Great groups: What 15 things do breakthrough genius teams share?


Great groups

Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman studied a number of breakthrough great groups to see what made them so successful. They compiled the results into their book, Organizing Genius.

They looked at the Disney’s Animation division, the Manhattan Project (developed the nuclear bomb), Xerox PARC (designed the modern computer interface), the 1992 Clinton campaign (pulled off an enormous victory), Lockheed’s Skunk Works (created the U2 spy plane and the Stealth Bomber), and others.


What makes Great Groups?

Highlights from Organizing Genius:

1. Greatness starts with superb people.

Bob Taylor, the leader of the Great Group at PARC, liked to say, “You can’t pile together enough good people to make a great one.” He was right. Recruiting the most talented people possible is the first task of anyone who hopes to create a Great Group.


2. Great Groups and great leaders create each other.

Inevitably, the leader of a Great Group has to invent a leadership style that suits it. The standard models, especially the command-and-control style, simply won’t work. The heads of Great Groups have to act decisively, but never arbitrarily. They have to make decisions without limiting the perceived autonomy of the other participants. Devising and maintaining an atmosphere in which others can put a dent in the universe is the leader’s creative act.


3. Every Great Group has a strong leader

The leader has to be worthy of the group. He or she must warrant the respect of people who may have greater genius, as Bob Taylor did at PARC. The respect issue is a critical one. Great Groups are voluntary associations. People are in them, not for money, not even for glory, but because they love the work, they love the project. Everyone must have complete faith in the leader’s instincts and integrity vis-a-vis the work.


4. The leaders of Great Groups love talent and know where to find it.

Great Groups are headed by people confident enough to recruit people better than themselves… Being part of a group of superb people has a profound impact on every member. Participants know that inclusion is a mark of their own excellence. Everyone in such a group becomes engaged in the best kind of competition— a desire to perform as well as or better than one’s colleagues, to warrant the esteem of people for whom one has the highest respect.


5. Great Groups are full of talented people who can work together.

This may seem obvious, but talent can be so dazzling, so seductive, that the person who is recruiting may forget that not every genius works well with others. Certain tasks can only be performed collaboratively, and it is madness to recruit people, however gifted, who are incapable of working side by side toward a common goal.


6. Great Groups think they are on a mission from God.

Whether they are trying to get their candidate into the White House or trying to save the free world, Great Groups always believe that they are doing something vital, even holy. They are filled with believers, not doubters, and the metaphors that they use to describe their work are commonly those of war and religion.


7. Every Great Group is an island— but an island with a bridge to the mainland.

Great Groups become their own worlds. They also tend to be physically removed from the world around them. Los Alamos was located in the high desert miles from Santa Fe and was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. The Skunk Works operated as an independent community within Lockheed, its secret activities conducted behind unmarked doors. People who are trying to change the world need to be isolated from it, free from its distractions, but still able to tap its resources.


8. Great groups see themselves as winning underdogs.

They inevitably view themselves as the feisty David, hurling fresh ideas at a big, backward-looking Goliath. Much of the gleeful energy of Great Groups seems to stem from this view of themselves as upstarts who will snatch the prize from the fumbling hands of a bigger but less wily competitor.


9. Great Groups always have an enemy.

Sometimes, of course, they really do have an enemy, as the scientists of the Manhattan Project had in the Axis powers. But when there is no enemy, you have to make one up. Why? Because, as Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta has pointed out, you can’t have a war without one. Whether the enemy occurs in nature or is manufactured, it serves the same purpose. It raises the stakes of the competition, it helps your group rally and define itself (as everything the enemy is not), and it also frees you to be spurred by that time-honored motivator— self-righteous hatred.


10. People in Great Groups have blinders on.

The project is all they see. In Great Groups, you don’t find people who are distracted by peripheral concerns, including such perfectly laudable ones as professional advancement and the quality of their private lives. Ivy League colleges are full of well-rounded people. Great Groups aren’t. Great Groups are full of indefatigable people who are struggling to turn a vision into a machine and whose lawns and goldfish have died of neglect. Such people don’t stay up nights wondering if they are spending enough time with the children. For the duration, participants have only one passion— the task at hand. People in Great Groups fall in love with the project. They are so taken with the beauty and difficulty of the task that they don’t want to talk about anything else, be anywhere else, do anything else. In the course of joining the group, such people never ask, “How much does it pay?” They ask, “How soon can I start?” and “When can I do it again?” But Great Groups often have a dark side. Members frequently make a Faustian bargain, trading the quiet pleasures of normal life for the thrill of discovery. Their families often pay the price. For some group members, the frenzied labor of the project is their drug of choice, a way to evade other responsibilities or to deaden loss or pain.


11. Great Groups are optimistic, not realistic.

People in Great Groups believe they can do things no one has ever done before. The term for that isn’t realism. Such groups are often youthful, filled with talented people who have not yet bumped up against their limits or other dispiriting life lessons. They don’t yet know what they can’t do. Indeed, they’re not sure the impossible exists.


12. In Great Groups the right person has the right job.

This, too, may seem obvious, but the failure to find the right niche for people— or to let them find their own perfect niches— is a major reason that so many workplaces are mediocre, even toxic, in spite of the presence of talent. Too many companies believe people are interchangeable. Truly gifted people never are. They have unique talents. Such people cannot be forced into roles they are not suited for, nor should they be. Effective leaders allow great people to do the work they were born to do.


13. The leaders of Great Groups give them what they need and free them from the rest.

Successful groups reflect the leader’s profound, not necessarily conscious, understanding of what brilliant people want. Most of all, they want a worthy challenge, a task that allows them to explore the whole continent of their talent. They want colleagues who stimulate and challenge them and whom they can admire. What they don’t want are trivial duties and obligations.


14. Great Groups ship.

Successful collaborations are dreams with deadlines… Although the members of the group may love the creative process, they know it has to end. By definition, Great Groups continue to struggle until the project is brought to a successful conclusion. They don’t quit until the new computer is out the door with their names on it, as Tom West liked to say. Great curiosity and problem-solving ability are not enough. There must also be continuous focus on the task until the work is done, the rebel computer created and delivered. As Steve Jobs so often reminded his team, “Real artists ship.”


15. Great work is its own reward.

Great Groups are engaged in solving hard, meaningful problems. Paradoxically, that process is difficult but exhilarating as well. Some primal human urge to explore and discover, to see new relationships and turn them into wonderful new things drives these groups. The payoff is not money, or even glory. Again and again, members of Great Groups say they would have done the work for nothing. The reward is the creative process itself. Problem solving douses the human brain with chemicals that make us feel good. People look back on PARC or the Clinton War Room, and they recall how wonderful it was to work that hard and that well. There is a lesson here that could transform our anguished workplaces overnight. People ache to do good work. Given a task they believe in and a chance to do it well, they will work tirelessly for no more reward than the one they give themselves.

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