Building a Scrappy Mindset

We want the underdog to win because we want to see something unexpected. And it’s impossible to beat that feeling of winning a fight when all the odds are against us. It’s why stories like David and Goliath resonate. A victory feels much better when the odds are stacked against you. 

Scrappy people have a determined fire in their belly that compels them to get results resourcefully. Just like the Bad News Bears, we have a strong-minded nature that allows us to see obstacles with confidence and curiosity instead of defeat and anxiety. An ideal teammate has the resourcefulness and resolve of an underdog. 

In business, we imagine startup founders with a chip on their shoulders. They have a relentless desire for growth. But scrappiness isn’t just for startups. Because startups don’t have the power, money, or recognition of large institutions, they often rely on being scrappy. But even if your organization has the money, it still needs to cultivate resourceful, creative, and adaptive people. So how do you build scrappiness in yourself and others? 

Don’t let the ants carry you away

Scrappy workers know how to repurpose available resources into something new. That is the essence of Airbnb and Uber. Both used what was already there to disrupt industries. Those companies became the biggest names in hospitality and transportation without owning a single hotel or car. Similarly, teach your team to use what they already possess to achieve something new. Make it a game — like solving a puzzle. We can all do more with more. Some of us can even do less with more. But you get real satisfaction when you can get results without the resources, tools, and budget that other people have. 

To practically achieve this with your team, share how the company is doing financially and how your team’s cost-saving decisions benefit them. Then practice what you preach. It will breed resentment when you ask them to save money, but they don’t see you do the same. I had a boss who would commute to work on a helicopter and play $225k at a time blackjack on the firm trip to Vegas. It made it hard for all of us to take him seriously when he told us not to “let the ants carry us away” when it came to our expenses. He was right about managing money. A lot of little expenses can add up to a lot. It can lead to death by a thousand cuts. But it still came off as hypocritical when you could smell the jet fuel on the denied expense report for office pens. In contrast, it makes a big impact when workers see the CEO pick up the trash in front of the building. It’s easier to stomach cost savings from a leader who practices what he preaches. 

Scrappy workers know the why

Workers that share the mission of the organization will step in to do the job. So make sure you know the why and that you share it with your team. It will lead you to do the tedious, hard, dirty work because it leads to progress on the shared vision. Our work must be about more than making money. It must be purpose-driven. 

Freedom to fail

Making mistakes accelerates our learning path. Because large companies invest so much into training, they often don’t celebrate mistakes. Employees at large companies may not realize how their creativity moves the company forward. They may have seen company bureaucracy that causes analysis paralysis. So they stop trying. That creates a culture where people don’t take chances. Business schools are awash in case studies about now failed corporate giants that became too risk-averse to take a chance. And that culture that feared failure ultimately led to their demise. Scrappy people pursue bold ideas. 

Build a culture where employees have the freedom to make mistakes, course correct, and continue. Ask your direct reports how they failed this week. But don’t let them answer until you share how you failed. This will create a deeper relationship with your direct report based on the foundation of vulnerability and accountability. Celebrate the learning that failure brings. This creates grit, confidence, and resourcefulness. We will take calculated risks if we know that we will learn something from the exercise.

Make sure you know how to disagree with coworkers respectfully. Your team should bounce ideas off each other. Scrappy employees don’t need all the answers. They only need enough responses to make a decision. Execution is more important than a perfect plan. 

Scrappy people act like owners 

Take ownership of your processes, and encourage others to do the same.  

Annihilate micromanaging from your company. That makes employees feel helpless. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple for his micromanaging. When he returned to the company, he flipped that mentality. A scrappy worker has autonomy and gives it to others. Stop those relentless check-ins on projects.  

Your company culture is healthy when employees are motivated to spend the company’s money as if it were their own. To do that, leaders must be transparent about the company finances and the trade-offs to benefit the business. 

Give your employees an opportunity for profit sharing, an equity stake, or a bonus plan that encourages them to think like owners. Studies show that employees with stock in the corporation are absent less frequently, work longer hours, express greater job satisfaction, and are less likely to quit. 

Celebrate big and small wins

Inspiration can be hard to find when the company is a large institution. We appreciate celebrating big and small wins regularly. A recent study shows that 82 percent of employees are happier when their company celebrates them and they are more likely to stay. If you expect workers to hustle, help them see how they are making an impact. What gets rewarded gets repeated. 

Scrappy workers have integrity

When you have a scrappy team, they don’t need constant supervision to do the right thing. They do what’s right whether anyone is watching. A culture of integrity exists when employees perceive top managers as ethical. 

Scrap the formality

Scrappy employees aren’t stuffy. Keep it light, and make sure people can still laugh. Don’t brag about your possessions or achievements. Make comments and start conversations around topics and ideas instead. Avoid making backhanded comments. And don’t judge people by the way they look.

Provide regular feedback to employees so they can take risks and course-correct. Don’t wait for a stuffy annual review. And encourage employees to give you advice just as quickly. Promote personal responsibility by allowing autonomy. 

Have a sense of urgency 

Imagine you’ve got a golden ticket in your office worth a million dollars. How much urgency would you feel to find it? That’s the same urgency you need to bring to your company. Show your team unruffled but urgent behaviors for them to model. By prioritizing, planning, and taking action in a quick and public way, your employees will understand that progress is more important than perfection. If your workers are staying late to deliver on a project, stick with them until it’s done. By staying involved, you will build trust and urgency in your team. 


Anyone can be scrappy. It’s a choice to play big. It’s what you do when you’re all in and ready to put yourself on the line. You don’t have to be a startup to be scrappy. The scrappy mindset reveals creativity, risk-taking, and gratitude. Being scrappy means committing to a result at all costs, and doing whatever it takes to get that result. Interviewing for scrappiness and creating an environment that values it could make any company – small or large – more creative, nimble, and ultimately profitable.

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