Hot groups keep things cooking

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The Independent Online
Warren Bennis, the American business school professor and longstanding leadership guru, has developed a rule of thumb for plotting business success in these turbulent times: "Follow the brains". When you look around at the fortunes being made for their founders and shareholders by the likes of Intel and Microsoft, it is easy to see that this theory has more going for it than most.

Prof Bennis, whose book Organizing Genius (written with Patricia Ward Biederman) is just out, bases his view on the fact that business is becoming more complex at a time when the pace of change is getting faster. Consequently, corporate leaders have to be much sharper.

Moreover, the increasing need for analytical skills means that the neurosciences are becoming more important than the social sciences that have traditionally set the agenda in leadership training.

And that explains how, in one commentator's phrase, "the nerds have become millionaires". Though increasing numbers of prominent business leaders - Intel's Andy Grove and General Electric's Jack Welch are perhaps the best-known examples - seem to be highly-qualified engineers, this concentration of brainpower can cause problems.

As with any collection of talent, it can be difficult to manage. That, said Prof Bennis on a visit to London, creates a requirement for a different set of leadership skills.

The book expands on such writings as the much-quoted Harvard Business Review article by Harold Leavitt and Jean Lipman-Blumen on "hot groups" to explain how groups of talented individuals can collaborate to great effect.

Among the examples are the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War, the Lockheed "skunkworks" that produced the Stealth bomber, Apple's creation of the Macintosh computer and the animation studio at Walt Disney.

Though such projects might vary in their moral and global significance, all would be united by their members' conviction that they have the potential, as Steve Jobs of Apple put it, to "make a dent in the universe".

Perhaps the most important of the different leadership skills required is the realisation that managing such groups is too much of a job for one person, though, as the authors point out, we "cling to the myth of the Lone Ranger".

In "Great Groups"- the book's term for what are generally known as hot groups - there are many leaders. Each person is accorded leadership for their speciality, with the actual designated leader of the group often subsuming his or her ego for the greater good. At Disney the animation studio chief Peter Schneider apparently cannot draw, but his skill is to pick people who not only can, but who can also "play well in the sandbox with the others".

Prof Bennis accepts that there are limitations to such groups. For a start, they can be so intense that there is little opportunity for those involved to live normal lives, with the result that many participants back out at some stage in search of a quieter life. Second, he is aware that not all work is so interesting that it can arouse such passion that people are prepared to work long hours and not worry about how much they are being paid.

However, drawing on the example of the gardeners who help to make the campus at his university an oasis amid the desolation of south-central Los Angeles, he believes that people can be made to feel that they perform a valuable service, even if it is not glamorous or exciting.