Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less

Robert I. Sutton & Huggy Rao

368 pages, Crown Business, 2014

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SCALING UP EXCELLENCE is the first major business book about scaling and is co-authored by two Stanford professors: Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao. For every leader, team or organization, the “problem of more” is universal: how do you spread pockets of excellence from those who have them to those who need them? The book tells dozens of entertaining stories from hundreds of leaders and teams from businesses and nonprofits which struggled, but ultimately succeeded at multiplying constructive beliefs, behaviors, and practices within their organizations. Visit the website at

The following is an excerpt from the book.

Do You Have a Successful Template to Use as a Prototype?

Finding the right blend of “standard” and “custom” when you are scaling up an organization often requires a messy, time-consuming, and costly process of trial and error. But some strategies speed such learning. If you aren’t sure, a good general rule is to start with a complete model or template that works elsewhere and watch for signs that certain aspects of the model aren’t working and need to be rebuilt, replaced, or removed. We recommend resisting the temptation to roll out an unproven mishmash of best practices if you can avoid it.

Wharton’s Gabriel Szulanski provides a cautionary tale. In the 1990s, Xerox’s European operation (then called Rank Xerox) had a big initial success when specific and complete “recipes” that worked in one country were transferred to others. For example, an integrated approach to selling color copiers that worked in Switzerland was transferred to numerous other countries. It cost about $1 million to scale up these programs—but saved about $200 million.

Executives were so thrilled that they rolled out a bigger “best practices sales process,” where “they cherry picked bits and pieces of best practices from different companies.” This untested collage was never successfully implemented in even a single place because Xerox’s leaders and teams—try as they might—had no “working examples that demonstrated feasibility” and thus had a poor “sense of what was expected and how to proceed.” Szulanski explains, “Rank Xerox violated one of the basic rules of replication: It is essential to identify a template that can be ‘seen’ and ‘touched’ in a single, specific location.”

That is exactly what the Girl Scouts of Northern California did as they worked with the Thrive Foundation for Youth between 2010 and 2013. The Girl Scouts were one of several nonprofits selected by Thrive to translate social science research into programs to help young people between the ages of eleven and eighteen to reach their full potential. Thrive’s materials draw on Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking book Mindset, Chip and Dan Heath’s bestselling book Switch, and other rigorous research. These materials were first tested and refined during a twenty-four-day pilot program in Redwood City, California, for incoming ninth graders who were at risk of dropping out of high school. The program incorporated lessons about identifying “sparks” in young people (“the things that light you up and engage you more than anything else in your life”), developing a “growth mindset” (viewing your abilities as changeable rather than fixed in stone), and setting and pursuing goals.

During their first three years, the Girl Scouts staff and Thrive’s team learned much about tailoring this program without undermining or diluting Thrive’s learning goals. The Girl Scouts of Northern California serves some fifty thousand girls each year, most of whom participate through volunteer-led troops and camps. Many adult volunteers begin working with troops when their daughters are kindergartners, so as their girls move into adolescence they need new approaches, which Thrive provides. When Heather Vilhauer, the Girl Scouts’ Thrive program director, first presented the program to forty adult volunteers in 2010, they loved the concepts but found the materials too “school-like.”

Vilhauer explained that “school-like” meant “a lot of sitting down and writing and reflecting, a lot of worksheets. It wasn’t a lot of hands-on, get up, move around, talking.” Another challenge was that the materials had been developed largely by researchers who insisted on precise repetition of the steps and language used in controlled studies and pilot programs. The first couple of times that Vilhauer presented the program, Thrive staffers on hand advised, “You’re using the wrong words to present that” or “It needs to be stated like this,” insisting that she parrot the materials perfectly—even as the volunteers tuned out those dull words. Vilhauer believed that Thrive’s concepts—if translated well—could help the thousands of girls they served. But she was concerned: “I grew up in Girl Scouts, was a Girl Scout leader, and then a volunteer before I became staff. I knew that probably wasn’t feasible—that our leaders weren’t going take a script and read it word for word, that they were going to give the gist of it.”

Vilhauer and her Girl Scouts colleagues worked with the Thrive team to make the program “less school-like,” involving “less talking at the girls” and allowing the girls to “lead more of the activities themselves.” The drastic contrast between the classrooms where the materials had been piloted and the setting at Girl Scout camps and events was another reason that lockstep replication wasn’t wise. A lecture on brain science might seem interesting when your other classes are remedial reading and math. But it will seem dull when your other activities include singing, hiking, climbing an adventure tower, and building a Lego robot. The Girl Scouts staff shortened teaching modules and spiced them up with games that got the girls moving around and giggling, but in ways that brought home the concepts. For example, to demonstrate the science of neurons and synapses “they toss around a ball to show that if you do it in the same pattern you can get quicker each time you go around.”

Developing and spreading the Girl Scouts’ Thrive program has been messy and difficult at times. The journey has been punctuated by healthy exchanges among adult volunteers, girls, Girl Scouts staff, Thrive staff, and leaders in the field of youth development—especially about which elements are essential to the Thrive concepts and which can be omitted, simplified, or spiced up. In an early training program, adult volunteers resisted rating girls’ skills at managing goals on a scale where “1” indicated “lacks skill” and “5” indicated “mastery.” For example, they were asked to rate girls on how badly or well they shifted gears when things got tough. Volunteers objected because “Girl Scouting is always so positive and this felt very judgmental.” Shari Teresi, Girl Scouts’ senior director of volunteer resources, calmed the waters by asking the volunteers if changing the rankings to stages of a butterfly’s development might “feel different.” They liked that idea.

The Thrive program remains a work in progress, but the key players agree that it keeps getting better and more engaging for girls and adults and is helping girls identify their sparks, develop growth mindsets, and set and manage goals. In 2012, some six hundred adults and five thousand Girl Scouts participated in the program. To use the Lego analogy, some of the original “subassemblies” have been discarded and many have been rebuilt. But some subassemblies have been changed little, if it all. Vilhauer tells us that, from the beginning, tips about offering praise based on the “growth mindset” have been received enthusiastically by volunteers and girls. For example, instructions to comment on how hard a girl worked to get an “A” on a test or to complete the ropes course (rather than on her natural ability) are easy to remember and implement and—as Carol Dweck’s studies show—can bolster a girl’s courage and confidence.

The Girl Scouts’ approach to Thrive reminds us of how Howard Schultz developed what eventually became the Starbucks coffee empire. In 1986, he started a small chain of coffeehouses in the Seattle area called Il Giornale. At first, each store was a faithful replication of an Italian espresso bar, but Schultz kept making changes to fit American tastes. So when customers complained about the stand-up coffee bar and blaring opera music that he had imported from Italy, Schultz added chairs and changed the music to jazz and other tunes better suited to American tastes. Both the Girl Scouts and Schultz took much care to replicate a complete template that worked elsewhere. Then, when evidence emerged that some elements didn’t travel well, they had the humility and flexibility to remove, revise, and replace them with better solutions.

Reprinted from the book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More without Settling for Less by Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao. Copyright 2014 by Robert I. Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.