It's time to reinvent management. You can help.

How do you Spread Success? A Maverick Hangout with Bob Sutton

by Polly LaBarre on February 6, 2014


polly-labarre's picture

How do you Spread Success? A Maverick Hangout with Bob Sutton

Bob Sutton, author, Stanford professor, co-founder of the d. school, on scaling excellence

February 20, 2014, 11am ET

Please post your questions for Bob in the comments below or on Twitter #MIXHangout. We will be sending free, signed copies of Bob's new book to those whose questions get asked during the Hangout.

It’s the most universal and intractable challenge leaders in organizations of every stripe in every realm of endeavor face: how do you spread success? How do you take local victories—profound insights, clever inventions, powerful connections—and weave them into the broader fabric of an organization? How do you replicate the mindset and approaches of the most productive, compelling, and creative individuals across a whole system? How do you scale the best and leave the rest?

That’s a question that Bob Sutton and his Stanford colleague Huggy Rao, have pursued with relentless rigor and deep curiosity for nearly a decade. They dove headfirst into the ocean of behavioral science research, journeyed into a rich variety of organizations, and plunged into the trenches with leaders and teams confronting thorny scaling challenges. The result is a masterwork: Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less.

Just published this week, Scaling Up is Bob’s sixth important book in less than a decade. He’s written about closing the gap between knowledge and organizational action, evidence-based (rather than faith- or fear-based) management), and how the best organizations develop and implement creative ideas. His more recent books, The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, offer up fresh thinking and engagingly practical pathways forward when it comes to being a decent human being and revitalizing your relationships at work.

Bob Sutton is one of the most provocative, practical, and profoundly human thinkers and writers in the realm of management today. He’s also an absolute delight to talk to—I never leave a conversation with him without a notebook bristling with insights and my energy flying high. We’re excited to share that energy and insight in our next Maverick Hangout.

We’ll spend the hour unpacking the profound principles Bob and Huggy developed around successful scaling, explore the universe of instructive stories they collected, and share the powerfully practical lessons from their years of study, including:

  • Why it’s crucial to subtract as well as to add
  • How to make the right trade-offs between Buddhism and Catholicism
  • What it means to spread mindset, not just footprint
  • How to use appropriate control and process to conquer “bad bureaucracy”
  • Why slower is usually faster—and better
  • What it is about the people who propel scale
  • And, how do you get started from where you are today?

Participating in the Hangout is as easy as coming back to this link on Wednesday, February 20th at 11am ET. Bob will be answering your questions, so please post them in advance in the comments section here (and via Twitter during the Hangout #MIXhangout).

In the meantime, check out Bob’s new book, Scaling Excellence, here and, if you’re not already a fan, visit Bob’s addictive, instructive, and entertaining blog Work Matters.

And if you’re inspired by the themes of the Hangout, please share your own story or bold idea in the Unlimited Human Potential Challenge. Learn more here.

You need to register in order to submit a comment.

peter-rennie's picture

Hi Polly and Bob,

First thank you so much for the Hangout. I very much enjoyed the conversation and Bob I loved your stories. I am a fan of yours and several years ago bought two copies of ‘The No A**hole Rule’ one to keep and another to give away as a present.

There is one issue that I would like to raise and it relates to the comment you made about hierarchy. Thirty-one minutes into the Hangout you said;
'I can't figure out how we can have a human organization or even apes or dogs (pick your species) without having some pecking order. It doesn't seem possible to run a social group without one.'

Before going any further I know much more about you than you know about me and you may want to know a little about where my comments are coming from. So let me say that I have been a consultant in the OD leadership space for over 25 years. I originally trained as a medical doctor and then transitioned through to become a psychotherapist and clinical family therapist. My serious interest in hierarchical structures dates back to observing how Australia fell into line and followed the US into the 2003 Iraq war. Before the war began I had attended demonstrations against our involvement but was amazed to see how difficult it was to sustain protest once both our governments had ratcheted up their programs of war promotion and suppressed dissent.

I found there was a significant body of literature about the heroic leader and dependent follower, about myth creation, the invention of tradition and how all these components were part of the hierarchical structural paradigm. A little later I attended a workshop run by a wonderful consultant, Antony Williams, and somehow we found ourselves talking about the influence of social structure on behavior. Quakers, who met in circles, seemed to have a different perspective on the world and their place in it compared to other religious groups whose social structures resembled hierarchical organizations. Something seemed to be going on that begged further exploration.

In the decade since then my eyes, ears and heart have been opened by many extraordinary writers and thinkers. Over this period I have worked with a number of people who have been generous enough to jointly experiment with some new ideas about structure – some of which did not work – but gave rise to great learning. Several of these leaders have subsequently won national awards for leadership and earned public commendation. This is said not to big note myself but to point out that a number of sophisticated leaders have taken many of these ideas seriously. . .

Bob, I do not envy you speaking publicly to the world as you have on the hangout. You take up the role of an expert and clearly you are that in many areas but you can’t be on top of everything. I believe your comments on hierarchy fall into this category. Let’s repeat your comment.
'I can't figure out how we can have a human organization or even apes or dogs - pick your species - without having some pecking order. It doesn't seem possible to run a social group without one.'

