August 29, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman

Last year, in response to a blog post about scenius and groups, Matt Edgar recommended Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.

It's taken a year to make it to the top of my reading pile, but it was an interesting read. Here are the sections I highlighted...

Page 5

A classic example is Michelangelo's masterpiece the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In our mind's eye, we see Michelangelo, looking remarkably like Charlton Heston, laboring alone on the scaffolding high above the chapel floor. In fact, thirteen people helped Michelangelo plan the work. Michelangelo was not only an artist, he was, as biographer William E. Wallace points out, the head of a good-sized entrepreneurial enterprise that collaboratively made art that bore his name [...]

Page 7

A Great Group can be a goad, a check, a sounding board, and a source of inspiration, support, and even love. Songwriter Jules Styne said he had to have a collaborator: "In the theater you need someone to talk to. You can't sit by yourself in a room and write."

Page 17

Curiosity fuels every Great Group. The members don't simply solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that is its own reward.

Page 68

Recruitment was critical for several reasons. Taylor believed in the ARPA creed of choosing people over projects when funding research. Like George Pake, who headed both PARC as a whole and its science lab, Taylor believed that good science was done from the bottom up. You hired great people and turned them loose on projects that reflected their unique talents and passions. They told you what they needed to do. The more easily the individuals interacted, the less distracted from their mission they would be. Collaboration was formally encouraged. "You could spend 40 percent of your time working as 'hands' on somebody else's project," Kay says.

Page 71

Taylor knew better than to burden his gifted team with arbitrary rules. If some were arrogant, so be it. It was a small enough price to pay for talent (the attitude was pretty much "we don't care if they're prima donnas, as long as they can sing"). But the weekly meeting was mandatory. "There was only one rule not to be broken at PARC," Kay says. "There was one weekly meeting you had to go to, and you had to stay until the end."

Each week, participants grabbed a beanbag chair from the pile as they came into the meeting. At these often heated sessions, every member of the group was exposed to the ideas and fragmentary accomplishments of the others. Those "bits and pieces," as Taylor called them, were what everyone might have to build on in his or her own research. Thus the weekly meeting served as a simple but remarkably efficient structure for exposing everyone to information that might prove key somewhere down the line. The weekly meeting allowed information to be shared without resorting to time-consuming reports and memos. It also allowed tensions and disagreements to surface and be wrangled out on the spot. The meetings were a reflection of Taylor's understanding of the dynamics of extraordinary groups. "No organization works beyond the size you can get all the principals together in a room and thrash out the issues before you go home," Kay says.

Taylor was also sensitive to the critical importance of his group's having the right tools. Most often, that meant tools they created themselves. In the ARPA community, everyone was both a hardware and a software person. "You had this group that was able to roll its own," Kay says.

Page 78

Bob Potter, who headed the computer-engineering facility that Xerox established in Dallas during the PARC era, was one corporate decision maker who felt the sting of PARC's collective scorn. "[...] they were only interested in their own thing. They thought they were four feet above everybody else. What the PARC people never understood was that they were supposed to help the less fortunate, less intelligent rest of the world."

Page 97

Carville's rhetoric is a reminder of just how powerful the underappreciated art of persuasion continues to be in collective action of all kinds. People are not necessarily swayed by reason. "The head has never beaten the gut in a political argument yet, and I doubt if it ever will," Carville writes in All's Fair.

Page 127

In organizing his Skunk Works, Johnson paid no attention to how the quarters looked or how comfortable they were. One of the principles he held dearest was that designers and mechanics should work side by side, making suggestions and addressing problems as they went along, so the prototype could be modified on the spot.

Page 130

The Skunk Works, Disney Animation, and the Macintosh team were remarkably innovative, but they weren't think tanks—institutions whose real mission is the production of ideas. These Great Groups were places where products were being made, things that had to be delivered in a timely fashion to the world. One of Steve Jobs's mantras at Apple was "Real artists ship." Johnson, too, believed that a plane must be designed brilliantly but not so perfectly that it never gets off the drawing board. In Johnson's view, some things, notably safety, must never be compromised. He built triple redundancy into the Blackbird, for instance, so that a failure in any one system, or even two, would not mean the loss of a pilot. But, like Thomas Aquinas before him and Steve Jobs after, Johnson knew that something that exists is intrinsically better than something, however brilliantly conceived, that doesn't.

Page 141

[Ben Rich, successor to Johnson in running the Skunk Works,] believed, for instance, in the value of generalists "who are more open to nonconventional approaches than narrow specialists." (Both the Manhattan Project and Xerox PARC similarly benefited from the presence of people who were not narrow specialits, but deep generalists.)

Page 158

Although its mission was never as clear as that of groups involved in creating an actual thing, Black Mountain was a place that throbbed with the excitement of creating something new. All Great Groups are boundary busters, and Black Mountain, with its unusual curriculum and changing cast of fascinating characters, was no exception.

Page 181

The role of women in the Manhattan Project is troubling. From Madame Curie, the codiscoverer of polonium and radium, to Lisa Meitner, the grievously unsung physicist, who with her nephew, Otto Frisch, first explained how neutron capture could result in the release of enormous amounts of energy, women were crucial at every stage in the history of nuclear physics. But they were a decided minority among the players in the Tech Area. There were a few female physicists and other scientists, but, for the most part, women played supportive roles, doing tedious mathematical calculations, for example, and serving as secretaries.

Page 198

Great Groups give the lie to the remarkably persistent notion that successful institutions are the lengthened shadow of a great woman or man. It's not clear that life was ever so simple that individuals, acting alone, solved most significant problems. Our tendency to create heroes rarely jibes with the reality that most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.

Page 199

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 the others are free to do exceptional work. Typically, the leader is the one who recruits the others, by making the vision so palpable and seductive that they see it, ttoo, and eagerly sign up.

Page 202

The broader and more diverse the network, the greater the potential for a Great Group. The richer the mix of people, the more likely that new connections will be made, new ideas will emerge.

Page 214

Great Groups ship. Successful collaborations are dreams with deadlines. They are places of action, not think tanks or retreat centers devoted solely to the generation of ideas. Great Groups don't just talk about things (although they often do that at considerable length). They make things—amazing, original things, such as a plane that a bat can't find. Great Groups are hands-on. Think of Kistiakowsky, the great chemist, sitting with a dentist's drill correcting defects in castings because that was what the project needed.

Posted by Adrian at August 29, 2021 08:41 PM | TrackBack

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