Recently we have been working with Bain & Company around the issue of scaling. Using our methodology, we set out to answer what are the best predictors for identifying great members of the scaling community? In other words, how can we identify folks who have the right characteristics to turn disruptive ideas into scalable innovation?
By James Allen and Roger Philby
Lately, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the issues of scaling. In particular, we’ve been focusing on the people who help organizations scale big ideas—or the scaling community. But how did we move from Founder’s Mentality to the scaling community? Well, it took a few steps.
- Companies should aspire to be the scale insurgent in their industry. You want to capture the benefits of size as you grow (scale and scope advantages, learning, market power, and influence) while also retaining a strong sense of Founder’s Mentality (a clear insurgent mission, frontline focus and owner mindset). We call companies that do this scale insurgents. Their greatest advantage is the ability to act with speed.
- To become a fast-moving scale insurgent, you need to launch micro-battles. There are two parts of micro-battles. The first is leading individual micro-battles. This is about learning how to take each strategic initiative and translate it into something that can be tested in the marketplace through prototypes. But it’s also about turning a prototype into a repeatable model that can be scaled across the organization. There’s a tension here: The goal of prototyping is to make the problem small enough to test and adapt; the goal of scaling is to figure out how to test the prototype for transferability and repeatability. The second part of micro-battles is managing the portfolio of battles. As you learn through portfolio management, you’ll create systematic ways to recognize patterns across micro-battles.
- One key lesson of running micro-battles is that organizations are made up of three communities. Micro-battles demand that you innovate and scale your innovation. To innovate, you rely on your Agile/disruptive/innovator community. The members of this community are focused on disrupting existing products and services, business processes, and even the core business model of the company. Everyone recognizes the need for this community. To scale innovation, however, you need a second community. This is your expert/execution community. They deliver innovation to customers through daily routines. Of course, there is a fundamental tension between disruption and routine: Disruption keeps things fluid; routine demands stabilization. How do you translate disruptive ideas into something that can exist in the world of routines? This requires a third group called the scaling community
- The scaling community translates disruptive ideas and innovations into routines—yet it tends to be ignored. This community is the bridge between innovation and execution, between disruption and routine. It’s critical, yet no one is talking about it. If you want to be a scale insurgent, if you want to scale Agile, you must focus on building this community.
So how do you identify members of the scaling community? As we’ve helped companies launch micro-battles over the past several months, this question has been our core focus. In fact, we’re working with Roger Philby of The Chemistry Group on a project to begin early personality profiling of scaling community members. The Chemistry Group focuses on predicting people performance by understanding the traits and behaviors of high-performing individuals. Our exam question was, “What are the best predictors for identifying great members of the scaling community?” In other words, how can we identify folks who have the right characteristics to turn disruptive ideas into scalable innovation? Who can act as the bridge between disruption and routine?
Our research is still in its early days, and we’re currently running much more detailed pilots with large global companies. But let’s look at what we’ve done to date and what we’ve learned. Roger best describes how The Chemistry Group approaches a problem like this:
Our first step is to create a hypothesis on “What Great Looks Like.” We are trying to find exemplars of someone who is truly a high-performing individual in the area we’re researching. In this case, we want to have a clear hypothesis on who we believe to be a high-performing scaler. We then map their traits and behaviors across five key areas: intellect, personality, motivation, behavior and experience. The order matters as we’ve listed these areas in order of “most stable/hardest to change” to “less stable/easier to change.” At the extremes, it is possible to change someone’s experience, but a lot harder, if not impossible, to change their intellect or personality. We then do detailed profiles of our hypothesis group to find the truly differentiating traits. For example, in a recent project, all high-performing financial traders exhibited high intellect, but a trait that really distinguishes low from high performance was inductive reasoning. Doing tons of tests on verbal or numeracy isn’t going to help you recruit a high performer, because they’ll all do fine. But focusing on inductive reasoning will yield far more high performers. So the goal of testing across five areas is not to create a long list of defining traits—rather, we are trying to identify the one to four traits or behaviors that best predict future performance.
For phase one of our research, we spoke to 10 Bain partners with more than 20 years of experience, asking each to identify their best exemplars of business leaders who have successfully scaled innovation by acting as a bridge between disruption and execution. Of course, none of these leaders would have self-identified as members of the scaling community, but each had a track record of industrializing disruptive ideas. We ended up with a list of about 40 individuals. The Chemistry Group also identified a separate group of about 20 leaders from their own experience. The result was about 60 individuals, across 50 companies and 20 geographies.
