Book Review: Scaling Up Excellence

The authors call it "The Problem of More."

Organizations face a challenge when they identify a best practice and try to do more. Maybe one location in a retail chain is doing something terrific and executives want every location to do the same thing.

Replicating a best practice or an innovative solution throughout a company seems like it should be so easy, but it isn't.

That's the issue tackled in Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao.



The lessons in this book can be applied to a wide range of challenges.

They describe how a failing hospital re-energized it's staff and turned it's fortunes around. Or, how companies like JetBlue or Disney create and sustain their famous customer-focused cultures.

The book immediately resonated with me in two ways. 

First, it's written as a how-to guide, but there are plenty of interesting real-life stories to spice it up. Second, much of what the book discusses is fundamentally organizational culture.

I read it as research for a book that I'm writing, The Service Culture Handbook, but I found it to be very enjoyable on its own.

The book starts by outlining a general philosophy for scaling excellence. It then describes five core principles and provides some general advice for implementing the ideas in your own organization.



There were quite a few take-aways in this book. Here are my top three:

Think Big + Small. Yes, you need to have a smart program to scale a best practice across an organization, but you also need subtle nudges to get things moving. For example, leaders need to consistently insist on modeling best practices.

Bad Apples Ruin It. Sutton and Rao suggest that people who actively work against an initiative have a far more damaging effect than people who actively support it. You see this time and time again in organizations where individual leaders undermine a program by insisting on doing their own thing. 

You Must Have Excellence. The book contains a quote that's both a blinding flash of the obvious, and an explanation for why so many corporate initiatives fail:

To spread excellence, you need to have some excellence to spread.


Buy This Book

The book is available in a variety of formats on Amazon. You can also check out more of my recommended reading list.


How to Improve Customer Service Training by 900%

Imagine your employees need customer service training.

You want to hire a professional. Someone who can share cutting-edge concepts and really fire up the team. 

The standard approach is to look for someone like me. The trainer flies in, conducts the training, gets great reviews, and then leaves. 

Has that ever really worked out well? Motivation usually jumps for a few days and then employees gradually settle back into their old habits.

There's another approach. One that's 900% better and costs less

The 70-20-10 Rule

Research conducted by the Center For Creative Leadership is credited with developing the 70-20-10 Rule. It suggests that leaders learn their skills from three sources:

  • 70% from challenging assignments
  • 20% from developmental relationships
  • 10% from formal training

In truth, it's not really a rule. The 70-20-10 ratio is more of a guide. And, it can be applied to all sorts of training.

Let's look at what happens when we apply the 70-20-10 rule to a typical customer service training program:


The typical program focuses on formal training, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of learning. But, what about the other 90 percent?

That's usually not part of the plan.

Developmental relationships account for 20 percent of learning - twice as much as formal training. These usually come from a boss or mentor. Unfortunately, typical training programs often fail because the boss doesn't do much coaching to help employees develop their new skills.

The typical training also lacks a clearly defined initiative where employees' new skills can make a measurable difference. That's another 70 percent of learning they miss out on.


A New Approach

The good news is we can make a few tweaks to capture the missing 90 percent. And, we can reduce our costs at the same time, but more about that in a moment.

First, we need to identify a challenge for everyone to work on. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined the term Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal in their classic book, Built to Last.

The idea is you can rally the team (or an organization) behind an important goal that focuses everyone's efforts.

My clients often identify a specific challenge through a customer service assessment. I offer a comprehensive version, but you can download this mini-version and try it on your own.

That challenge represents 70 percent of learning. We can capture the other 20 percent if the employees' supervisors are prepared to coach their teams.

There are often two big issues for supervisors:

  • They don't think they have time to coach
  • They don't know how to coach

You can solve both issues by enrolling supervisors in a one-on-one coaching program. They'll learn how to carve out the necessary time and how they develop their employees.

Add in the challenge and coaching and your training model now looks like this:

Reduce Your Costs

Remember that bit about adding in a challenge plus coaching while reducing your costs? Here's how you do that:

You do the training via video

Will a training video be as good as live training? The short answer is no. But, video can be extremely effective. And, remember that formal training is only 10 percent of the pie. Better to focus your resources on the other 90 percent.

Let's look at an example of the costs associated with training 30 employees using the typical approach versus the new approach.

I've made a few assumptions here, so your math might work out a little differently:

  • The average hourly wage is $15 per hour.
  • There are three supervisors who oversee the 30 employees.
  • The one-on-one coaching program for the supervisors costs $4,500.

The $900 cost of training for the new approach is based on a one month premium subscription for 30 employees at $29.99 per person. The actual cost can be lower than that with a volume discount. 


Bonus Benefit

Many of my clients have reminded me of a bonus benefit gained by the new approach.

Think about what happens when you bring in a professional trainer. That person does their training and then goes home. But, what do you do when you hire a new employee? Or, what happens when it's been six months and your team needs a refresher?

With the new approach, you have an easy source of ongoing development if you keep your access to the training videos!