Scale and agility.

In today’s volatile and rapidly changing world, every company needs these two essentials to grow and remain relevant. But growth looks different for startups and big, established companies.

What keeps most startups up at night is scale—how to scale their product, brand, team, customer base and more into a sustainable company. And the thing that keeps most managers awake inside large, established companies is how to operate with more agility—how to be more lean, flexible and adaptable.

A new book released this week explores how one very big company, Coca-Cola, is using the power of design to drive both scale and agility and, as a result, stay relevant with consumers and grow its business in a rapidly changing marketplace. Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale & Agility (And How You Can Too) serves as an actionable handbook for any size company using applicable case studies from inside and outside the global Coke system.

David Butler, vice president of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Coca-Cola, and Linda Tischler, senior editor at Fast Company, co-authored the book, which is being published in more than 10 countries including the United States, Brazil, China and Russia. We sat down Butler in his Atlanta office to learn more about the book’s message, audience and more:

How did this project come together?

Linda and I met in 2009 when she interviewed me and many others at Coke for an article about our company for Fast Company’s annual “Masters of Design” issue. At the time, the concept of being a “design-driven” company or, in other words, using design strategically, was not as widely known as it is today, so the story of how a global company like Coke uses design to grow its business sparked interest from conferences, media and other companies. Linda and I decided to co-write a book on the topic, and Simon & Schuster agreed to publish it. That was about three years ago.

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David Butler, VP of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Coca-Cola Company

What was your initial vision for the book?

From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want to write a wonky, theoretical “business book.” Coca-Cola is all about bringing people together—a book like that wouldn’t feel very authentic. We also didn’t want to write a “design book” written for a select few with the word “design” in their title. What we wanted to do was make these two approaches to growth – designing for scale and designing for agility – accessible to anyone to apply to their business. We made a point to use plain, easy-to-understand language and concepts that any manager could use with his or her project or business. Every piece of theory drills down to real examples from around the world; we’re not presenting heady ideas that cannot be applied. 

The book focuses on the need for companies large and small to embrace two paths to growth: designing for scale and designing for agility. Can you quickly define those two approaches?

Most people don’t realize that designing for scale is very different than designing for agility. Designing for scale is all about execution and involves simplifying, standardizing and integrating every aspect of your business so it’s easier to scale. When used this way, design can be a powerful tool to reduce friction that often plagues early-stage startups and prevents them from scaling their business.

The first half of the book explains how Coca-Cola used this approach for more than a century, dating back to its launch in 1886. It’s how the company scaled Coca-Cola to more than 200 countries and built it into one of the world’s most valuable brands. It’s how we developed, for instance, our contour bottle which become a culture icon and is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

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This 1928 photo from Beijing, China, shows how Coke 'designed for scale' using elements like the iconic Spencerian script logo and contour bottle to grow its brand and business globally.

But while designing for scale feels natural inside a big company like ours, it’s not as easy for startups. Founders struggle with scale every day. Leading a startup is all about exploring to find a sustainable business model. To be successful, they have to be very lean and agile, or they won’t make it. But at some point, they reach a point where their product “fits” in the market they’re going after. Their users begin to multiply. Their team begins to gel. Their customer base begins to take off. They begin to reach profitability. It’s at this point that they must design for scale.

Once companies reach scale, what happens when a new technology, business model or macro socio-economic trend like aging baby boomers threatens to disrupt your company or even industry? These companies must design for agility. Designing for scale is all about execution. Designing for agility is all about options because most of the time, we don’t know what we don’t know, so we need options. 

In the book, we use Legos as an example. Legos have “fixed” and “flexible” elements. My wife and I have three daughters who love Legos, so we understand this quite well. Whether you have kids or remember being one, chances are, you remember that Legos have two elements that they haven’t changed for 50 years: A core set of bricks, primary colored with just a few different sizes, and the way they connect. These two elements are “fixed” and never change. However, Legos have adapted and changed by adding new elements every year to relate to whatever is relevant. If you’re into Harry Potter, Lego has a set of bricks that can be added to the core set to build Hogwart’s Castle. But when Harry Potter is no longer cool, Lego can eliminate those bricks easily and quickly adapt to something else. The second half of the book explains how, over the last decade, Coke has used this same approach to create agility across our business, ranging from marketing to distribution to venturing with startups through our new Coca-Cola Founders platform.  

