Making Magic Happen: Hot Groups
by Pat Craig 

from the Winter 2001 issue
of the Complexity Management Chronicles

"Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game and would be magical... When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level... It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the other team..." So writes Bill Russell in his book, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. Magic also happens with business teams. Often called "Hot Groups" or "Great Groups," these teams are a manager's dream - an intense group doing great things - fast. 

Is it possible to recreate such high achieving groups?

Yes, according to Harold J. Leavitt and Jean Lipman-Blumen, authors of the article Hot Groups, published in July-August 1995 edition of the Harvard Business Review (Reprint # 95405). This excellent article discusses one type of leader, "Keepers of the Flame," who nourishes successive waves of hot groups while pursuing answers to a certain fundamental problem.

We worked with many hot groups over the years: an imaging team, a telephony team, a firmware team, an Internet team, etc. This newsletter, the first of a series, will discuss our experiences and compare it with some published work, the HBR article and others.

All the groups we helped pursued a clear attainable goal, a vision and something the group believed in, such as the roll-out of a new product. W. Bennis and P. Bierderman the authors of the book Organizing Genius, The Secrets of Creative Collaboration and the authors of the HBR article concur on this point. Bennis and Bierderman write, "The zeal with which people in Great Groups work is directly related to how effectively the leader articulates the vision that unites them."

All hot groups we worked with contained a critical mass of talented committed staff members from both Development and QA. Stringent team selection criteria proved vital. R. Beckhard, a past lecturer at M.I.T, an Organizational Development consultant, and author of the book Agent of Change, categorizes people into "Make it Happen" types, "Help it Happen"  types, "Let it Happen" types, etc. All of these types existed in the groups we worked with. Having a sufficient number of "Make it Happen" types participating in the team proved critical to success. However, in our opinion, both the HBR article and the Organizing Genius book overemphasize this factor. The authors appear to believe that hot groups need 100% "Make it Happen" types, although we have participated in successful hot groups with a much lower percentage of these people.

Additionally, none of the hot groups we assisted had anyone at a high level sending mixed messages and diffusing the group's focus. Leaders in these hot groups presented a clear vision and recruited a skilled team. Then the leaders got out of the way and "Let it Happen." For example, none of the hot groups we know of believed in excessive documentation, they'd rather ship code. The HBR article goes so far as to say, "Sometimes what a company needs is a group that a manager can't control."

To sum up, we have covered these three points about hot groups:

  • Leaders need to articulate a vision, focusing the team on creating some positive outcome in the future.
  • Leaders should select talented people who are passionate about their work. Like attracts like.
  • Leaders should keep bureaucracy to a minimum. Pulling at cross purposes can destroy the alignment, and hence the output, of a hot group.
In conclusion, we trust this short discourse will provide you with food for thought. We'll explore hot groups further in our next newsletter.

©2001 by Complexity Management
Somerville, Massachusetts, in Metropolitan Boston

Complexity Management Chronicles, a newsletter for software quality assurance professionals, is published in print form four times a year. Send your name and snail-mail address to the e-mail address below if you would like to be on the mailing list - at no cost to USA mailing addresses. 


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