Organizing Genius: A book review by Bob Morris

Organizing GeniusOrganizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration
Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman
Basic Books (1998)

Note: I re-read this book recently before completing an extensive revision of the material I will use for a workshop on high-impact teamwork for my corporate clients. The insights are even more relevant and more valuable now than they were when the book was first published 15 years ago.

If you were to look up the word “leadership” in any reputable dictionary, it would probably suggest that you contact Warren Bennis. No one has written more and more enlightening commentary on the subject of leadership than has he. In Organizing Genius, he and Patricia Ward Biederman examine a number of what the authors call “Great Groups.” Perhaps the most important point is introduced in the first chapter: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

That is to say, the “Great Man” theory is invalidated by the achievements of truly creative teams such as those at the Disney studios which produced so many animation classics; at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which developed the first personal computer; at Apple Computer which then took it to market; in the so-called “War Room” which helped to elect Bill Clinton President in 1992; at the so-called “Skunk Works” where so many of Lockheed’s greatest designs were formulated; at Black Mountain College which “wasn’t simply a place where creative collaboration took place. It was about creative collaboration”; and at Los Alamos (NM) and the University of Chicago where the Manhattan Project eventually produced a new weapon called “the Gadget.”

Bennis and Biederman conclude Organizing Genius by providing 15 “Take-Home Lessons.” Each is directly relevant to any organization which aspires to accomplish what Steve Jobs once described as being “insanely great.”

With all due respect to the command-and-control skills of great leaders in the past (including most of those enshrined in the “Business Hall of Fame”), such skills simply are not effective today. “None of us is as smart as all of us.” A group can become “great” only if and when it possesses both genius in each member and the leadership necessary to achieve creative collaboration by those members. With rare exception, “Genius” in isolation simply cannot accomplish what “genius” in creative collaboration can.

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