Posts Tagged ‘Warren Bennis’

Social sensitivity beats IQ for groups

February 2, 2012

I’ve just come across some research by MIT (via Johnnie Moore – a great facilitator whose facilitation training I attended a while ago) showing that a group’s performance at a variety of tasks is much more strongly correlated to its social sensitivity (the extent to which members are able to perceive accurately each other’s emotions) than to the collective IQ of its members.

A group with total higher IQ might be better at one or two tasks but the groups which were very good at a wide range of tasks were characterised by three factors:

High average social sensitivity
A high rate of sharing who gets to communicate
The presence of women

Predictably this has been reported as ‘women make groups better’. Which is true up to a point but actually when the researchers controlled for the presence of women in groups the social sensitivity factor won out.

This absolutely chimes with what I observe in workshops: you might think that a group containing a particularly smart person will excel but if that person doesn’t allow their group to contribute fully the team doesn’t benefit from the collective expertise and probably won’t progress as far as one that is supportive and encourages everyone to take turns applying their insight to the problem. Interestingly the research says that factors like group cohesion don’t matter much, so it’s not necessarily about putting together people who can get on well, but rather people who will be sensitive to each other and ‘play well’ together. And yes in my experience women generally do that more easily than men.

But I’m left thinking ‘what about Steve Jobs?’. I haven’t read the autobiography yet but from what I gather he was the antithesis of socially sensitive. Do some tasks (e.g. doing something transformational and never-done-before and/or managing huge collaborations) fall outside of these principles? What role does leadership play in all this?

And it’s made me pull out a book that’s now 15 years old but looking at it now I’m remind of how brilliant it is: ‘Organizing Genius’ by Warren Bennis.

He tells great stories about some historical great groups (e.g. the Manhattan Project, the turnaround of Disney, the development of the first PC) and draws some general conclusions about Great Groups which are still very relevant today I think. Every time I use them with clients they ask for a copy so here they are in full:

1. Greatness starts with superb people
2. Great Groups and great leaders create each other
3. Every Great Group has a strong leader
4. The leaders of Great Groups love talent and know where to find it
5. Great Groups are full of talented people who can work together
6. Great Groups think they on a mission from God
7. Every Great Group is an island – but an island with a bridge to the mainland
8. Great Groups see themselves as winning underdogs
9. Great Groups always have an enemy
10. People in Great Groups have blinders [blinkers] on
11. Great Groups are optimistic, not realistic
12. In Great Groups the right person has the right job
13. The leaders of Great Groups give them what they need and free them from the rest
14. Great Groups ship
15. Great work is its own reward

The whole book is worth a read but most pertinent to this discussion:

5. Great Groups are full of talented people who can work together: Bennis says yes of course you need amazing talent but there’s no point recruiting geniuses who cannot collaborate well. But this doesn’t mean you have to have amiable nice people – indeed Great Groups are more tolerant than ordinary ones of personal idiosyncrasies, because they are so focused on their goal.

3. Every Great Group has a strong leader: It’s interesting to read how Bennis defines great leaders for this kind of high-performing groups – not as a typical ‘boss’ who directs in a ‘parent-child’ way but rather someone who considers it their mission to enable the others to do their great work. This kind of leader persuades the right people to come on board and then creates the right conditions for them: protecting them form above, giving them enough autonomy, managing their stress and freeing them of anything that gets in the way.

Which in turn reminds me of Adam Morgan’s concept of the Smokejumper in ‘The Pirate Inside’, his book about how to create challenger brand cultures. The term comes from firefighting in forests in North America where the smokejumpers are the people who fly low and spot small fires and parachute in to cut a firebreak and stop things getting out of control.

Adam says challenger brand teams (especially those within big organisations) need a Smokejumper  as a kind of sponsor who protects them from high up, is actively watching to see if problems emerge and takes preventative action – but then gets the hell out and lets the people on the ground get on with it. So it’s not about the more passive kind of sponsor but someone who’s actually prepared to DO stuff. There are some good examples in the book.