Organizing Genius The Secrets


Organizing Genius

The Secrets of Creative Collaboration
by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman

“The End of the Great Man.” We have lived in a by-line culture where recognition and status are accorded to individuals, not groups. But even as the lone hero continues to gallop through our imaginations, shattering obstacles with silver bullets, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, we know there is an alternate reality. Thought history, groups of people often without conscious design, have successfully blended individual and collective effort to create something new and wonderful. The Bauhaus school, the Manhattan Project…

Gifted individuals working alone may waste years pursuing a sterile line of inquiry or become so enamored of the creative process that they produce little or nothing. A Great Group can be a goad, a check, a sounding board, and a source of inspiration, support, and even love.

The controversial aspect of Organizing Genius is the authors’ decision to look only to great groups. Why not look at normal groups? They say they looked at only hard-charging groups whose fervor yielded famous results because “excellence is a better teacher than is mediocrity.” The reader must decide whether the lessons from groups “carried out by people with fire in their eyes” apply to groups whose members lead more balanced lives. Take-Home Lessons

Most of us have experienced the terrible frustration of being part of a group that had the potential for greatness but never quite gelled. The geometrical surge in ideas and energy that happens in Great Groups never took place, even though the talent was there, the drive was there, and the project seemed full of promise. Looking back at these stillborn opportunities, you experience a shudder of sadness and inevitably ask yourself, “What went wrong?”

Greatness starts with superb people.

Every Great Group has a strong leader. This is one of the paradoxes of creative collaboration. Great Groups are made up of people with rare gifts working together as equals. Yet in virtually every one there is one person who acts as maestro, organizing the genius of the others. He or she is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Ironically, the leader is able to realize his or her dream only if others are free to do exceptional work.

Many Great Groups have a dual administration. They have a visionary leader, and they have someone who protects them from the outside world, the “suits.”

Great Groups think they are on a mission from God. This is not a job. This is a mission, carried out by people with fire in their eyes.

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

Great Groups see themselves as winning underdogs.

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

Great Groups ship. Successful collaborations are dreams with deadlines.

Great work is its own reward. Great Groups engage in solving hard, meaningful problems.

Reflection on Jay’s learning about Great Groups

The Meta-Learning Lab is in the formative stages. I’m committed to making it successful so I figured it would be useful to look ahead and figure out what we need to do.

Reviews of Warren Bennis’s Organizing Genius suggested it told what had worked for others. Yesterday I read the introduction, first chapter, and last chapter of the book, highlighting passages that grabbed me as I read. I was familiar with a number of the examples the book cites: PARC, the Mac, the Skunk Works, the 1992 Clinton campaign, and the Manhattan Project, so I didn’t feel guilty cutting to the chase. Next I read reviews and critiques of the book on Amazon and elsewhere on the net. I slept on this and then transcribed the highlighted passages that still seemed relevant.

Time invested: two or three hours. Evaluation: worthwhile. Conclusion: A good touchstone for thinking about Meta-Learning Lab’s organizational issues.


Posted by Jay Cross at November 13, 2001 11:39 AM | TrackBack
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