'Hot groups' nudge old-style teams aside

Move over teams. Here come hot groups. In today's need-it-yesterday business world, these extreme teams are emerging in office cubicles and conference rooms throughout corporate America - if somewhat clandestinely.

Most aren't appointed by management. Rather they grow around a person or group of people obsessed with an idea. While the focus is on the task, these groups often energize the people in them to work beyond their presumed potential.

And in a world where speed counts, the ability of a group to come together fast and produce something of value - without a lot of hand holding - is essential.

"The name of the game has become speed and innovation rather than stability and predictability," says Harold Leavitt, a professor at Stanford Business School in Palo Alto, Calif. "Teams were great for productivity, but hot groups are better for speed."

He and Jean Lipman-Blumen, a management professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, coined the phrase in their recent book "Hot Groups: Seeding Them, Feeding Them, and Using Them to Ignite Your Organization" (Oxford University Press, 1999).

But hot groups aren't new. It was probably a hot group that broke the enemy code during World War II. Kids are renowned for forming what amount to hot groups - in order to plan and build a tree house, for example.

And it's probably not surprising that some of the best examples in corporate America come straight out of Silicon Valley, where the work of barely structured groups yielded, among other things, the first Apple and IBM personal computers.

How do hot groups differ from teams?

*While teams are often appointed and managed from the top; hot groups tend to grow up around rank-and-file individuals.

*They tend to be democratic. "Once you are on a hot group, it doesn't matter what level of the organization you are from," says Professor Lipman-Blumen.

*At the same time, they tend to be fairly exclusive. If you aren't 100 percent dedicated to the task, don't bother to join.

"Hot groups are essentially obsessed with their task," says Lipman-Blumen. "They see their task as world-changing - and life-changing."

Indeed, a big draw of these often exhilarating groups, the authors contend, is that they give meaning to the work people do. "It's very hard for people today to have a sense that what they do makes a difference," says Lipman-Blumen. "A hot group creates that possibility for them."

Competitive companies use them not only to boost the production of existing staff, but to attract and retain top talent.

Take the corporate office of Management Recruiters International in Cleveland. Last April, the president held a meeting open to volunteers to discuss how to make MRI a top employer in the region. Twenty-eight people showed up.

After a little brainstorming, they came up with three main areas on which to focus: benefits, communication, and training. The executive team threw the task to the group and challenged it to come up with solutions on its own.

So the group - made up entirely of junior associates - started to meet. "Initially we felt like we were meeting for the sake of meeting," says Gramen Harvey, a training instructor at MRI, who jumped at the chance to lead the group.

But after the group decided it had the opportunity to do something big, its members got serious. They knew if they wanted to sell senior management on any of their ideas, those ideas would have to be well researched and presented.

They came up with a name: the IMPACT program, short for "improve, motivate, pride, achieve, communicate, and teamwork." They even designed a logo.

Over the next few months, the team started meeting "fervently," says Mr. Harvey, during lunch or before the official workday kicked off. The team gradually whittled itself down to about 14 or so core members. They pushed hard.

"Because management was so hands-off, we knew we would have to create their 'buy-in,' " says Harvey. "It caused us to put together a more complete picture."

After the group got the thumbs-up from top brass, it went back to its whiteboards to plan how to involve the entire company.

Among the new initiatives: a monthly corporate newsletter; regular department meetings (something that never existed); a "SWAT team" to help new hires with everything from getting computer passwords to having a lunch buddy the first week; and an extensive employee-training program that focuses on technical as well as management and leadership skills.

"There is no doubt in my mind that [this program] increased morale," Harvey says. And management was impressed.

Roger Branch, vice president of human resources to whom the group reported, adds: "You don't have to manage the process. People want to do a good job and want to make the environment better if you give them the reins to do it."

Still, many large companies discourage hot groups. "To a traditional bureaucratic organization, they seem unruly, disruptive, and uncontrollable," says Lipman-Blumen. Indeed, most hot groups don't make their existence known until they're well under way - for fear of being axed or bogged down by a demand to create reports and meet benchmarks.

At the same time, the authors concede, hot groups can draw hostility from other employees, who often view them as being exclusive, or "resource hogs."

But adversity is one condition in which hot groups thrive. "In a crisis, anybody who can make something happen is allowed to do it," says Lipman-Blumen.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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