Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis


  1. This book examines Great Groups systematically in the hope of finding out how their collective magic is made.

Key Takeaways

  1. Focused on seven epic teams that have had enduring impact. They are:
    1. The Walt Disney studio, which invented the animated feature film in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
    2. The Great Groups at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)
    3. Apple, which first made computers easy to use and accessible to nonexperts
    4. The 1992 Clinton campaign, which put the first Democrat in the White House since Jimmy Carter
    5. The elite corps of aeronautical engineers and fabricators who built radically new planes at Lockheed’s top-secret Skunk Works
    6. The influential arts school and experimental community known as Black Mountain College
    7. The Manhattan Project.
  2. Overview
    1. Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary.
    2. Great Groups have some odd things in common. For example, they tend to do their brilliant work in spartan, even shabby, surroundings.
    3. Efficiency is, in fact, not a word much used by the groups in this book. Driven by a belief in their mission, unconcerned by working hours or working conditions, these groups aim to make a difference, not to make money. Could efficiency, productivity, and the desire for immediate pay-offs occasionally be road blocks on the way to greatness?
    4. The more I learned, the more I realized that the usual way of looking at groups and leadership, as separate phenomena, was no longer adequate. The most exciting groups—the ones, like those chronicled in this book, that shook the world—resulted from a mutually respectful marriage between an able leader and an assemblage of extraordinary people. Groups become great only when everyone in them, leaders and members alike, is free to do his or her absolute best.
    5. Great Groups are inevitably forged by people unafraid of hiring people better than themselves. Such recruiters look for two things: excellence and the ability to work with others.
    6. But probably the most important thing that young members bring to a Great Group is their often delusional confidence. Time forces people, however brilliant, to taste their own mortality. In short, experience tends to make people more realistic, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
    7. Virtually every Great Group defines itself in terms of an enemy. Sometimes the enemy is real, as the Axis powers were for the Manhattan Project. But, more often, the chief function of the enemy is to solidify and define the group itself, showing it what it is by mocking what it is not.
    8. Life in Great Groups is different from much of real life. It’s better. Bambi veteran Jules Engel recalls that the great Disney animators couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to get back to their drawing boards. Fermi and the other geniuses of the Manhattan Project continued to work on the Gadget even when hiking in the mountains on their Sundays off. It wasn’t simply that the work was fascinating and vitally important. The process itself was exciting, even joyous.
    9. Something happens in these groups that doesn’t happen in ordinary ones, even very good ones. Some alchemy takes place that results, not only in a computer revolution or a new art form, but in a qualitative change in the participants. If only for the duration of the project, people in Great Groups seem to become better than themselves. They are able to see more, achieve more, and have a far better time doing it than they can working alone.
  3. Leaders
    1. The leaders who can do so must first of all command unusual respect. Such a leader has to be someone a greatly gifted person thinks is worth listening to, since genius almost always has other options. Such a leader must be someone who inspires trust, and deserves it. And though civility is not always the emblematic characteristic of Great Groups, it should be a trait of anyone who hopes to lead one.
    2. “I explained my views to the orchestra. I did not impose them. The right response, if forced, is not the same as the right response when it comes out of conviction.”
    3. Who succeeds in forming and leading a Great Group? He or she is almost always a pragmatic dreamer. They are people who get things done, but they are people with immortal longings. Often, they are scientifically minded people with poetry in their souls, people like Oppenheimer, who turned to the Bhagavad Gita to express his ambivalence about the atom and its uses. They are always people with an original vision. A dream is at the heart of every Great Group. It is always a dream of greatness, not simply an ambition to succeed. The dream is the engine that drives the group, the vision that inspires the team to work as if the fate of civilization rested on getting its revolutionary new computer out the door.
    4. The way an environment is structured can have an enormous imp
    5. act on creativity, for good or for ill. The atmosphere most conducive to creativity is one in which individuals have a sense of autonomy and yet are focused on the collective goal. Constraint (perceived as well as real) is a major killer of creativity, Amabile has found. Freedom or autonomy is its major enhancer.
    6. 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.”
    7. The zeal with which people in Great Groups work is directly related to how effectively the leader articulates the vision that unites them.
