The first thing the ancient Persians did when they had a big decision to make was to get drunk.
They debated the problem on the first day when they were under the influence of alcohol and then again on the second day when they were sober.
“The idea being that when you’re drunk you put a lot more information on the table but your ability to derive conclusions is very debatable,” says Huggy Rao, Professor of Organisational Behavior at Stanford University.
“Whereas when you’re sober you don’t put a lot of information on the table but from that narrow sliver of information you are able to draw conclusions.
“So the Persians tried to marry the virtues of both approaches.”
Rao has just finished spending time with some of the world’s most successful companies finding out how and why they have become so successful. He and Bob Sutton put all their finding in a new book, Scaling Up Excellence.
“We, of course, don’t recommend that people get drunk,” Rao told Business Insider Australia.
“We suggest that the first thing before you want to scale is to do a pre-mortem, engage in imaginary time travel.
“Assume that your plan has failed and write a story of how that failure occurred. And you ask the five or six people of the management team to write these stories independently.
“What you get are very insightful accounts of the downward spiral of failure.”
The second thing Rao tells people is that scaling isn’t about the footprint it’s about the mind-set. It’s not how big you are in terms of market share or customers or headcount or offices.
“It’s the mind-set that motivates your employees,” he says. “To understand that we suggest you should be very clear about what is sacred, the one thing that people in your company will do without questioning. And conversely what’s taboo, the one thing they will never ever do.”
And if you ask staff what’s sacred and what’s taboo and you get six different answers, then you know you’re headed for disaster.
If you go to Facebook, what is sacred is: be bold, be quick, make an impact.
“The language is action orientated, verbs and adverbs. It’s not nouns, they are too abstract. What’s taboo at Facebook? Delaying, foot-dragging, bureaucracy.”
Facebook runs a boot camp for new hires.
Rao says: “They want risk takers and the way they do it is they tell you: touch any part of our system, don’t worry if it breaks, try anything.”
At the end of the boot camp, they give you a problem faced by users that you, individually, have to solve in 72 hours.
It’s the kind of a problem that afterward you can call your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend and say: Hey, you know that thing about Facebook you hated? Well, I’ve fixed it.
Rao says he asked the head of engineering at Facebook: “What happens if I’m the guy who can’t fix it in 72 hours?”
He looked at Rao and said: “I’m going to fire you.”
Engineers typically don’t like to fire other engineers. If someone can’t do it, they will do it themselves and the person who can’t do it sits on a bench.
Rao says the Facebook engineer told him: “We can’t afford to have people sitting on a bench.”
There are simple ways to success as well.
When retail store Cost Plus World Market, selling goods from round the world, was doing badly, the management had to do something.
The CEO told Rao: “I told my employees to do two things: When a customer walks in, smile, then go to the customer and give them a basket. If you give them a basket, they are definitely going to buy more than one thing. “
The book Scaling Up Excellence, by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao,is published by Random House.
*This article was originally published in March 2014.
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