1998 - Building great teams
What do Hewlett-Packard, Walt
Disney and Apple Computer have in common? They
all began life in garages, according to Warren
Bennis, the US-based management writer, who has
been examining the chemistry behind some of the
world's greatest teams.
Mr Bennis, whose reputation was
established in a number of influential books on
leadership , has turned his attention to a study
of great teams for a book he has co-authored with
Patricia Ward Biederman, a Los Angeles Times journalist*.
Humble surroundings, tatty offices
and threadbare furniture, they note, are common
factors of many pioneering programmes in the US.
These include Black Mountain College, which inspired
a generation of artists, and the "skunk works"
programme that developed the technology for the
US Stealth bomber in a windowless building next
door to the airport in Burbank, California.
"Many of these groups feel
like they are winning underdogs," says Mr
Bennis. "They need an enemy. Right now in
Silicon Valley almost every upstart company has
a dartboard with Bill Gates's face on it."
In the case of the Manhattan
project to develop the atom bomb in the second
world war, the enemy was very real. The fact that
the Germans were also seeking to create their
own bomb helped the American team deal with the
morality of their invention. But although the
secret project had a deadly purpose, the work
was characterised by a sense of humour, he says.
This extended to one scientist inventing an explosive
device to blow down trees so the team could clear
a ski run at the Los Alamos site.
The average age of the scientists
assembled by Manhattan project leader J. Robert
Oppenheimer was 25. Youth was a noticeable defining
feature in the study. "In most of these groups,
35 was regarded as elderly," say the authors.
This raises a dilemma for the boards of big companies,
many of which are packed with ageing executives.
On the one hand they need experience but on the
other hand they need to "cultivate innocence",
says Mr Bennis, who is working with a number of
top US boards.
"Look at the McDonald's
board with 18 to 20 members. It is too large.
The average age is about 67. The average length
of time spent on the board is 14 years. Where
do they get fresh ideas from? It's too old, it's
been in office too long and it's too big, that's
"Boards have forgotten why
they are there. Aside from their fiduciary responsibility
and finding a successor, they need to ask discerning
questions and they need to reaffirm what the company
is about and make people feel good about what
they are doing. Too often this isn't happening."
In some teams, such as the one
that created the Apple Macintosh, there is an
"adolescent subculture" often marked
by a lack of experience and an unrealistic view
of what they can accomplish. "Not knowing
what they can't do puts everything in the realm
of the possible," say Mr Bennis and his co-author.
Steve Jobs was in his mid-twenties
when he took over the Macintosh team at Apple,
creating the atmosphere of a rebel band and hoisting
a pirate flag over the offices.
Mr Jobs was inspiring but the
authors criticise his "immature leadership
style", suggesting that it could have slowed
down the programme. "Decency in the workplace,
especially one that depends for its success on
the talent and devotion of its employees, isn't
just the right thing to do. The talent is your
treasure. You don't chew it up."
They say all the groups in their
study had a product and many had a deadline -
both important ingredients for bringing out the
best in people. Walt Disney argued with his brother
Roy about the need to correct a slight imperfection,
a "shimmy" in the prince's speech at
the end of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . Roy
Disney, worried about cost over-runs, finally
lost patience and pleaded with his brother: "Walt,
let the Prince shimmy."
Even Disney, however, has struggled
to keep its best animators. Peter Schneider, head
of feature animation, said during the research
that the studio had been losing talented animators
because of family priorities, which make creative
collaboration less attractive.
Given the factors involved in
successful collaboration - youth, naivety, product
creation and deadlines - is it feasible for companies
to put together creative teams?
"I don't think great teams
can be put together. They can be encouraged and
permitted to happen and then nurtured," says
Mr Bennis. Companies, he says, will need to work
on such developments. "I believe these great
groups are going to be the new social architecture
for the kinds of organisation that are going to
One of the biggest concerns for
those running businesses, he says, will be to
look at the "content of the purpose"
of the business. People, he says, need some meaning
to their work.
Another concern for society is
the inequality of talent, says Mr Bennis. "We
have never faced up to the issue of how in a democratic
society we deal with an inequality of talent.
"What we are seeing now
in my own country is the 'Brazilification' of
society into 'haves' - those who are comfortable
with technology - and the 'have nots' - those
who won't make it in this world. I think we avoid
this issue tremendously."
*Organizing Genius, The Secrets
of Creative Collaboration, by Warren Bennis and
Patricia Ward Biederman. Published by Nicholas
Brealey Publishing, price £18.
© 1998 Financial Times Ltd.
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