First, there is now a growing body of anthropological / archeological literature that suggests that for most of human existence (i.e., from about 200,000 years to somewhere between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago) that the circle was the key organising social structure. There was no hierarchy. Of course there were people who were more skilled in some areas, better story tellers, better hunters and gatherers, people with better memories. And of course those skills were appreciated. The anthropologist Christopher Boehme suggests that anyone who showed a tendency to promote their own interests above the others was quickly brought into line. Tribes had different rituals to ensure that no one became special. The hunter would use someone else’s arrow.

Introducing Circle man. (Please I am not being sexist here I am using man in its generic term for woman and man)

Let’s call these people Circle man. Circle man saw themselves as part of nature and not above it. You see remnants of this culture in Australia when tourists visit Uluru (our much smaller version of the Grand Canyon in reverse). Tourists typically want to climb the rock to get on top of it and conquer or dominate it. The Aborigines would prefer that people walked the six miles (9.4 Kms) around the perimeter to try to experience it.

Circle man treated woman and men as equals, they had a pantheon of gods or spirits. It is probable they were quick learners because there was no shame in not knowing only in feigning knowledge which could be dangerous to the tribe.

I’ve gone into this in some detail because I wanted to show the connection between the Circle man’s social structure and Circle man’s mindset. I’ll come back to this later.

Second, regarding your comments on hierarchy and primates. There is a growing body of primate literature that suggests that at least the bonobo seemed to show minimal hierarchical traits. (Humans, bonobos and chimpanzees share the same ancestor.) There is great equality amongst males and females. Interestingly, as Frans de Waal has commented, the angle of the Bonobo’s vagina is positioned so that mating in the missionary position is preferred. Bonobos face each other when they mate. Of all the primates only humans (and most likely our closest cousins eg Neanderthal) share this characteristic. Similarly the typical changes that occur when most female primates come into heat are not visible in bonobos. In most primates the male jumps the female from behind but in bonobos only the female knows when she is in the estrous phase. This means she has most control over the choice of males who will contribute their genes to the next generation. In evolutionary terms that is real power.

Before leaving primates I want to draw your attention to the work of Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky in his paper, ‘Peace Amongst Primates’ documents an extraordinary event that showed that at least one group of baboons actually preferred life without hierarchy and that this non hierarchical structure was stable until it was destroyed by human progress.

Now let me return to human beings and human social structures - introducing Pyramid man

According to Steve Taylor’s ‘The Fall’ a catastrophic climate change event occurred about 5000 years ago that changed Circle man’s world forever. Prolonged drought brought the outbreak of widespread war and the rise of Pyramid man (hierarchical man). This change had a structural cause. The circle does not scale well. You mentioned this, Bob, when you discussed the growth of IDEO. When circles get too big the relationships and communication breaks down. This made Circle man vulnerable to Pyramid man because the hierarchy was scalable.

Just as Circle man had a circular mindset so too Pyramid man had a pyramidal mindset. The pyramidal mindset subtly shapes our spirituality, culture, language, tools and relationships. In the absence of any other social factors that may act as mediators Pyramidal man exhibits the following default preferences:
Winning is everything (we are the champions - no time for losers)
Top is above bottom (that's why we have problems with bureaucracy)
Men are above women (yep it's a major cause of sexism)
Upper class is superior to lower class (yep it’s a major factor in classism)
My race is above your race . . (yep one of the causes of racism and reverse racism)
My God is better than your God . . . (yep it’s a cause of religious wars)
Smarter is better (that's why people don't want to admit their ignorance)
Younger is better . . . (that's why we have ageism)
Status attracts a halo effect (good looks, being tall . . .)
Certainty is better than doubt (politicians do not want to be seen as flip floppers)
Individuals rate higher than groups (in tennis a game of singles is much more popular than doubles. In Olympic events individual performances attract more viewers than team events. We all remember Usain Bolt but which team won the hockey?)
Right is favoured over left (right is mentioned 80 times in the bible nearly all positively and left is mentioned 25 times and every time negatively) The preference of right over left is found in most cultures.
Few can escape its suck. Status anxiety is pervasive - ('fantastic' say the marketers.)

It’s when we look at power that things get messy. Lord Acton's statement, 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' has stood the test of time. A pet saying of the political right is ‘Scratch a progressive and watch a hypocrite bleed’. Sadly for progressives this is often true. ‘Robert Mugabe was once our shining light’ lamented Desmond Tutu.

Thinkers have recognised this for centuries. During the French Revolution groups competed against each other to be the least hierarchical. Many claiming to be the most ‘left’ were blind to the fact that they had substituted one form of hierarchy for another.

Although thinkers have been able to describe the problem we have only just begun to understand it. Only in the last twenty years have sociologists like Anthony Giddens begun to articulate the two-way dynamic between structure and behaviour - one shaping the other. Enter concepts like structuralism, structuration (yes) constructivism and post modernism - words mostly confined to academia with an emphasis on analysis. The problem is how to apply the theory in practice.

