The 10 Rules of Great Groups

Last Updated Nov 19, 2009 2:06 PM EST

The other day I was listening to Soul Sacrifice from Santana's remarkable first album, c. 1969. I've probably listened to it a thousand times, but I was still blown away by how tight the band was. All I could think of was what it must feel like when a band jams together for the first time and everyone realizes there's magic in the room.

But the concept of "Great Groups" - where the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts - goes way beyond Santana, The Allman Brothers, or The Beatles, for that matter. This rare, once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon can occur wherever there's challenge, opportunity, and creative talent.

Like its topic, there's an exceptional, one-of-a-kind book that describes - in dramatic and insightful fashion - the conditions under which great groups occur. It's called Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.

The premise is straightforward enough. "In our society, leadership is too often seen as an inherently individual phenomenon." We hoist Apple's Steve Jobs up on a superstar-CEO pedestal, but the book reveals a relatively unexplored talent of Jobs - his ability to inspire groups of developers to great heights. For example, he told the first Macintosh design team that they were there to "make a dent in the universe." And they did.
The book chronicles such diverse groups as the Disney team that developed the first full-length animated film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Xerox PARC Palo Alto Research Center's development of the first personal computer, Lockheed's "Skunk Works" group that built the first U.S. jet fighter in 180 days, and the Manhattan Project.

The first chapter provides an inspiring challenge for business leaders and corporate managers everywhere:

What lessons do Great Groups have for our workplaces, where so many people feel stifled, not stimulated? Look how hard people in great groups work, without anyone hovering over them. Look how morale soars when intelligent people are asked to do a demanding but worthy task and given the freedom and tools to do it. Imagine how much richer and happier our organizations would be if, like great groups they were filled with people working as hard and as intelligently as they can, too caught up for pettiness, their sense of self grounded in the bedrock of talent and achievement.
Here are 10 Rules of Great Groups (from the book's original 15):
  1. Great groups and great leaders create each other
  2. Every great group has a strong leader
  3. The leaders of great groups love talent and know where to find it
  4. Great groups think they are on a mission from God
  5. Great groups see themselves as winning underdogs
  6. Great groups always have an enemy
  7. People in great groups have blinders on
  8. Great groups are optimistic not realistic
  9. In great groups, the right person has the right job
  10. The leaders of great groups give them what they need and free them from the rest
I've had one experience with a great group. It met all the above criteria and it changed my life. How about you? Share your story and an insight or two.