Uncharted Waters

Dec 7 2015   10:05AM GMT

Scaling Up Excellence

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Scaling Up

Imagine working at a small software start up. There are maybe 10 people at this point and everyone feels like they are a part of something; owners of a living, breathing thing. Your little company is doing well. The team is building good software and the market is responding with “yes, more!” by throwing money your way.

Now, it’s time to grow the company and scale up your efforts. You need more developers, more sales people, and more software to sell.

How do you keep the magic? How do you take a small set if ideas that work well, and grow them to work in a company that has not 10s, but hundreds or thousands of employees?

This is the question that the book Scaling Excellence: Getting To More Without Settling For Less tries to address.

Let’s take a deeper look and see if the scaling problem can be solved so easily.

Last week, I went over some thoughts on why agile doesn’t scale. There is a constant tension between the need for standardizing how things are done so that groups don’t have to constantly solve the same problems, and the need to customize and avoid being dragged down by ceremony and bureaucracy.

Scaling Excellence describes this in terms of Catholicism and Buddhism.  Catholics believe that the perfect being and form has already been created and that most of our efforts should go into trying to get as close to that as possible. We see the Catholic values in companies that take a successful team, and replicate what they do everywhere else in a company as closely as possible.

The other side of this is Buddhism that places emphasis on the individual and creating the right experience for each person. I see this ethos inside of the agile principles.

Scaling takes just the right balance of both of these. A company making medical devices will probably require more standardization (for consumer safety and regulators) than a company making marketing software.

Scaling Up Excellence

Scaling Up Excellence

Sacrifice and Hiring

There is more to the book of course, bits on a framework for scaling and several case studies, but these two themes weighed heavily for me. The main exemplar on scaling in the book is an attack on a hotel. The employees were conditioned to put customers before everything else and they certainly did that. During the attack, employees hid guests and made sure they had access to food and water. Later the next day, they snuck guests and employees through the back entrance till there was one employee left. That last employee was killed by the attackers.

In software, asking for sacrifice is most often code for “do this work that you’ll never be compensated for”. I have been burned by this in the past. There are weeks and months of weekends worked and staying till 10 pm that I’ll never get back. Employees will never get rich from giving more to a company. I view asking for more than you are willing to pay for as an ethical problem.

The real secret to scaling, the thing that you absolutely must have, is the right people. Scaling Excellence describes two cases that show this point. One is a school system that brings low paid teachers into under-served areas to teach the basics — reading, writing, and arithmetic. The other example is Netflix who routinely hires the (supposed) best and brightest engineers in the business. Both of these organizations are quick to let go of any employee that doesn’t share the vision and doesn’t consistently do the absolute best they can.

This is like going camping the old way. We didn’t want to hike 20 miles carrying gallons of water, it is just too heavy. What we did was bring a light aluminum pot and find a water source. We boiled the water, killing off the bad stuff that will make people sick, and end up with something useful.

Constantly laying people off ensures that you have the exact team you want. These are the people that can take a new idea and figure out what is good enough to replicate, and what should be changed next time. They are also the ones that constantly look for new ways to do something better next time. This method probably also creates an environment where people are constantly scared of being the next one on the chopping block.

I enjoyed this book, there are a few interesting ideas that I’ll take with me. But, I’m pretty sure the secret sauce of successful growth is the people, not the framework.

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