Robert Sutton is a professor of management at Stanford University, an organizational researcher and author of numerous management books. On Leadership spoke with Sutton about his newest book, "Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less," in a recent interview ("How to spread an excellent idea"). Yet we also asked Sutton what wisdom he had to impart specifically for federal leaders, and his insights about fostering innovation and excellence in government form the basis for this following Q&A.
Sutton spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. The central premise of your recent book is about scaling up excellence. Can you explain what you mean?
A. To make things better in an organization or start a new organization that remains great, you need to create or find pockets of excellence and then spread them more widely. When you look at organizations that are really good at this, they never have the sense that it’s done and finished. There’s this restlessness that things can always be better.
Q. Federal organizations have resource constraints, but many still need to scale up programs. How can they do that?
A. If you look at evidence about scaling up, it actually turns out that in many cases size is more of an enemy than a friend. There’s evidence that when projects are late and you add extra hands, they tend to be even later. When groups are too big, they become less efficient. A lot of times when organizations get larger and more complex, people will just add things because of the nature of the incentive and the associated prestige. It’s a problem not just in government. If you make the teams you have smaller, the odds are they will be much more effective. The larger a team, the more time people spend on coordination and interpersonal issues and less time is spent on doing the work.
Q. Can government be innovative?
A. There’s a man named Jim Adams who wrote a great book called “Conceptual Blockbusting.” Jim says that when people tell him that government can’t innovate, he puts out a list — the atomic bomb, the space race, the Golden Gate Bridge. If you think of things that are great monuments to modern society, they were all government projects. The Panama Canal is my favorite example.
Although government does plenty of things wrong, so do large companies and small companies. The times when governments are most effective is when people are in a position where there is some emotional fire, a hot cause, a goal that everybody believes in.
Q. Are there ways to foster innovation when the goals are not on a grand scale like the space program?
A. One of the hallmarks of organizations that are incredibly innovative is that they pick a few things that they are going to bet on. You have to do that, because it reduces the load and the confusion and allows people to focus. Also, you can only spend your money on a few things at once. And from then on, we talk about the connect-and-cascade process. You create a pocket of true excellence where things are really cooking and then you infect the next one and get it really cooking.
Q. How do you overcome resistance to change?
A. Change is not easy. You actually have to be in people’s faces to get them to change. Probably the best example is Bonny Simi, a Jet Blue executive. Jet Blue had trouble with weather delays and many other issues. During her first team meeting, Bonny presented a plan and asked, “How many of you think this is going to succeed?” Of the 40 people, none raised their hands. And she said, “Can you all bear with me for an hour or two and let’s take a few steps. And can I get you to come to just one more meeting? This is so important. At least try it.”
If you fast forward, she started with disbelief and ended up leading a systemic change. She focused on the behavior and didn’t focus on the looks on their faces or the complaints. You didn’t have to convince anyone at Jet Blue that the problem was important, just that the solution would work.
More with Bob Sutton: How to spread an excellent idea