Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The 10 Secrets of Great Groups

In the late 1990s, Pat Hall, the former owner of CBA's Rapid City (SD) Thrillers and a close friend, sent me an article written by Warren Bennis, a professor and a pioneer in the study of leadership (pictured here).

The article was titled "The Secrets of Great Groups."

When I dug it out of my files the other day to re-read it, it became clear how championship teams and their coaches meet Bennis' description of "Great Groups."

Here's an abbreviated version:

Despite the evidence to the contrary -- including the fact that Michelangelo worked with a group of 16 to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- we still tend to think of achievement in terms of the Great Man or the Great Woman, instead of the Great Group.

As they say, "None of us is as smart as all of us." That's good, because the problems we face are too complex to be solved by any one person or any one discipline. Our only chance is to bring people together from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines who can refract a problem through the prism of complementary minds allied in common purpose.

I call such collections of talent Great Groups.

The genius of Great Groups is that they get remarkable people -- strong individual achievers -- to work together to get results. But these groups serve a second and equally important function: they provide psychic support and personal fellowship. They help generate courage. Without a sounding board for outrageous ideas, without personal encouragement and perspective when we hit a roadblock, we'd all lose our way.

So the question is, How do you get talented, self-absorbed, often arrogant, incredibly bright people to work together?

Every Great Group is extraordinary in its own way, but my study suggests 10 principles common to all -- and that apply as well to their larger organizations.

1. At the heart of every Great Group is a shared dream. All Great Groups believe that they are on a mission from God, that they could change the world, make a dent in the universe. They are obsessed with their work. It becomes not a job but a fervent quest. That belief is what brings the necessary cohesion and energy to their work.

2. They manage conflict by abandoning individual egos to the pursuit of the dream. Conflict, even with these diverse people, is resolved by reminding people of the mission.

3. They are protected from the "suits." All Great Groups seem to have disdain for their corporate overseers and all are protected from them by a leader -- not necessarily the leader who defines the dream. In all cases, physical distance from headquarters helped.

4. They have a real or invented enemy. Even the most noble mission can be helped by an onerous opponent.

5. They view themselves as winning underdogs. World-changing groups are usually populated by mavericks, people at the periphery of their disciplines. The sense of operating on the fringes gives them a don't-count-me-out scrappiness that feeds their obsession.

6. Members pay a personal price. Membership in a Great Group isn't a day job; it is a night and day job. Divorces, affairs, and other severe emotional fallout are typical, especially when a project ends.

7. Great Groups make strong leaders. On one hand, they're all nonhierarchical, open, and very egalitarian. Yet they all have strong leaders. That's the paradox of group leadership. You cannot have a great leader without a Great Group -- and vice versa.

In an important way, these groups made the leaders great. The leaders I studied were seldom the brightest or best in the group, but neither were they passive players. They were connoisseurs of talent, more like curators than creators.

8. Great Groups are the product of meticulous recruiting. Cherry-picking the right talent for a group means knowing what you need and being able to spot it in others. It also means understanding the chemistry of a group. Candidates are often grilled, almost hazed, by other members of the group and its leader.

You see the same thing in great coaches. They can place the right people in the right role. And get the right constellations and configurations within the group.

9. Great Groups are usually young. Youth provides the physical stamina demanded by these groups. But Great Groups are also young in their spirit, ethos, and culture. Most important, because they're young and naive, group members don't know what's supposed to be impossible, which gives them the ability to do the impossible.

10. Real artists ship. In the end, Great Groups have to produce a tangible outcome external to themselves. Most dissolve after the product is delivered; but without something to show for their efforts, the most talented assemblage becomes little more than a social club or a therapy group.

New Rules for Leaders

These principles not only define the nature of Great Groups, they also redefine the roles and responsibilities of leaders.

Furthermore, the formal leaders, even when delegating authority, are catalytic completers; they take on roles that nobody else plays -- cajoler, taskmaster, protector, or doer -- and that are needed for the group to achieve its goal.

They intuitively understand the chemistry of the group and the dynamics of the work process.

They encourage dissent and diversity in the pursuit of a shared vision and understand the difference between healthy, creative dissent and self-serving obstructionism. They are able to discern what different people need at different times.

In short, despite their differences in style, the leaders of Great Groups share four behavioral traits. Without exception, the leaders of Great Groups:

1. Provide direction and meaning. They remind people of what's important and why their work makes a difference.

2. Generate and sustain trust. The group's trust in itself -- and its leadership -- allows members to accept dissent and ride through the turbulence of the group process.

3. Display a bias toward action, risk taking, and curiosity. A sense of urgency -- and a willingness to risk failure to achieve results -- is at the heart of every Great Group.

4. Are purveyors of hope. Effective team leaders find both tangible and symbolic ways to demonstrate that the group can overcome the odds.

There's no simple recipe for developing these skills; group leadership is far more an art than a science. In the end, these groups cannot be managed, only led in flight.