Learning Scalability

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This past Easter weekend I was at my in-laws, and on Saturday I woke up before the others and began making myself a cappuccino. Just as I finished my best barista prep, my wife walked into the kitchen so I gave her that one and started another for me. As I neared the completion of that one, my mother-in-law walked in and, being the giving, sacrificial kind of guy I am, I gave that one to her upon its completion and began the next one. Then my sister-in-law walked in, and I of course made a mental note that this next one would be for her and mine would wait. I also realized there were two more cappuccino-drinking adults in the house that would likely enter momentarily, and of course five thirsty, hot-chocolate-loving kids yet to show up. There was no way I was going to be able to crank out hot, fancy beverages fast enough to keep up with demand.

It reminded me of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucille Ball and her pal Ethel Mertz (played by Vivian Vance) had to keep up with wrapping the candies quickly shooting along the conveyer belt. (Here’s that video.) No matter how fast Lucy, Ethel and I can perform, demand can always outpace us. Getting good at something doesn’t address scalability.

Whenever I am in a role that requires taking things to the next level, I usually try to quickly identify unrealized leadership potential resident in the people already on staff. I think leaders in new roles sometimes too quickly assume that since they were brought in, there must not be other leadership talent already available in the organization. Usually, there is. One just has to find, coach, and encourage it. But, if there are people with innate unrealized leadership talent, you have to first help them see past their own fingertips and acknowledge that they cannot scale on their own, no matter how talented.

Here’s a silly trick I do with teams to accomplish this and to demonstrate the corporate need to scale. Pull the team together and play a quick game of Bop It, the electronic handheld game by Hasbro. Bop It is like playing hot potato with an integrated hand-eye-mind coordination and dexterity exercise. The group listens to the fun, cheesy music and game-show-like announcer voice tell you to “twist it”, “pull it” or “bop it,” (with three distinct moving parts on the game associated with each command), then “pass it” to the next person after successfully obeying the commands. Each round goes faster and faster until someone can’t keep up and then they’re out. The remaining players keep going until there’s only one person left and at some point that person also fails to keep up with the ever-faster demanding directions.

This exercise is lots of fun, creates instant community (and humility!), and causes the group to understand that we can’t do it alone, and need to work past ourselves in order to scale. All you have to do from there is identify what specific functions are limiting your scalability and what additional hires, outsourcing, partnerships or technology are necessary in order to maximize growth.

Do you have any ideas for helping teams identify organizational limitations and get past them?

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