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Coke 'designed for agility' by creating an adaptable, Lego-like packaging system for its global line of juices.

Speaking of the Founders program, you changed jobs at Coke in the middle of the writing process. You transitioned from leading global design to heading up innovation and entrepreneurship. How did this shift in responsibility change the narrative of the book?

We always knew we wanted to design a very applicable and action-oriented book, but we iterated many times on how to tell the story. The notion that startups and large companies can learn from each other, and both need agility and scale to grow, really hit home when I gave a talk at the Fishburners co-working space in Sydney in the summer of 2013. In my role at Coke, my team and I advise founders and invest in seed-stage startups every day while at the same time working inside one of most scaled companies on the planet. This juxtaposition really helped in the final iteration of the book.

Coca-Cola Founders at work
Through the Coca-Cola Founders program, David Butler and his team advise entrepreneurs like Franki Chamaki (left) and Jason Hosking and invest in their seed-stage startups.

You and Linda both lead busy careers and lives. How did you find time to write?

Linda Tischler
Linda Tischler

Writing a book is really hard—especially when you have “day jobs” like Linda and I do. Thankfully, Coca-Cola, Fast Company and Simon & Schuster were very patient with us and gave us the time and support we needed. I wrote this book on planes, and in taxis, all over the world. Eventually, Linda and I designed a great system. I started getting up and writing from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m. every day, no matter where I was in the world, and then I e-mailed what I’d written to Linda in New York. Sometimes, I’d send her something, hop on a flight and then have revisions back from her when I landed. It was a very adaptable system, and really the only way we could get this done. We did that for a solid year.

We also worked very closely with many different voices throughout the Coca-Cola system to fill each chapter with real examples from around the world. Linda interviewed dozens of Coke leaders around the world who led the work we highlighted in the book.

Who is your target audience?

We really had three groups of readers in mind. One group will be generally interested in going behind the scenes at Coke. The second will be startups who want to learn how Coca-Cola used design to scale into a company in over 200 countries with over 3,000 products and one of the world’s most loved brands. The last group, and really the primary “target” group of readers, are managers inside large companies who are struggling with agility—being more flexible, adaptable and relevant with the next generation. Every big company struggles with agility, including Coca-Cola, and most people don’t realize that they can use design, no matter what their title is, in a very powerful way. 

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

Two things really. First, that we’re all designers—we all design things everyday, from meetings and business plans, to products and campaigns. But we also design things like birthday parties and vacations—we all design, all the time. So the first thing I’d like readers to take away is to realize that we’re all designers and we all can use design very powerfully in both our personal and professional lives when we design on purpose. Unfortunately, the word design has been so overused that it's almost meaningless. Hopefully, this book will help everyone think about design a little differently. The second thing is I hope that anyone inside a company can use the two design approaches (designing to scale and designing for agility) to help their business grow.

What do you want people to learn about Coke?

That our 128-year-old company is still learning. When you achieve a certain level of success, the temptation is to take your foot off the gas pedal when it comes to learning, but we’re not and I think that’s refreshing to many people. The book includes 10 key lessons Coke has learned from the startup community that we can apply inside our company. For instance, “planning backwards.” Startups launch an MVP – a minimum viable product – the most inexpensive version of their product possible, before developing a business plan. Then they launch in the marketplace to begin learning as fast as possible what users or consumers think about it, and if they will pay their hard-earned money for it. Once their business model begins to stabilize, then they make big plans. Most big companies, including us, traditionally do the reverse. We plan for months, then execute. We can’t “plan backwards” on everything, but we’re learning how to apply this and other “lean startup” methods to our business every day.

There’s a great quote we used in the book from Mike Tyson, former heavyweight boxing champion: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Words of wisdom.

Why is now the right time to release a book like this?

We all read about industries and companies that are being disrupted almost every day and assume big established companies are the only ones worried about this. But keep in mind that every startup is worried about the same thing. In fact, every company needs scale and agility to win in today’s fast changing world.

Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale & Agility
(And How You Can Too) is available for purchase on Amazon. Pick up your copy here.