    8. The best leaders understand very basic truths about human beings. They know that we long for meaning.
    9. Jack Welch once said of his role at General Electric, “Look, I only have three things to do. I have to choose the right people, allocate the right number of dollars, and transmit ideas from one division to another with the speed of light.”
    10. Luciano De Crescenzos observation that “we are all angels with only one wing, we can only fly while embracing each other” is just as true for the leader as for any of the others.
    11. The ability to plan for what has not yet happened, for a future that has only been imagined, is one of the hallmarks of leadership of a Great Group,
    12. Americans don’t like people claiming credit for other people’s work. It violates their sense of fair play. And so Walt Disney was more or less forced to come up with a satisfactory explanation of exactly what he did at the company that bore his name. The Disney version of the truth, the one that the studio would turn to again and again, was the bee story. It appeared, for instance, in “The Magic Worlds of Walt Disney,” an article on the Disney empire that ran in National Geographic in August 1963: You know, I was stumped one day when a little boy asked, “Do you draw Mickey Mouse?” I had to admit I do not draw any more. “Then you think up all the jokes and ideas?” “No,” I said, “I don’t do that.” Finally, he looked at me and said, “Mr. Disney, just what do you do?” “Well,” I said, “sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody.” I guess that’s the job I do. I certainly don’t consider myself a businessman, and I never did believe I was worth anything as an artist.
  4. Greatness starts with superb people.
    1. They see connections. Often they have specialized skills, combined with broad interests and multiple frames of reference. They tend to be deep generalists, not narrow specialists. They are not so immersed in one discipline that they can’t see solutions in another. They are problem solvers before they are computer scientists or animators. They can no more stop looking for new relationships and new, better ways of doing things than they can stop breathing. And they have the tenacity so important in accomplishing anything of value.
  5. Great Groups and great leaders create each other.
    1. Disney, John Andrew Rice, and Steve Jobs not only headed Great Groups, they found their own greatness in them. As Howard Gardner points out, Oppenheimer showed no great administrative ability before or after the Manhattan Project. And yet when the world needed him, he was able to rally inner resources that probably surprised even himself. 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.
  6. Every Great Group has a strong leader.
    1. 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, too, and eagerly sign up.
    2. Leaders of Great Groups inevitably have exquisite taste. They are not creators in the same sense that the others are. Rather, they are curators, whose job is not to make, but to choose. The ability to recognize excellence in others and their work may be the defining talent of leaders of Great Groups.
    3. 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.
  7. The leaders of Great Groups love talent and know where to find it.
    1. 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.
    2. 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. People in Great Groups are always stretching because of the giants around them. For members of such groups, the real competition is with themselves, an ongoing test of just how good they are and how completely they can use their gifts.
  8. Great Groups are full of talented people who can work together.
    1. 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.
    2. Although the ability to work together is a prerequisite for membership in a Great Group, being an amiable person, or even a pleasant one, isn’t. Great Groups are probably more tolerant of personal idiosyncrasies than are ordinary ones, if only because the members are so intensely focused on the work itself. That all-important task acts as a social lubricant, minimizing frictions. Sharing information and advancing the work are the only real social obligations.
  9. Great Groups think they are on a mission from God.
    1. Their clear, collective purpose makes everything they do seem meaningful and valuable. A powerful enough vision can transform what would otherwise be loss and drudgery into sacrifice.
    2. The army had recruited talented engineers and others from all over the United States for special duty on the project. They were assigned to work on the primitive computers of the period, doing energy calculations and other tedious jobs. But the army, obsessed with security, refused to tell them anything specific about the project. They didn’t know that they were building a weapon that could end the war or even what their calculations meant. They were simply expected to do the work, which they did—slowly and not very well. Feynman, who supervised the technicians, prevailed on his superiors to tell the recruits what they were doing and why. Permission was granted to lift the veil of secrecy, and Oppenheimer gave them a special lecture on the nature of the project and their own contribution. ’’Complete transformation,” Feynman recalled. “They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. They didn’t need supervising in the night; they didn’t need anything. They understood everything; they invented several of the programs that we used.” Ever the scientist, Feynman calculated that the work was done “nearly ten times as fast” after it had meaning.