When we understand that social structures shape mindsets and behaviors it raises the question; why not replace the problematic pyramidal structure with a different structure.

If you have made it down to here Bob congratulations. I hope this has helped you to see that many of the ideas about hierarchy need to be reassessed in the light of new discoveries. And I hope that this new reassessment opens the possibility that new structures are possible. I don’t expect you to believe me – that would be too much to ask and in truth it is too early to tell – but I hope you remain open to the possibility that new structures could be developed.

I want to finish with a quick overview of the structure that we, at Leadership Australia have been working on.

Over the past five years we have been developing a structure that we and others think shows great promise. It is called the Parabolic structure and it is complemented by Parabolic man.

A parabolic structure is a horizontal social and organizational structure that enables people to be coordinated to achieve complex purposes without the use of hierarchy. A parabolic structure encourages the expression and use of a parabolic mindset.
When organizations adopt a parabolic mindset people’s thinking and behavior shifts from that which is oriented to status, control and certainty to that which values relationship and learning and is comfortable with uncertainty. Let’s express that differently.
The pyramidal mindset is oriented to support;
first, senior people’s belief that ‘I know best and it’s my call’
second, a complementary belief in subordinate people such as, ‘Whatever I think doesn’t matter.’
The parabolic mindset is oriented to support a widespread belief that ‘I don’t know best and together we can work this out’.

The parabolic structure makes it easier for partnership behaviors to develop throughout the organization. In a parabolic structure internal competitive behavior is minimised and conflict resolved more easily. In parabolic structures the prevailing culture values relationship and learning and discourages displays of status and control that are used to protect or enhance some people’s egos. Parabolic man is more comfortable speaking up and saying “I think I need help” because the emphasis is on seeking contribution for the group’s productivity. Unlike the popularised circle, the parabolic structure is more advanced because it enables greater complexity of purpose and, importantly, is scalable. What does this structure look like? Contact and I will send you and anyone else some papers.

Warmly Peter Rennie

sardar-azhar-rafiq's picture

Dear Peter,

Thank you very much for such a valuable insights, I have gone through your each and every sphere of examples you extracted from historical evidences from Anthropological literature. I am not going in deep details of evolutionary mind-frames and their way of doing or work within social setup of their own. My agenda is solely revolving around Homo Sapience (Human being) which have 46 chromosomes in taxonomic order and we can’t relate them with our ancestor’s because the development of mind varies species to species, So when we examine the evolution of homo sapience, we see that from barbarism to civilization we gone through different hierarchical dilemma's and now we are at the stage where we need to discuss about productivity of so called civilized man within corporate and non-profit enterprises. I think there's no problem of organizational structures within organizations or Hierarchies within societies because we are the victims of our own ideologies and the reality is this is man-made structures and we can modify them according to our wishes.
I totally disagree the term parabolic because you are living in Australia and you have different cultures and values than mine, and these notions shapes the personalities, I have different patterns to survival within organization or society and you have your own and we haven’t any matrixes, methodologies or divine power yet to define individuals mind frames and neither psycho socio analysis can do that for OD & HR to hire productivity and transform businesses and structures respectively instead of creating horizontal and vertical structures to retain key employees, I think culture matters and individuals are the carrier of certain elements which shapes the organizational orientation therefore whatever changes you made within enterprise, your local culture definitely diffuses and overlap with organizational culture and after that a mix originated and sometime it is beneficial for organization or some time reverse but I must say that you cannot control, now a day’s globalization trying to produce and reshape a different paradigm shift within OD and HR perspective and I think this is the need of the Hour to discuss.

jesus-ponce-de-leon's picture

Hi, not sure how this will work, is a teleconference? or just a blog discussion with professor Sutton? or is it going to be a webminar? how do we link up to the event? thanks

polly-labarre's picture

It's a Google Hangout--but the video is embedded right here on this page. All you need to do is come back on the 20th at 11am and the conversation with Bob will be live--you can ask questions in comments or on Twitter as you follow the conversation #MIXHangout. And the video will be available here to watch after the live event.

jim-lavoie_1's picture

Polly - Please have Bob give Huggy my regards.He visited my sandbox, and we had a great dialog. He produced a case study that still gets me phone calls now and then. I hope this e-gram finds you lucky and laughing. - Jim

polly-labarre's picture

Will do! You're in the book (along with excerpts from my piece on Mutual Fun)! Hope all is well with you too.

polly-labarre's picture

We're so sorry for the technical difficulties this morning! We'll be doing the Hangout next week: Thursday February 20th at 11am ET. We'll be sending free signed copies of Bob's EXCELLENT new book to folks who post questions and get them asked on air next week--so please share your questions here and on Twitter #MIXHangout. Thanks for your patience.

armando-moguel-y-anza's picture

Will the hangout be rescheduled?

mix-administrator's picture

We apologize for the technical difficulties today and this hangout will be rescheduled. We'll update this page with the new date/time as soon as it's available.

gregory-williams's picture

All dropped out no information. I'm up at 3am to watch this!

nazeer-sultan's picture

Here on the 12th,but cannot access Hangout