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Scaling Up Excellence (Book Review)

written by Lisa Sansom 6 February 2014

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

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Author Bob Sutton may be better known for “The No-Asshole Rule,” but that shouldn’t deter anyone from picking up his new book, Scaling Up Excellence. When I first saw the title, I was a little dismayed. Was it another book about how growth is good and we need to get bigger faster? I was honestly expecting a marketing book on how to sell more stuff to more people. I’m glad I didn’t go with my first impressions of the title. I would have missed a gem.

While this isn’t, strictly speaking, a positive psychology book, Sutton and Rao do make reference to several positive psychology researchers, including Angela Duckworth, Daniel Kahneman, and Kathleen Vohs, as well as concepts that we are familiar with such as emotional contagion, strengths, gratitude, and decision-making. Those interested in the field of positive psychology will find a comfortable home here.

What’s getting scaled up?

But what is the purpose of the book? It is, truly, about how to scale up excellence. Excellence could be a magnificent practice in one area of your organization that you want to spread. It could be increasing safety practices, such as having more people wear bike helmets. It could be building on the findings from an Appreciative Inquiry Summit. Essentially, this isn’t about scaling up in a strictly economic sense, but rather in a psychological sense. How do we take something that’s really good, and share it to make a larger something that’s truly excellent?

What I most appreciated about this book was that Sutton and Rao approach this challenge from a mindset point of view instead of providing a series of do-this-not-this tactics. Recognizing that one size never fits all, Sutton and Rao have proposed a new way of thinking, not just doing.

Examples of New Ways of Thinking

Here are a few tidbits.



You need to approach the excellence challenge as though it’s a ground war, not an air war. Now while I might quibble with the analogy, the essence is that a ground war is fought over hard terrain and the long-haul. An air war means you swoop in, drop a few motivational speeches and PowerPoints, and then leave. Scaling up excellence means you’re in for consistent hard work and you need grit. You need to slow down and be intentionally deliberate Remember System 2 thinking in Kahneman’s model.

You also need to decide how “Catholic” or “Buddhist” your scaling-up is going to be. A “Catholic” model is replicated without variation the world over. A “Buddhist” model allows for flexibility, such as Chip Conley’s hotel model (which he shared at the summer 2013 IPPA World Congress). Sutton and Rao emphasize that you have to watch out for delusions of uniqueness that would tilt you and your organization towards too much “Buddhism” and all the complexity and customization that comes with it.

Thoughout the book, Sutton and Rao provide meaningful tips and mindsets, as well as compelling case studies. They mention smashed watermelons, air travel, forest fires, and making people squirm. This is not a call for easy comfort. This is a call for positive change.

It’s not just about adding

But it’s not simple. Scaling up excellence doesn’t just mean adding more of the good stuff. Sometimes (often?) you need to subtract as well. Take away the useless cognitive overload, take away the complexity, take away those who would drag you down, take away the dissonant details. The authors helpfully provide several techniques to oust the bad.


As I read the book, I wondered about what can positive psychology learn from Sutton and Rao. Most of the people I know who are working in the field of positive psychology, both researchers or practitioners, are pioneers. They are forging new tools, cutting new paths, and educating many people. Those researchers and practitioners have the excellence part of the equation. It’s a question of how to scale up and reach out. I would say that Sutton and Rao’s book is worth the consideration. It’s a new viewpoint with some satisfying insights and encouragement, as well as a realistic tone that makes you feel both supported and challenged.


Sutton, R. & Rao, H. (2014). Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less. Crown Business.

Sutton, B. (2014). 7 Mantras for Scaling Up Excellence. Slideshow.

Video of Bob and Huggy discussing scaling. Also embedded below:

Frame picture is by Claudia Goetzelmann. Click on the picture to read the story of its creation.

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1 comment

Nguyen Kinh Luan 1 May 2014 - 10:53 am

This is a good book with some good ideas. I cannot say that this is groundbreaking stuff but it is well thought out and well presented. There is no one set way to scale excellence and many useful techniques and examples are shared, which helps stimulate thinking on what can be applied in your own situation.


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