  10. Leaders of Great Groups understand the power of rhetoric. They recruit people for crusades, not jobs.
  11. Every Great Group is an island—but an island with a bridge to the mainland.
    1. Great Groups become their own worlds. They also tend to be physically removed from the world around them.
    2. 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.
    3. Participants in Great Groups create a culture of their own—with distinctive customs, dress, jokes, even a private language. They find their own names for the things that are important to them, a language that both binds them together and keeps nonmembers out. Such groups tend to treasure their secrets.
  12. Great groups see themselves as winning underdogs.
  13. Great Groups always have an enemy.
    1. When there is no enemy, you have to make one up.
    2. Competition with an outsider seems to boost creativity. “Win-lose” competition within the group reduces it.
  14. People in Great Groups have blinders on.
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
  15. Great Groups are optimistic, not realistic.
    1. As Seligman explained to Fortune magazine, the people most likely to succeed are those who combine “reasonable talent with the ability to keep going in the face of defeat.”
    2. Alan Kay once observed, “The way to do good science is to be incredibly critical without being depressed.” Great Groups don’t lose hope in the face of complexity. The difficulty of the task adds to their joy.
  16. In Great Groups the right person has the right job.
    1. 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.
    2. Many projects never transcend mediocrity because their leaders suffer from the Hollywood syndrome. This is the arrogant and misguided belief that power is more important than talent. It is the too common view that everyone should be so grateful for a role in a picture or any other job that he or she should be willing to do whatever is asked, even if it’s dull or demeaning
  17. The leaders of Great Groups give them what they need and free them from the rest.
    1. 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. Successful leaders strip the workplace of nonessentials.
    2. All Great Groups share information effectively. Many of the leaders we have looked at were brilliant at ensuring that all members of the group had the information they needed. Bob Taylors weekly meeting at PARC was a simple, efficient mechanism for sharing data and ideas.
    3. Great Groups also tend to be places without dress codes, set hours, or other arbitrary regulations. The freedom to work when you are moved to, wearing what you want, is one that everyone treasures. The casual dress so typical of people in extraordinary groups may be symbolic as well, a sign that they are unconventional thinkers, engaged in something revolutionary.
    4. One thing Great Groups do need is protection. Great Groups do things that haven’t been done before. Most corporations and other traditional organizations say they want innovation, but they reflexively shun the untried. Most would rather repeat a past success than gamble on a new idea. Because Great Groups break new ground, they are more susceptible than others to being misunderstood, resented, even feared. Successful leaders find ways to insulate their people from bureaucratic meddling.
    5. One vital function of the leaders of Great Groups is to keep the stress in check. Innovative places are exhilarating, but they are also incubators for massive coronar-ies. Sundays off helped at Los Alamos and the Skunk Works.
    6. Civility is the preferred social climate for creative collaboration. In an era of downsizing and underemployment, many workplaces have become angry, anguished, poisonous places where managers are abusive and employees subvert each other. Such an environment isn’t just morally offensive. It is a bad place to do good work.
    7. Genuine camaraderie, based on shooting the moon together, is the ideal climate of a Great Group. When less attractive emotions come to the fore, they have to be dealt with before they threaten the project. Taylor’s model for resolving conflicts, which encourages colleagues to understand each other’s positions, even if they disagree, is an especially useful one.
    8. Members of Great Groups also need relative autonomy, a sine qua non of creativity. No Great Group was ever micromanaged.
  18. Great Groups ship.
    1. 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.
  19. Great work is its own reward.
    1. 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.
    2. 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. People who have been in Great Groups never forget them, although most groups do not last very long. Our suspicion is that such collaborations have a certain half-life, that, if only because of their intensity, they cannot be sustained indefinitely. Since creative collaboration is done by intellectual explorers, it is net surprising that most Great Groups are temporary. They ship, and soon end.

What I got out of it

  1. A concrete and very helpful synthesis of what traits great groups exhibit. The appendix has the 15 key lessons which is worth reading and re-reading

1 thought on “Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis

  1. Pingback: Library – The Rabbit Hole

Comments are closed.