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December 21, 1995
Mr. Harold J. Leavitt and Ms. Jean Lipman-Blumen
Dear Mr. Leavitt and Ms. Lipman-Blumen:
I thoroughly enjoyed your article on ‘Hot Groups’ in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review and would like to add to several of your observations. The phenomena of ‘hot groups’ does suggest several ways organizations can ‘organize’ themselves for more appropriate responses within an environment of rapid change and uncertainty. I must also admit that I am also puzzled by the paradox of performance you present.
Most individuals at one time or another have seen or been a part of a group that was really ‘hot’, in the sense of being vital, absorbing, full of debate, laughter, and very hard work. Hot groups do captivate their members, occupying their hearts and minds almost to the exclusion of everything else - and yes they do get great things done fast!
I think it is the intensity and total preoccupation with its mission that distinguishes a truly ‘hot’ and energized group of individuals. But what is at the core of the intensity, focus, and total preoccupation with the task at hand? An uplifting task I agree, and one that will make a positive difference. But not all ‘hot groups’ are engaged in isolating the gene for Alzheimer’s disease. They are also not restricted to ‘eco-warriors’ and groups engaged in worthwhile social endeavours. You do touch on what I see as an insight into ‘hot’ behaviour as you describe the ‘self’ motivation of the individuals involved - “... whether or not outsiders see it that way, hot groups feel that what they are doing is relevant, and important” - indeed what they themselves deem, all by themselves and with a shared vision, of what is to them a meaningful and powerful purpose.
Where does this exceptional intellectual and emotional energy come from? Perhaps partly from the absence of inhibition that you allude to - in the openings and cracks in traditionally organized institutions, but perhaps more so to the inhibitable nature and ‘character’ of the individuals involved. But aren’t all (or at least most) individuals capable of this degree of personal dedication, energy, and commitment? What is it about working in a ‘hot group’ that makes the personal difference for individuals? You describe the experience of participation in this type of intensely focused and preoccupying team as one of significant personal growth and development.
“Hot group members feel they are stretching
In my view, the experience is beyond that of being coached, mentored, or trained or programmed or engineered for performance. It is an extremely personal, on-the-edge, on-the-line, in-your-face, committed like pigs to bacon come-hell-or high-water we’re going to get this stuff done kind of personal mission. Where does this intensity come from? Not through planning and consensus! And most definitely not through structure, conformity, and compliance.
There are clues to the answers in how the members of ‘hot groups’ see and treat each other. What is really important to the participants? - the result. The members, for whatever reason, see themselves as a team dedicated to a task - to the accomplishment of a result. And whoever is as equally dedicated to the task is instantly seen as a capable and trustworthy ally in the work of the group. Title, rank, status, privilege, race, and colour become absolutely and utterly irrelevant! Isn’t it strange that group members see themselves as highly capable and deserving of respect - and special - without having to demonstrate anything other than an equally passionate commitment to the achievement of the result! And isn’t it odd that within this context almost anyone will find a positive way to make a significant contribution to the work of the group? It seems that almost anyone who offers a sincere and genuine commitment to the task can be welcomed as a positive, contributing and valued member of the team, and in due course will find their way of making a significant contribution.
There are several features of ‘hot groups’ that are becoming increasingly important to organizations of all sizes to cope with the pace of change and chaos of our current economic reality. The fluid structure and small size of the groups model the behaviour needed today to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. “Hot groups” organize themselves around the task as they see fit and as the task dictates - precisely because the task is the focal point and the priority. Leadership of the group is fluid and interchangeable, clearly and understandably a function of the situation - it will change as the situation dictates. To do this efficiently, groups must be small enough to allow the close personal and emotional relationships that develop.
The other key characteristic of the phenomena is that the groups are short lived - and rightfully so, as they are created and owe their existence to the task. When the task is completed the mission is accomplished - the purpose is fulfilled - the need is over. This focus on task is what creates the dedication to speed, flexibility and performance, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
“Hot groups are not easily domesticated.
As you mention, these groups are rare in traditional organizations, and that is extremely unfortunate as these groups represent a force for creativity and energy necessary to adapt to and create the future. It is really more than unfortunate - it is an indictment of the organization structures that although they may have served us well in the past now serve to inhibit the future. If hot groups are rare - and it is true that they are - then the experience of spontaneity, creativity, honesty, respect, integrity, intellectual intensity, emotional commitment, purpose, meaningfulness, and significance are rare in the majority of organizations expressly designed to achieve important results.
There is a profound paradox at work with ‘hot groups’ and I suggest that important clues lie somewhere within the ‘other side’ of the coin. In so far as we see the task being paramount in the minds of the participants and as the focal point and magnet for their energy, the task does not seem to be the primary driver of the ‘heat’ of ‘hot groups’. Although in execution the task is what essentially binds the members to a common purpose, in the first instance it appears that small groups of individuals with common interests and shared personal and work values often create the tasks that ultimately are seen as the outward expression of their purpose. Your astute observation is right on the mark!
"People-first organizations, not task-first
The paradox continues to confuse as we often see these highly task oriented groups emerging in ‘people’ oriented contexts. What a paradox - that we can stimulate the formation of ‘task obsessed’ hot groups in organizations that place more emphasis on people than on tasks. Bizarre!
The answers may also be found in the paradox of complexity and simplicity especially when we ‘think’ of how to more effectively ‘create’ hot groups and this type of ‘hot group’ team performance. Perhaps we will see, that in our efforts to engineer, create, and perpetuate hot groups, the more we try - the more likely our attempt at ‘engineering’ culture will surely fail.
Indeed the twenty first century will require the capacity to cope with an intense pace of change as well as the agility and capability to adapt and reshape work teams and organizations continually. The ‘hot groups’ you describe have this capability. The dynamics of their emotional and intellectual intensity hold valuable insights into extending this very desirable capability. But good God help us if we academics, management scientists, and enlightened leaders and executives think we can effectively engineer and manage this complex (or simple) phenomena. Will we ever understand the dynamics well enough to be able to manufacture them?
On the other hand, it really could be as simple as getting the best people you can find, letting them work and contribute with belief and passion and let individuals find, all by themselves, their significance and purpose in common and meaningful shared endeavours? And perhaps to leave them alone and let them lead, create, and contribute to their organizations and communities in positive and meaningful ways.
Thank you for your excellent article. I found it insightful and very interesting.
Many more articles in High Performance Teams in The CEO Refresher Archives