Take a group of people, randomly give one group a two-digit number to remember and the other group seven digits. Then unleash both groups on a table laden with fruit and a table laden with “sinful chocolate desserts.”

Now guess what unfolds.

“It turns out that the people who were given two digits, they disproportionally eat the fruit,” explained Huggy Rao, renowned Stanford University sociologist, business school professor and author.

“The guys who were given seven digits? They make a beeline straight for the chocolate and they’re vacuuming it.

“Why is that?” Rao rhetorically asked a rapt breakfast audience of 138 at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Waterloo Region Wednesday, there to hear his talk “Scaling Up Excellence.”

Why indeed.

Rao is the co-author with Robert Sutton of the book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less.

Scaling is the goal of every startup — and the juncture at which the best of intentions often begin to go off the rails. Rao, with a deft blend of self-deprecating humour, engaging anecdotes and pointed observations, had plenty on offer during his chat, which was sponsored by Deloitte, Grant Thornton and Miller Thomson, part of an ongoing series hosted by Communitech.

All of it was tailored to help keep growing companies on the straight and narrow.

“The interesting question is, when the chocolates are so irresistible, how is it that people with two digits go and eat the fruit?” Rao continued.

“The reason is, as they’re remembering two digits, they’ve got will power in the tank. [They say to themselves], ‘I want to have a brownie, too, but I think this [fruit] is better for me.’

“What about the guys with seven digits? There’s no will power. [For them, it’s a case of], ‘Oh. My hand just got a brownie. Wow. It’s approaching my mouth.’ ”

As his audience laughed, they also absorbed his point: Workload, cognitive load, has a huge impact on people. It affects their will power. A lighter load equals more will power. An increased load means less. And one of the most common mistakes companies make as they’re scaling is they overload their people. More often than not, they overload their best people.

“Load reduction,” Rao said, “is the biggest thing you’ve got to do.”

And then Rao launched into another story.

“Let’s assume you’ve scaled to 100 people, for argument’s sake.

“If we stack-rank your 100 employees, for this hypothetical example, let’s assume 10 people are top performers, 80 in the middle, and 10 at the bottom.

“When I observe top performers, they usually cleanly split into what I refer to as bimodal distribution. Or they fall into two camps neatly.

“One set of high performers, for want of a better word, I refer to them as pricks.”

Cue the audience’s laughter once again.

“These are high performers who need to be stroked all the time. If your job is stroking people, you won’t get anything done because you’ve got these guys coming to your office and they need all this stroking, they need all these rewards. It’s not particularly helpful.

“The other five high performers, Rob Cross, in a nice piece of research, calls them the ‘extra milers.’

“What do they do? They perform well, but they’re also your most helpful people.”

And as everyone who has survived life in a big company knows, it’s the high performers who most often get asked to fix problems. They do because they get things done, because they’re helpful, and because they don’t need to be constantly stroked. Result? They get overloaded.

“One study of extra milers showed they interrupt themselves every four minutes,” said Rao. “And if they get more than 24 requests a week, they think of leaving the company.

“So when you think of reducing load, also think of this as a gift you’re giving to your extra milers.”

Another problem that scaling companies run into is what Rao termed “accountability.”

Small companies, he said, are organizations with, figuratively speaking, big people. Big companies, on the other hand, have size, but their people feel smaller, less important.

“Ironically,” as companies grow, “we actually make big people smaller.”

The outcome, he explained, is that as people become “smaller,” they feel more hidden, less accountable.

He told the story of splitting a group of people into two, giving one group a set of clear glasses and the other group dark sunglasses, and then assigning both groups the same task.

“Who do you think is going to cheat more often?,” he asked. Turns out it’s the people with dark glasses, by a 4-1 margin.

“You and I, when we wear dark glasses, what do we conclude? I’m invisible, I can get away with shit.”

And before the ensuing laughter had subsided, he added: “As you scale, you’ve got to reduce that feeling of anonymity.”

There are simple, zero-cost tools available to do so, he explained. One of the simplest is to ask people to choose a job title “that showcases your unique strength.”

Examples?

“Defender of the source code.

“Queen Bee of customer service.

“Just by asking people to choose their titles, clearly there was improved self-esteem.”

And there was an additional payoff, he said: Choosing a job title, self-identifying a strength, helps teams work better together. Everyone, he said, instantly knows the unique capabilities of their team members.

But the takeaway, the theme Rao concluded with, came back to the cost of overloading good, capable people. Responding to an audience member who asked how a company avoids overloading talented, newly promoted people with too many new responsibilities, Rao replied:

“Resist rounding up the usual suspects,” he said. “Emergencies come. Crises come. For each and every crisis, you don’t need to round up the usual suspects.

“Otherwise your extra milers are going to be overwhelmed.”

Crises, he said, are an opportunity to see “how much muscle is there in an organization.”

About The Author

Craig Daniels
Senior Journalist

Craig Daniels is a veteran reporter, columnist and editor who has joined Communitech’s editorial team as senior journalist. He worked most recently at Postmedia in Hamilton, where he led the team that produced the National Post, and before that at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Financial Post, the Montreal Daily News and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B. He has an abiding interest in the transformational power and promise of tech and startup ecosystems, is a commercially licensed pilot, and has a debilitating wrist-watch fetish.