Collectively, we knew these individuals well. Through direct and indirect interviews and surveys, we began to assemble an initial profile of a great member of the scaling community, and three key insights have emerged so far.
- These folks are your “all-rounders.” The Chemistry Group focuses on three specific types of intelligence: analytics, synthesis and emotional. Good members of the scaling community perform in the top quartile on all three types of intelligence. They are stand-out one percenters on any one type, but they are strong on all three. They have a diverse set of skills to get the job done, which makes sense for folks who need to interact with two very different types of communities—the Agile innovators and the focused executors.
- These folks have low ego, but high ambition. This was fascinating. On one hand, these individuals have a very high ambition to achieve transformative results in their organizations. But, interestingly, they score very low on ego. They don’t have a burning need to be recognized as leading these results. They are happy to work through others.
- These folks fall somewhere in the middle on detail. Roger also looks at individual attitudes toward detail. At one extreme are the people concerned with the “big picture”—they want to frame a problem, but they’re happy to let others sweat the details. At the other extreme are the detail-oriented folks—they’re not happy to accept big-picture explanations until they can engage with the details. Roger characterized these two extremes relative to our scaling community, noting, “The big-picture guys focus on answering “why”—they are purpose driven and want a big mission that excites them. The detail-oriented guys focus on answering “what”—they want to know specifically what they must do the next day, the next year. In this context, we found that members of the scaling community are the “how” team. They get excited by translating the why into the what. They are the bridge between the mission/purpose and the detailed execution.”
Let’s bring this to life, with the example of one leader profile—the former head of sales for a large global multinational. He had this tremendous ability to implement ideas culled from presentations given during strategy days for the leadership team. These meetings were very often PowerPoint pageants, in which many innovators presented complicated slides on a plethora of ideas for the company. At the end of these days, this executive would often share his observations with me. He always said the same thing: “I took a lot of notes, and I have two great ideas that I will roll out to the sales team next month.” He could listen to a string of disruptive innovations and quickly figure out which ones he could embed into the daily routines of his front line. But more importantly, he always knew exactly how he would deploy these ideas. He would say something like, “My head of sales in Indonesia does something very similar to this idea. I want to work with her first and let her own the idea and become its champion.” He knew it was far better to have members of his team take ownership of the idea. He would later present it as a best practice that emerged from the organization. This is a perfect example of high ambition with little ego—his job was to deploy new ideas through others. This is someone who is inspired by the why and empathetic to the needs of those answering the what. So he focuses on the how.
Every organization has people who think about the how—your job is to find them and bring them together. Here are three actions to help you get started.
- Recognize the need to build the scaling community. Innovation doesn’t create value until it is deployed across the organization through the core routines of the execution community. This requires some individuals to step forward and act as a bridge between disruption and routine.
- Identify “What Great Looks Like.” This is a Chemistry Group phrase, and it’s amazingly helpful in building a scaling community. There’s good news and bad news about the scaling community. The good news is that you already have members. With a single workshop, you can identify one or two perfect exemplars based on previous innovations that have successfully scaled. The bad news is that these individuals are often frustrated. They love innovation, but only if it scales. (Remember, they have a high ambition to lead transformative results in the organization.) They are the ones trying to figure out how to turn innovation into routine, but others view their challenge as an anti-innovation attitude. This is frustrating to someone who only wants results.
- Build the community two people at a time. Once you know “What Great Looks Like,” ask two outstanding scalers to step in and play the role of the scaling community. Assign them to your first two or three micro-battle teams to help them turn prototypes into repeatable models. Their job is not to act like a stage gate to innovation, but rather to amplify the results of an innovative idea by translating it into a repeatable model. They should help turn it into routine.
We’ve uncovered some fascinating details in the first phase of our project—and this is just a highlight. We’re currently working with companies around the world to build out these scaling communities. (I just got back from Shanghai, where I saw how quickly Chinese companies are deploying this concept.) In addition, we’re now in phase two of our predictive profiling project. We plan on continuing to share insights as we go. Watch this space.
Roger Philby is the founder and CEO of The Chemistry Group, a talent management company that specializes in performance prediction to help organizations find and hire the right people at scale.