moving furniture around, body postures, small recognitions for good behaviors, etc. Small victories! Gotta celebrate them too. Builds confidence and credibility when you ask for the truly big things.

** Don’t put up with destructive attitudes/behaviors
— Obviously if there are die-hard cynics and naysayers, dump them and keep moving forward. Don’t poison the well, be swift and move on.

** Swarming is not Scaling
— Interesting point… “swarming” is when you’ve got a group all super excited but then don’t implement, translate passion into actionable results. To scale, you need to act, connect, demonstrate, do real things that are exemplars.

Ultimately to scale excellence in the org you gotta walk the talk, truly embody the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in your daily actions, serve as role models / exemplars for others to emulate (implying the inherently leadership nature of scaling excellence…want others to do as you? then you gotta do it first!) People are creatures of habit and sociable, so gotta leverage those small simple truths of human nature when trying to effect massive change in complex org contexts. These ideas and princples from Prof Sutton should help!

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