Notes on a Book: Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis

I recently finished reading Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis (professor in business administration) and Patricia Ward Biederman (journalist).

Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis
Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis

Notably, the reason I picked it up is because in Tribal Leadership – David Logan mentions Warren as mentor, and his work in this book as a predecessor to the Tribal Leadership book.

It’s easy to see why, yet they are very different books. In contrast to Tribal Leadership, Organizing Genius is a collection of stories (some might say case studies) of famous “Great Groups” (or in Tribal Leadership language, Stage 5 groups).

Some notes:

  • I have a greater appreciation for Disney films. I’ve never been a fan of Disney… until now – reading about the start of the Disney corporation, I have a much stronger insight into how it was created as elegantly oiled machine. I’m still not a fan of the films, but the effort, and the organisation are impressive.
    • When Disney was getting started, they were the only animation studio – and since animation was such a new thing, hiring was a big point – so Disney hired lots of Architects and industrial artists, and gave the the freedom to study art in greater detail – later setting up a faculty to do so.
  • In Disney, like in other Great Groups, there was often an insane amount of specialisation – “I mainly draw rabbit’s feet”- but in a large organisation where they are actually very good at drawing rabbits feet, and they enjoy it, this makes sense.
  • In many of the Great Groups, weekly meetings were a foundation of the group – in the Xerox PARC for instance, they were the only time of the week one had to be there. In almost all examples, they were used as opportunities for the group to share knowledge – what they were working on, what they had been working on, what they were going to be working on next.
  • I found the description of Bill Clinton’s initial election campaign very interesting. I guess partly because I’ve ‘done’ election campaigns myself, albeit on a different scale. What I noted from that especially was how even a “very serious” thing like an election campaign had a esoteric custom of giving “staffer of the week” award, every week, that was a bottle of sauce!
    • In other places, in-jokes were also a big thing – the Skunkworks was named after a practical joke (when someone answered the phone “Hello, Skonkworks!”.
  • Leaders in great groups appear to be multiheaded, multithreaded expert generalists – the ability to provide creative and technical direction, see where and how people work best, and herd cats in the right direction are characteristics of a one of these people. Interestingly, leaders in great groups often seem to find these strengths inside them during the collaboration, yet may not display them at other times.
    • In large organisations, the role of the leader may also be the role of the organisational buffer person – the one who intereacts with the parent organisation, and makes sure both parties get what they need, whilst insulating the language and cultural differences between the child & parents groups.
  • In the chapter about Xerox PARC, the book describes how Taylor mediated disagreements in the group by trying to get people from (what he called) a Stage 1 disagreement – where the parties couldn’t describe each other’s positions, to a Stage 2 disagreement – where both parties still disagreed, but could eloquently explain each other’s positions. I think this a basic representation of various Non Violent Communication mediation techniques – I should read more into that again.
  • The final chapter sums up a lot of Warren’s thoughts about great groups – that’s the distilled knowledge in essence – if you found the stories dull, you could just read that. But don’t do that – if you find the stories dull, just read Tribal Leadership instead.
  • The book is organized into chapters (first we talk about this group, then in the next chapter, we talk about this group) – however right from the first chapter, the book makes comparisons between the group dynamics of what’s happening in this group, with a group in a future chapter. I found that without proper introduction, these moments were a bit unhelpful – I hadn’t read ahead, so I didn’t know about the things being compared to.
  • One thing about the book that struck me was how often in the groups there was conflict and interpersonal drama that I think I’d find quite stressful. Interestingly, the collaborations often lasted through these moments – so much did people feel drawn to their mission, but I think it might be interesting to look at Great Groups that also have stated aims of being nice to each other.

I wouldn’t say this book is “as good” as Tribal Leadership for actually explaining what is going on, but it does explain give a lot more examples of Stage 5 groups, and consequently is useful for understanding more about those. It’s an enjoyable read if you like stories, but for many people will have limited practical use. You should read it to understand more, and to enjoy understand more.

If that appeals, grab yourself a copy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>