Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

11 June 2014

Changing Culture: Scaling Up Excellence

Clark @ 10:58 am

I’ve found myself  picking up books about how to change culture, as it seems to be the big barrier to a successful revolution.  I’ve finished a quick read of Scaling Up Excellence, am in the midst of Change the Culture, Change the Game, and have Reinventing Organizations and Organize for Complexity (the latter two recommended by my colleague Harold Jarche) on deck.  Here are my notes on the first.

Scaling Up Excellence is the work of two Stanford professors who have looked for years at what makes organizations succeed, particularly when they need to grow, or seed a transformation.  They’ve had the opportunity to study a wide variety of companies, most as success stories, but they do include some cautionary tales as well.  Fortunately, this doesn’t read like an academic book, and while it’s not equipped with formulas, there are overarching principles that have been extracted.

The overarching principle is that scaling is “a ground war, not an air war”.  What they mean is that you can’t make a high level decision and expect change to happen.  It requires hard work in the trenches.  Leaders have to go in, figure out what needs to change, and then lead that change.  Using a religious metaphor, they distinguish between Buddhist and Catholic approaches, where you’re either wanting everyone to follow the same template, or modify it to their unique situation.  Some organizations need to replicate a particular customer experience (think fast food), whereas others will need to be more accommodating to unique situations (think high-end retailers).

There are some principles around scaling, such as getting mental buy-in, helping people see the bigger picture and how the near term necessities are tied into that, and that going slow initially may help things go better. An interesting one, to me, is that accountability is a key factor; you can’t have folks sit on the side lines, and no slackers (let alone those who undermine).

Another suite of principles include cutting the cognitive load to getting things done the right way, mixing together emotional issues with clever approach, connecting people. One important element is of course allegiance, where people believe in the organization and it’s clear the organization is also believing in the people.  No one’s claiming this is easy, but they have lots of examples and guidance.

One really neat idea that I haven’t heard before was the concept of a pre-mortem, that is, imagining a period some time in the future and asking “why did it go right”, and also “why did it go wrong”.  A nice way to distance oneself from the moment and reflect effectively on a proposed plan. If separate groups do this, the inputs can help address potential risks, and emphasize useful actions.

I worry a bit that it’s still ‘old school’ business, (more on that after I finish the book I’m currently reading and look to the two ‘new thinking’ books), but they do seem to be pushing the values of doing meaningful work and sharing it.  A bit discursive, but overall I thought it insightful.


  1. Hi Clark,

    Thanks for the post. In the Scaling Up Excellence book, how do the authors define successful companies? Is it based on company performance (profitability, stock performance, etc.), or the happiness and engagement of employees?

    In what ways are people held accountable at these organizations? I agree that accountability is a key factor, but it’s also a concept people don’t formally learn in school, so I think talking about accountability to new hires can often lead to blank stares and a lack of understanding as to how this actually works.

    The pre-mortem concept is an interesting one as a formal practice. I think some people already do this at a number of firms, in terms of warning of potential outcomes, but such Cassandras are often dismissed as merely being negative rather than predictive.

    Comment by Chad L — 11 June 2014 @ 11:11 am

  2. Chad, as I recall, success was defined as substantial performance turn arounds, but through engaged employees getting aligned and understanding why the changes were necessary and contributing substantially. Not ‘on top of’ the employees, but ‘through’ the employees.

    And accountability was largely through transparency, on all accounts. It’s a bit hard to recall as I’m finishing the second book and they’re getting munged up in my mind (as our minds like to do) as there is considerable overlap in ultimate outcomes though very different approaches to talking about what happened.

    And I think the value of the premortem is in making Cassandra play an official role in the process so as not to be dismissed. :)

    Comment by Clark — 12 June 2014 @ 7:05 am

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