— Cultural Sources of Newness

Do cultural sources of newness need hot groups?

Sometimes articles lie around for a while in the collective printer at the end of the hall. If one looks particularly interesting, I read it on the bus home and back to work again in the morning. That is how I discovered “hot groups” yesterday, described by Harold J. Leavitt and Jean Lipman-Blumen in the Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb 1995).

Hot groups are “a lively, high-achieving, dedicated group, usually small, whose members are turned on to an exciting and challenging task” (p. 109), a task “is worth doing because it will make some kind of positive difference… will make the world a better place.” (p.111).

The authors bring examples from companies like Bell Labs, the National Institutes of Health, and Apple. “For many people, membership in such a group is a peak experience, something to be remembered wistfully and in considerable detail.” (p. 110). “The excitement, chaos, and joy generated in hot groups make all the participants feel young and optimistic regardless of their chronological age.”

In response to the obvious managerial question: “how does one build hot groups?” the authors say the answer is clear: “One doesn’t. Like plants, they grow naturally” (p.110). They identify conditions that seem to favour or impede the emergence of hot groups. In Bell Labs, for example, “the hot groups thrived for two primary reasons: a strong commitment to scientific values and an equally strong commitment to maintaining independence from AT&T.” (p110). Bureaucracy and controls stifle them, so it is not surprising that “they frequently pop up in new, still-pliable start up organizations and disappear as those organizations grow and calcify” (p.113).

While the authors note that hot groups “do great things fast” (p. 109), they also point out that they need to “be given an extended period of time before being required to demonstrate practical results.” (p.110). For traditional management methods, hot groups are difficult to grasp for at least two reasons: The members of such groups “are seldom motivated by the promise of bonuses or of other material rewards” because the challenge itself is the reward they seek. And the outcome of their work is not clearly definable in advance, in fact “from the outside, many of their ideas may look wildly absurd and impossible to achieve” (p. 111). The authors reassure the controllers: “many of their extreme ideas are ultimately refined into practical actions” (p. 111).

Do we in the research unit “Cultural Sources of Newness” need to be/become a hot group in order to fulfil the research unit’s demanding programmatic goals? Hmmmm. Interestingly, none of the examples in the article come from academia, where one might expect the best conditions to support such dedication to “the search for the truth” (p. 113).  I wonder whether part of the answer might lie in the paradox the authors observe: “organizations that place more emphasis on people than on tasks spawn hot groups that focus tirelessly on tasks” (p. 113). Can one claim that academic organizations place more value on people than on tasks today?

Do we even want to be/become a hot group? There is something scary in the prospect of group members bringing “cots to the office so that they can work most of the night” (p.111). But maybe we are looking in the wrong place for our academic hot groups: many of us are seeking the excitement and satisfaction of pursuing challenging tasks in networks and project teams that we create between, rather than only inside, our academic institutions.