How To Scale Your Business


Monday, 8.49pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Most mutations involve typos: Something bumps a cell’s elbow as it’s copying DNA, and the wrong letter appears in a triplet – CAG becomes CCG. – Sam Kean

In yesterday’s post I was looking at why it’s hard to copy what someone else does. But what if you want to make it easier to copy what you do?

If you have a process that works really well and you want to scale it then you’re going to have to show others how you do what you do. But what’s the best way to do this? Should you get them to copy exactly what you do or do you adapt what you do to fit the situation you’re in?

Gabriel Szulanski and Robert Jensen’s paper Presumptive adaptation and the effectiveness of knowledge transfer looks at this question and tests it with a franchising business, coming to the conclusion that you should copy things exactly first before you mess around with trying to customise it to your situation.

This can seem strange at first. After all, if you’ve developed a process in one country surely you should adapt it to the culture and preferred ways of working of another one?

It turns out that changing things too quickly means you waste time adapting rather than implementing and that slows you down, and you don’t get the results you should be getting. What you should do is copy the process exactly until you can get the same results as the original model and then start tweaking it to make it even better.

The image above, for example, is Keyhole Ken The cartoonist’s workbook by Robin Hall. If you want to learn how to draw cartoon figures Hall suggests that you should start by drawing page after page of Keyhole Ken, copying the elements that matter. Only start modifying features once you’ve mastered the basics.

The problem we have is impatience. All too often we think that we know better and can improve something without even trying it out first as we’re supposed to. It’s a function of the “Not Invented Here” concept and I know I’m guilty of doing this.

But companies who know what they’re doing, like Intel with a new fabrication facility or Xerox insist on a “copy exact” approach. And I think this has a biological basis too. Organisms replicate themselves. They don’t experiment with huge changes like swapping legs for fins from parent to child. Instead the changes are tiny, one mutation at a time and the ones that improve fit are kept.

Perhaps this is why the apprenticeship model of education works better than more modern alternatives. Apprentices learn how to do things in exactly the way their superior does until they’ve mastered what they need to know. And then, perhaps, they make changes to improve on their ability.

If you want to get better, then, or grow your business or scale a model or roll out a franchise – your starting point should be to figure out how you can replicate your existing working model and make sure that it’s transferred unchanged. That means the people adopting it need to understand that they can’t change it unless they can show that they can perform as well as the existing model does.

I think this has wide applications to almost everything we do. And it comes down to a simple principle.

Build what you already know works.


Karthik Suresh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: