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The old days, hot groups, and managers' lib.

As the architecture of organizations changes, a whole host of consequences is bound to follow. This piece is about two consequences that I believe to be both likely and positive. First, it is my optimistic faith that the present avalanche of change will liberate managers to do much more interesting, creative, and fulfilling things than they were permitted to do in the past. At least it will do that for those still left after the current orgy of downsizing has passed. Second, I think the new architecture will also liberate small "hot groups" so they can do their imaginative and productive work within large organizations. Both individual managers and small groups were held in near-straitjackets by the monolithic, hierarchical organizations of the past, and both, I believe, have just been waiting for a chance to break out.

Those two consequences are, of course, related to other likely consequences that have implications for both management education and organizational research. They raise questions, for example, about loyalty and whether we ought to be teaching MBA students, by implication or otherwise, that they should feel a moral obligation to be loyal to their employers. Those changes have also resurrected the long-dormant small-group research that so dominated social psychology in the 1950s and '60s. Much of that early research was done on "cultural islands" or in isolated laboratory settings. Now small-group research needs to be set squarely into the larger institutional context and to treat groups as the organization's basic building blocks.

This piece, though, focuses only on the twin themes of managers' and hot groups' liberation, and I ask your forbearance for taking a roundabout route into elaborating on them. I begin with a couple of stories about the olden days. Such folk tales seem relevant because they are quasi-normative morality lessons for the young, modeling the way the larger organizational world ought to be and maybe even will be. I hope they will stir our academic tribal blood a little, too, reminding us of the tribulations of our pioneering foreparents when they were blazing the first trails into the jungle of organizational studies.

Two Tales of Academic Hot Groups

Twice in my professional life I have been lucky enough to work in extraordinarily exciting, productive groups of the sort Jean Lipman-Blumen and I (1995) have tagged "hot groups." One was as a grad student at MIT and the other, years later, as a youngish faculty member at Carnegie Tech. Though extremely different from one another, they were both totally consuming places, so I have more than once found myself thinking about why and how they came to be. What made those two such sparkling spots? Why did both cool down after a few short years? Why are human groups like those so rare in academia, and even more rare in large business and governmental organizations? How can that kind of innovative ambiance be replicated? And maintained? I use brief remembrances of both places as a basis for discussion of more conceptual issues.

My MIT episode (hot groups are frequently episodic) took place in the late 1940s, just after World War II. Doug McGregor, Washington Irving Knickerbocker (called Knick), Mason Haire, and Alex Bavelas were beginning to work together in the Industrial Relations Section of MIT's Department of Economics and Social Science. I was their first Ph.D. student. Across the campus, Kurt Lewin had started the Research Center for Group Dynamics, with his crew of Doc Cartwright, Leon Festinger, Ron Lippitt, and several others. Both of those groups were quite small. Both were full of life. Excitement, ideas, and innovative research bubbled all over the place. The substance was generally soft, and much of it was applied: Theory Y, communications nets, small group dynamics, T-groups, field theory, prejudice, and participation.

Inevitably, skirmishes occasionally flared between the Lewin and McGregor gangs, especially between the spear-carrying graduate students in the two camps. In fact, we once (and only once) played touch football against one another, except that it was more maul than touch. We McGregorites won, because we had a semi-shill, George Shultz, on our side. He had played real football at Princeton.

That competitiveness extended outside our two little bands. We both felt embattled. The McGregor group wanted to show the hard-nosed business types down on the first floor that we deserved respect. We felt we were on the cutting edge, while they were Neanderthals who still thought one could run an organization with a whip. Lewin's Research Center, with its new, foreign (literally) social psychology, had its own betes noires. Members of that group felt they were resented and rejected by the American social psychological establishment.

Eventually I moved on to a small consulting firm and then to the University of Chicago. But it was not until I arrived at Carnegie Tech's (now Carnegie Mellon's) Graduate School of Industrial Administration that I once again encountered that near-sizzling heat. This time both style and substance were radically different. GSlA's was a much more analytic and quantitative culture but, like MIT's, lively, collaborative, creative, and intensely task-focused. Carnegie at the time was peopled by young mavericks whom that quiet administrative genius, Lee Bach, had hunted down: Herb Simon, Bill Cooper, Franco Modigliani, Dick Cyert, and young Jim March, as well as half a dozen others. Just about every publication that emerged from GSIA carried multiple authorship, often three authors or more.

There was a lot of tension at Carnegie. It was a much less warm and loving place than MIT, though there had been some tensions at MIT, too. If jealousies and jockeying for position existed, however, they were largely fogged over by the furious pace of work. As at MIT, externally directed competitiveness was another matter. GSIA was hemmed in by mostly self-enacted enemies: Harvard and those other big, dumb old business-oriented business schools on one side and the nose-in-the-air traditional university disciplines on the other. Initially, both Harvard and the disciplines brushed us off, an upstart fly buzzing about in the Pittsburgh smog. Who had ever heard of Carnegie Tech? For our part, we rose to the challenge. We were proud, certain that we were the best and brightest. Our exhilaration and self-confidence were, as always, widely interpreted as insolent arrogance.

One other important aspect of the Carnegie group: The search for truth was a core value. The intellectual atmosphere was more than just lively, open, and confrontational. I had found plenty of all those at Chicago, but there the debate was carried on in House of Commons style. There the purpose, I always felt, was more to be clever than to be right. Who had the sharpest wit? The most biting retort? At Carnegie, while debate was continuous and intense, it always seemed to aim at discovering the right answer.

In retrospect, the commonalities of process between the MIT and Carnegie groups are much more significant than the substantive differences between them. Each showed most of the characteristics of a hot group, a form of group whose organizational time has, I believe, arrived. Among their common characteristics were these:

* Both places were quite democratic. Everybody, including graduate students, was in on the act. There were status differences, to be sure, but as long as the task remained front' and center, anybody was perfectly free to debate with anybody else - with considerable fear of contradiction. Carnegie was the more confrontational of the two, but spirited debate across status levels was common at both places.

* Both, as I have already said, were competitive, and both viewed themselves as embattled enclaves. They both also enacted many competitors and enemies.

* Neither love nor mutual trust were dominant features of either culture. Both the McGregor and Lewin groups at MIT were internally friendlier than the Carnegie group, but what drove all three, it now seems to me, was the magnetic pull of challenging tasks. They did not, repeat not, see their missions in terms of social rank in their respective academic communities. They did not simply aspire to become one of the top ten, like the vacuous mission statements of so many of today's business schools. Both groups' aspirations were substantive. McGregor's group saw itself as building a new approach to the management of human organizations. The Lewin team was taking a new action-research approach to broad social issues. At Carnegie, the vision was to do high-quality research on problems potentially related to business, and to do it in innovative, cross-disciplinary ways. Curiously, while both MIT groups advised others about how to get along with people, the Lewin team - central in developing sensitivity training - didn't handle its internal people issues very well. Carnegie didn't handle them well either but had no pretensions about doing so. Yet none of them had any difficulty keeping their chosen people or recruiting new ones.

Why did people want to stay at those places and others want to join? Certainly not because Cambridge and Pittsburgh had mild winters, nor because either was a warm, comfortable place to hang out, nor even because quitting the scene would have entailed an admission of inadequacy. It was the pull of the work and the accompanying sense of all-out involvement, with others, in something active, fast, innovative, and worthwhile. That centripetal pull easily dominated the push of personal anxieties and interpersonal jealousies. Periods in our lives that stretch us beyond our imagined limits are almost irresistible. It's much like being in love.

* Both MIT and Carnegie were highly productive, but only for a short time. Carnegie produced three Nobelists, many seminal researches, and a generation of outstanding graduate students. During its glory years, the McGregor team probably had more influence on the human side of business practice than any other school in the world. Lewin and company certainly changed the face of American social psychology. In fact, together, those two MIT groups spawned most of the next generation of major American social psychologists and organizational social scientists: Hal Kelley, John Thibaut, Murray Horwitz, Kurt Back, Mort Deutsch, Gil Krulee, Herb Shepard, George Strauss, Len Sayles, Al Pepitone, let alone Haire, Bavelas, Festinger, French, Lippitt, Cartwright, and others.

* Both places were properly accused of arrogance. That uppitiness derived from a mix of defensiveness against perceived embattlement, single-mindedness, and impatience with the impediments "needlessly" imposed by bureaucrats (and journal editors).

* Leadership was key. At MIT it was McGregor as orchestra conductor of one team, and Kurt Lewin, beloved father figure, of the other. Interestingly, McGregor also acted as another kind of leader vis-a-vis the Lewin team. For them, he was what Jean and I call a "patron." Patrons are leaders who do not actively participate in hot groups but who clear out patches of the organizational jungle so hot groups can get started. McGregor, a respected and accepted figure in the larger MIT structure, played that supportive and protective role when he convinced tough-minded MIT to make a home for Lewin's team. A few years later, however, after Lewin's death and McGregor's departure to Antioch, things changed.

Lee Bach played a somewhat similar role when he was dean at GSlA. He brought in, sheltered, and supported bright mavericks, many of whom were "too difficult" for their previous institutions and too unbusinesslike for the business community. And once again things changed, after Lee left for Stanford. Things would have changed at both places in any event. The temperatures were too high to last. Both places cooled down after about one graduate-student generation.

* Members of all three groups, I think, recall those experiences nostalgically and positively. Each of those experiences was a notable period in the lives of the participants.

These stories seem worth telling mostly because every one of those characteristics shows up in the other hot groups we have observed and read about. They lead to some more substantive issues.

Managers' Lib and the Changing Organizational World

I proposed earlier to push two notions: First, that one up-side of our downsizing organizational world is that managers are finally being let out of their cages and that they will probably use their new freedom effectively. That may sound counter-sensible because as organizations slim down, per capita work loads should increase. Ceteris paribus, the remaining prisoners should have to pull harder than ever on the oars of their galleys. Happily, however, ceteris isn't paribus this year. Even as organizations downsize, pressures from the new world are forcing them to redesign themselves. Galleys aren't very functional in competition with super tankers and jet aircraft. It is the rapidly changing architecture of organizations that gives remaining managers a chance of liberation.

Moreover, those downsized organizations are not really shrinking. They're growing larger via mergers and conquests. They're also hiring new people as they lay off old ones, so there will still be managers and they will still be members of large institutions. Second, in the volatile new organizational environment, those freed-up managers are likely to make much greater use of a heretofore rare and often despised organizational tool, small, task-obsessed hot groups.

In part, I think managers will be liberated and do better things because of different rates of change taking place in different parts of the relevant world. There are, after all, no speed limits in nature, nor is there any requirement that everything must move at the same pace. Over time, some things change fast, some slowly, and some hardly change at all. Here are three rather bald assertions about current rates of change in three nested portions of the organizational world: (1) The environments of organizations are changing very fast, and, it seems, at an accelerating rate. They are changing in many dimensions: technically, socially, politically, and demographically. (2) Organizations living in those environments are also changing, faster than they used to, but more slowly than their environments. While they are cutting people and costs, they appear also to be reshaping their internal structures, albeit quite reluctantly. (3) The behavior of the managers in those organizations, however, is hardly changing at all. Behaviorally, contemporary managers are essentially indistinguishable from their forebears. These variations in speed promise interesting consequences. The growing spread among the three, for example, seems already to have reinvigorated the activities of small groups in organizations. It is also beginning to make more room for maverick individualists and for turned-on hot groups similar to those at MIT and Carnegie.

The world is changing fast. Our world is changing fast geopolitically (e.g., the end of the USSR, the enormous economic expansion of Asia, the ubiquitous reemergence of nationalism, the differential rise in population growth rates, and much more). It is also accelerating technologically (e.g., the information explosion, genetic engineering, exploration of our sister planets, and, again, much more). Social changes are happening fast, too (e.g., the sexual revolution, the decline of the nuclear family, urban chaos, the rise of fundamentalism, sharpening ethnic, gender, and racial divisions, and, once again, much more).

Organizations are changing more slowly than environments. It also seems clear that although organizations, especially big ones, are indeed changing, they still grind exceeding stow. They are certainly cost-cutting and continually restructuring, even, as they're also trying to flatten, empower, federalize, and some even to humanize. But relative to the pace of environmental change, they aren't breaking any speed records.

Sheer size, territoriality, and tradition are probably the things that most block change in large organizations. Size is a killer. As organizations grow, their imaginations, playfulness, and agility all shrink. At least that's been true of enlarging organizations in the past. My old colleague, Mason Haire (1959: 272-306) of MIT and Berkeley, tried to explain that and related phenomena by applying the biologists' square/cube law to organizations. To support ever-larger numbers of people working at the "surface" of the organization, like purchasing, marketing, and sales, Haire argued that the organization's internal mass (support staff, supervisors, accountants, etc.) had to become disproportionately thicker and heavier. Huge Goliaths simply can't be as beautifully proportioned as little Davids. That "law" is probably neither an accurate nor very functional explanation of why large organizations seem to change so slowly. There is, however, a plenitude of other explanations not appropriate for elaboration here.

Managers are hardly changing at all. In these times, when almost any kind of change is highly valued, the flat assertion that managers don't change may sound like a put-down of all manager-kind. It isn't. Quite the reverse. I think it's a kudos, in praise of the managerial species. Managers have been a breed of movers and shakers for a thousand years, and just below the surface they aren't any different now. That so many haven't given up the ghost, despite decades of indescribable brainwashing, bespeaks their heroic obstinacy. Despite bureaucracies' massive efforts to tame them, managers have - many of them - remained true to their natures: wild ducks, still ready to take off the moment their cell doors spring open.

One might therefore conclude that organizations are caught in a bind, a squeeze between the imperatives of the whizzing world and their immutable managers. Not so. It isn't a squeeze at all. It's an enormous opportunity. Those change-resistant employees, despite years of organizational incarceration, have only resisted what they should have resisted - their enslavement within rigid bureaucracies. The ones that held out are still lively, innovative human beings, and so are the new ones coming along. Except for an initial sandpapering by their MBA educations, the young haven't yet been thoroughly indoctrinated by the establishment.

The ASQ is probably the wrong opera house in which to sing the praises of managers. Not many of the managers most of us know are models of unsullied virtue. Some look more like goof-offs than good guys, spinning their wheels until it's time to retire. And many seem downright hostile to any kind of "impractical" conceptual thinking. But I will still aver that when the conditions are right they will opt for meaningful, challenging work over lazing around in the restroom, that it is in managers' nature to behave proactively. If that weren't so, where did all the world's ships and movies and computers and jet aircraft come from? And the polluted rivers and nuclear waste and smog?

Of course managers don't remain exactly the same. As they age; they change a bit around the edges, like year-to-year model changes on cars. But half a century after he put it forward, Doug McGregor's (1966) early 1950s formulation of Theory Y is still a pretty reasonable characterization of human nature, including the nature of managers. I've been impressed, over the years, with the similarities reported by several independent observers of managerial behavior. Though dispersed through time and space and looking at quite different organizations, they keep coming up with about the same findings. I'm sure their conclusions must be correct because their systematic observations jibe with my scattered and random ones. Sune Carlson (1951) in Sweden, Henry Mintzberg (1973), and John Kotter (1982), each with his own theoretical perspective, draw just about the same picture of day-to-day managerial behavior. They all find that managers work relentlessly, at an extraordinarily fast pace, day after day, year after year. They do their things in real time, with very limited information, despite their current access to elaborate information systems, mostly in brief face-to-face encounters. They repeat that behavior, albeit with somewhat different substantive content, day after day, year after year, until they retire.

Whenever I describe that frenetic pattern to groups of executives, regardless of hierarchical level or nationality, they always respond with a mix of discomfiture and recognition. Reluctantly and somewhat sheepishly, they will admit that the description fits, but they don't like to be told about it. They treat it as though they were being asked publicly to display an ugly surgical scar. If they were really good managers, they seem to feel, they would be in control, their desks would be clean, and their shops would run as smoothly as a Mercedes' engine. Given such a standard of good management, the jumbled reality of their own shops is an embarrassment. Such guilt can be a great motivator. Unfortunately, in this case, it pushes managers in the wrong direction. It makes them try harder to get things shipshape, to impose order on the disorderly world. They would be better off learning the skills needed to prosper in the chronic disorder that is endemic to their roles.

Maybe executives just work hard because they're constantly under the fishy eyes of their bosses, but I don't think so. I think they behave that way because they are generally drawn from an action-oriented population, either presocialized to be movers and shakers, or perhaps even with a genetic propensity in that direction. They behave that way across many cultures, and apparently they've behaved that way for at least the last fifty years. Together, those two indices suggest that it may be in the nature of the beast. I find it pleasing that in a world in which just about everything else changes, managers' behavior doesn't.

Two Misguided Managerial Grails

The place of organizational socialization and management education in all this has been to orient and control the direction and content of managers' activities, without affecting their high metabolic rates. While neither business organizations nor business schools have killed off managers' propensity for action, they have certainly pressured managers into conducting continuous yet fruitless searches for two unholy grails: a search for the seamless, glitch-free operation and a search for the contented organizational community. Both of those grails seem to be moving away from us at the speed of light, which may be fortunate because they are both inappropriate in today's environment.

The myth of the clockwork organization. The venerable but still pervasive myth of the smooth, well-oiled organization has dissipated the productive energies of generations of managers. Orderliness and human organizations have never meshed very well, and now less well than ever. In recent years, as things have gotten more and more chaotic, organizations have turned to technology as the medication most likely to help them get things under control. They have given themselves injections of technology several times in the past, with considerable short-term success, though always with troubling unforeseen side effects. This time, too, new technology, especially information technology, has helped enormously, but once again at a price. So far, massive doses of new technology appear to be complicating as much as they are simplifying managerial life.

Technology has always been something of a con artist. First its new gadgets promise to solve some tough old organizational problems, and the promise is often fulfilled. But in the process it seeds whole sets of new problems that further disrupt the organization's environment, speeding things up, shrinking the world, spawning unexpected new competitors. Then Dr. Technology peddles the same nostrum as a prescription guaranteed to cure the new ailments that it has itself induced. And the cycle goes on. But there is hope. More and more organizations, as they downsize, are also recovering from their chronic attachment to the grail of orderliness. They are turning their energies instead toward other, perhaps more fruitful goals.

The myth of the happy campers. Then there is the ideal of the warm, mutually trusting human organization. Though more recently acquired, that ideal is by now as deeply ingrained into the managerial psyche as the ideal of the orderly organization. We academics are mostly responsible for this one. The innovative ideas of our pioneer forebears - McGregor, Likert, Maslow, Roethlisberger, et al. - are finally having some real and positive impact on the practice of management and on the practice of management education. Some of those ideas, however, though not oversold, have been overbought. Back in the 1950s, someone at the Harvard Business School coined the phrase "the happiness boys." He used it to attack the soft-headed human relations newcomers who were then beginning to invade business schools, including Harvard's. It was a taunt that caught on, often accompanied by immortal bits like "We aren't in business to make people happy."

Whoever coined that happiness-boys epithet was basically right, except that he shouldn't have hurled it like a hand grenade. He was right in asserting that the early human relations movement was at least as concerned with happiness as with productivity. And many of us progeny of the original pathfinders have indeed carried it a bit far. For instance, we first put forward the specious generalization that happiness, or morale, was the generator of high productivity. A little later we had to back up one step to the concept of participation, which finessed the dilemma by claiming to co-generate both productivity and morale.

It seems to me that despite all our more recent talk about productivity, we still value morale - happiness, satisfaction, well-being - as a just-beneath-the-surface sine qua non for a "good" human organization. That's a worthy, decent, humanistic standard, and I don't propose we abandon it. But we have, I believe, defined it far too narrowly. We have treated morale and satisfaction almost entirely as socioemotional issues: socio because we frame our conceptualization in terms of interpersonal relationships, and emotional because we see feelings, about self and toward others, as the key to well-being. Those boundaries are needlessly tight. We have paid too little attention to what the current generation of cognitive psychologists has been telling us, to the ways in which thinking and acting contribute to humans' psychic welfare, both in and out of organizations. While the participative principle, that "people support what they help to create," is still broadly valid and extremely useful, what its words proclaim is not entirely consonant with how we implement them. In practice, we have concentrated much more on the socioemotional "support" part of that principle than on the cognitive "create" part. When organizational development professionals push "process" over "content," they mean the process of working out relationships, not the inner processes of doing creative thinking and acting on challenging tasks. Yet, as Csikszentmihalyi (1991: 5) pointed out, "The best moments [in life] usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."

Another dangerous overarching generalization followed close behind the participative one, sometimes implicitly, frequently quite explicitly. It was, and still is, the widely held belief that several people cannot work together effectively on a common extrinsic task until after they have built emotional bonds among themselves. Is it so?

A Third Grail: In Search of the Ennobling Task

It appears to be time for a third grail, a search for what Lipman-Blumen (1996) has called the ennobling task. I didn't like that phrase at first, but I do now. Perhaps this grail, too, will obsolesce as the organizational landscape changes, but right now it seems especially likely to enhance the well-beings of both individuals and organizations.

People have always been turned on by challenging tasks, but large organizations have not. In their endless concern about neatness and order, organizations consciously moved in the opposite direction, working to regularize and simplify the tasks they wanted their people to perform. Individuals or small groups, obsessed with their innovative ideas, disrupted those safe routines. They were risky. Except in off-center locations, like R&D departments, they were rarely welcomed. The sages who designed the old Bell Laboratories many years ago must have been acutely aware of that problem. They intentionally isolated it, in space and in time, from the rest of AT&T. Only then could they keep the overbearing system off the new unit's back.

Now, in the speedy and volatile new world, all organizations are becoming more like R&D departments. Everybody has to innovate, to abandon last week's products, processes, and whole businesses while constantly developing still newer ones (Foster, 1986). So the time seems right for managers to undertake the search for a third grail, to hang a halo over tasks worth doing, tasks that ennoble the human spirit. Such a quest evokes a Breughel-like organizational vision: dynamic, busy, peopled by many active little groups scattered all over the canvas, each working like the devil. Some are deeply into competitive games, some battle against monstrous enemies, still others work and play together in collaborative alliances, and some are just parting company following yesterday's success or failure. It is a vital human panorama, urgent, flexible, mobile, the whole only loosely coupled, quite egalitarian, and vaguely bounded, a dramatic contrast to the grim and massive organizational monoliths of the past. And the people who work in those organizations? Quite like those who preceded them, except they are freer, much more autonomous, and much more deeply and positively involved in their work. Optimism run amok?

Unfettered Managers, Ennobling Tasks, and the Emerging Roles of Hot Groups

If, despite shrinkage in personnel, the new, more open architecture of organizations will give managers much more lebensraum, and if they still, as in the past, want to do interesting and innovative work, then hot groups should become one very sensible way for those managers to go about doing those things. Smallish, temporary groups are excellent mechanisms for dealing with many of the ever novel and ever more complex problems imposed and enabled by the new world. Large organizations, qua organizations, can certainly take on great and ennobling tasks, but they are often too slow and too rigid to cope with the speed and responsiveness many such tasks now require. Single individuals, of course, also often set forth in search of the ennobling grail, and while individuals can be fast and flexible, they cannot, by themselves, handle the complexity of many such present-day tasks. Small, dedicated groups, the mediating units between individuals and organizations, seem just right.

Hot groups must surely be good for human beings, too. In the past, while touting the importance of positive interpersonal relationships, many of us perhaps inadvertently disparaged the psychological value of the work itself; the motivating pull of the unsolved puzzle, the stirring power of a worthwhile problem. By any standards, activities that thus exercise our brains and imaginations must be healthy. This is not to deny the roles of feelings and relationships in human groups. Emergent power struggles, likes and dislikes, pressures to conform, status issues, and all the rest obviously cannot be ignored. Even when a group is hot at work on a consuming task, interpersonal issues certainly don't go away, but they do take a temporary back seat. They may climb back up front if a group's longevity is extended, or if its level of aspiration far exceeds its ability, or for many other reasons. While I am not urging tasks in lieu of relationships, I am touting both, but in that order. When our group is on the threshold of completing its pioneering new software or when the kickoff whistle blows to start the big game or when the child has fallen into a deep well, then commitment to our common task, not to one another, is the primary glue that binds us. Later, after we have reached the unreachable star or fallen on our faces trying, our love, hate, or indifference to one another may emerge, but not while we are totally immersed in our urgent task. Moreover, it is while we are into it, while the flow is flowing, that many of us feel we are also being positively human.

I'm not sure how one goes about finding or making those ennobling tasks, but I am sure that they are necessary for the seeding of hot groups. What's operationally ennobling or worthwhile lies, of course, in the eyes of the beholders. The behavior of hot groups' leaders is probably the most central issue here. Leaders are key in defining and identifying such tasks and in providing opportunities for others to participate in them. Leaders can also raise and lower the rheostats that control perceived worthiness. Leaders, however, are by no means the only definers of such tasks. Given open and accessible communication channels, separate individuals, already enamored of related tasks, often manage to find one another, define mutually exciting problems, and eventually evolve into self-generated hot groups.

Hooray for Nerds!

Although members of hot groups are often quite diverse in personality and background, they do seem to share, as we did at MIT and Carnegie, some standards about what constitutes good thinking and acting. Such common standards seem to prevail in many occupational areas. Members of the scientific community, for example, regardless of discipline, seem to share such broad standards. So, too, I'm sure, do physicians, machinists, artists, and athletes. Those norms and challenging and perceptually worthwhile tasks appear to be two of the necessary conditions for the healthy growth of hot groups. It is not surprising, therefore, that hot groups show up quite often in research labs and technical universities. Usually people in those settings have both self-selected and been pre-socialized to value extrinsic issues more than emotional and interpersonal ones. I used to see a lot of such people around MIT, Carnegie, Bell Labs, Stanford, and high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. Occasionally I have even numbered myself among them. Yet as a good citizen of the applied behavioral community, I also used to join in deriding them as "nerds" and "techies" - while they simultaneously derided us behavioral types as "head shrinkers" and "witch doctors." I don't deride them any more. Many of those nerds did great things, mostly in highly effective, but quite un-affective, little hot groups. Perhaps it was no accident that my two memorable adult experiences in hot groups occurred at institutes of technology, techie techs, meccas of the nerds. Are such places, emotionally tight as they may be, also more open to oddball, turned-on little groups than more conventional academic settings?

Managers seem to flourish when, to paraphrase a quote from Carnegie Tech's seal, "[Their] heart is in the work." That wisdom has been proffered again and again over the years. A few decades ago it came from thoughtful scholars like Abe Maslow. Currently Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow points in the same direction, toward the enlivening vitamins of an ennobling task.

It looks, too, as though the ways that managers have always behaved is close to the ways that they should continue to behave. They should be juggling 20 balls in the air. They should be out there managing in real time, under conditions of high risk and high uncertainty. Most managers, then and now, there and here, would, if they got the chance, much prefer to run with the hares than to crawl with the tortoises. Did any of us, even as children, really believe that the tortoise won that race?

Whither Organizational Research?

The editors asked me to close with some thoughts about directions for future research. I no longer think I know what specific directions such research ought to take. I do hold some views, however, about how it ought to be done, and since those thoughts tie in with the themes of this piece, they might constitute a couple of reasonable concluding paragraphs.

I'm not happy with the way so many current doctoral students and young faculty seem to be selecting their research directions. It looks too much like what happened to young managers in old industrial organizations. The constraints and rigidities of their overcontrolling institutions drove them to play organizational games instead of opting for risky, innovative work. Moreover, like individual performance evaluations in companies, academic rules drive young researchers - from whom most good research emanates - toward working alone rather than collaboratively, so their single-authored papers will improve their prospects for tenure. Too much research, I fear, is being done for those wrong reasons of approval and ambition rather than the right reasons of excitement and challenge. This is an old and hackneyed complaint. I know it's at least as old as I am, because I experienced it several times. Once, for example, when doing my Master's work in hard-nosed psychology, I had the temerity to ask my advisor for permission to take an elective in sociology. He was flabbergasted. He ordered me to take comparative anatomy instead. I compromised by taking both. He always looked at me uncertainly after that.

As an ex-victim, I want to make sure I don't seem to be blaming the current cadre of victims. The fault is not in us but in our rather sear academic institutions. I still find it both shocking and shackling to hear present-day faculty members advising grad students just to do whatever will get them by. "Figure out what your dissertation committee wants and do that. In fact, if you're really smart you'll put a lot of your energy into finding a politically correct committee." Shades of the organization man!

Have academic organizations become so calcified that we urge our young, by word and example, to opt for safety over the ennobling challenge? Or are we selecting those candidates most likely to obey our rules? Hot groups and hot research can no more thrive in such imprisoning settings than they could at Henry Ford's River Rouge or in any of those institutions whose architecture some of us are now trying so hard to change. Nor am I much impressed by counterarguments about maintaining rigor and standards of quality. Those, I believe, are too often thrown up as defenses against the exercise of imagination. Perhaps that's part of why there don't seem to be many MITs and Carnegie Techs around academia these days. Where have all the hot groups gone?


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Foster, Richard N. 1986 Innovation: The Attacker's Advantage. New York: Summit Books.

Haire, Mason 1959 "Biological models and empirical histories of the growth of organizations." In Mason Haire (ed.), Modern Organization Theory: 272-306. New York: Wiley.

Kotter, John 1982 "What effective general managers really do." Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec.: 156-167.

Leavitt, Harold J., and Jean Lipman-Blumen 1995 "Hot groups." Harvard Business Review, Aug.-Sep. 109-116.

Lipman-Blumen, Jean 1996 The Connective Edge: Leading in an Interdependent World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McGregor, Douglas 1966 Leadership and Motivation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Maslow, Abraham H. 1943 "A theory of human motivation." Psychological Review, 50: 370-396.

Mintzberg, Henry 1973 The Nature of Managerial Work. New York: Harper and Row.
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Title Annotation:40th Anniversary Issue
Author:Leavitt, Harold J.
Publication:Administrative Science Quarterly
Date:Jun 1, 1996
Previous Article:Continuity and change in theories of organizational action.
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