Organising Genius: An Introduction

Publish date: 2020-02-09

This is a short essay based on the readings and discussions from week 1 of Organising Genius. All errors and omissions are my own. All the good stuff is due to the authors, and my discussion partners at Entrepreneur First.

What did Richard Feynman, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Claude Monet have in common?

They were all members of Great Groups.

Renoir and the impressionist painters nourished Monet’s ideas, emboldening him to paint an entirely different canvas. CS Lewis and the Inklings critiqued and encouraged Tolkein, in some cases working so closely that their minds melded as one. And the Manhattan Project was the making of Feynman. There, the crackle of his ideas were tested and refined by physicists electric in their own right: Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, and many more. Each of these men were brilliant, but without a great group, their individual genius might never have seen the light of day.

We used to think genius was like lightning, spontaneously flashing into existence at a single point, then vanishing. Instead, genius is more like a garden. It is easy to plant a tree where two have already taken root. To study genius, don’t look for lone wolves. The study of genius is the study of wolf-packs.

Over this essay series I will summarise my learnings from reading and discussing the material in Entrepreneur First’s Organising Genius book club. You can find my week 1 notes here. This week is an introduction to Organising Genius.

The Outsiders

In The Outsider, the main character, Mersault, rages with indifference at a world which never tries to understand him. Outsiders like Mersault are littered throughout our societies, and are often found being bullied in school, or languishing away in a job they resent.

These outsiders see the world differently to their acquaintances. Afraid of exclusion, they keep their ideas to themselves. Though they may be talented, alone, they lack the courage to use their skills.

Like a gang of excited adolescents, Great Groups form when such weird outsiders find people who can truly understand them. Even before they meet, members of a great group agree upon a similar worldview. It is true catharsis when they realise that other people share it. You too? Maybe we’re the sane ones and the rest of the world is crazy!

Great Groups provide a walled garden to nurture ideas before they’re ready to take root in the wider world. For years, members of these groups are each other’s only fans. Tolkein once wrote of Lewis: “the unpayble debt I owe him is one of sheer encouragement”. The outsiders come together, encouraging each other when no one else will.

Great groups see their lives in a cosmic struggle: us against the world. They deepen their shared worldview based around their common identities and a purpose. Perhaps their purpose is to change the written word, or create a different kind of art. Maybe it is to unleash the potential within the atom itself. In all cases, the worldview of Great Groups diverges sharply from society as a whole. When Great Groups are successful at persuading the public, it creates a social paradigm shift. People realise the group were ahead of their time. The rest of the world comes to appreciate a new way of thinking about things. This is what makes them Great.

Members of Great Groups have extreme traits. One day they act heroic; the next they are the villain. They are insiders amongst themselves, but outsiders to the rest of the world. They care intensely about personal freedom, yet have little regard for in-group personal status. They bubble with genius, but sometimes boil over into madness. Because they are extreme, great groups never form from people on “the fast-track”. Great groups defy existing convention and rage against the machine. They are formed of the most disagreeable, stubborn, and courageous people. The only ones who can see a different way.

Cognitive Diversity, Cultural Harmony

At 18, I travelled alone to Poland, a faraway land I had never before been to. When I finally emerged from Warsaw’s underbelly and stepped into daylight, I felt isolated and afraid. The culture shock I felt on my travels is similar to how foreigners feel in a Great Group.

Great Groups are strikingly homogeneous, and their cultures seem shocking and unwelcoming to outside observers. The Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis’ group, railed against literary orthodoxy, mockingly reading orthodox academics’ work aloud until the group erupted in laughter. They developed their own slang. Every member also had his own chair, nickname, and meeting role.

The org chart of Great Groups is flat as a board: they have no hierarchies. United under a common purpose and worldview, each group member is truly equal. A homogeneous culture and trusting relationships means group members feel psychologically safe. Each member knows the other like a brother. This psychological safety ensures members spend no time bickering over office politics or worrying about the outside world. Instead, they can focus 100% of their brainpower on their common goal.

Great Groups are hyper-focused. They don’t have “incentive schemes”, or perks like a ping-pong table in their office. Most groups give no awards and work in spartan conditions, like the early days of Apple in Steve Jobs’ garage. To group members, incentives and perks are all distractions. The biggest distraction of all, sex, is notably absent. Whether its the all-male Inklings, or the all-female suffragettes, almost all Great Groups are single-gender.

Individual members are internally motivated to the point of obsession. The group provides the social proof they need to double-down on their single-mindedness. If they hadn’t found their group, they’d be working on the same thing anyway, only more distracted, and alone.

Although Great Groups tend to be formed of people with similar worldviews and similar demographics, they shelter a variety of perspectives. Groups often encourage dissent, and the equality of roles gives members enough security to feel like they can speak their mind. With a divergent worldview and idiosyncratic culture, Great Groups run the risk of becoming a cult. By regularly resolving conflict and insisting on equality, successful groups avoid this trap.

Leading Genius

You can’t learn how to lead a Great Group at Harvard Business School. The outsiders who join great groups are a different breed from Organisation Man. As a result, they require a different style of management; one that hasn’t yet been codified. Leaders of Great Groups share several qualities: They are selective, they are protective, and they are brilliant.

Leaders of great groups are connoisseurs of talent. They are open-minded and intensely selective. Bob Taylor, head of Xerox PARC was famous for being humble enough to hire a generation of engineers who were smarter than him. This trait is shared by many successful leaders: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos loves to ask whether a prospective employee will “raise the bar”. Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz says that while mature companies hire to minimise weaknesses, startups should hire employees for their X-factor strengths.

Like a flower nursery, Great Groups need protection from the outside world. Great Groups are nurseries for pathbreaking ideas, and like delicate flowers, these ideas need time to bloom. The group leader must provide this protection. Sometimes, like the Manhattan Project, the group needs protection from unenlightened higher-ups. Other times, group members need insulation from their outside friends. Startup accelerator Y-Combinator deliberately doesn’t have a co-working space; to avoid being socialised down to the least ambitious idea, YC companies all work on their own. YC founder Paul Graham popularised the idea that successful startups often have two founders: perhaps this is because one can be a visionary leader, while the other can protect the team from investors and the outside world.

It takes a genius to lead a genius. People with extreme traits are temperamental, and give respect sparingly. It is impossible to have true equality in a group when some members are far more talented than others. Leaders of great groups are brilliant, so have no trouble commanding respect from their peers. This feature is shared by great sports coaches: You rarely see a successful manager who wasn’t a professional player themselves. While group members are internally motivated and highly autonomous, it is the leader’s responsibility to orient them with a common mission; to provide, as ARPA engineer Alan Kay said, a magnetic vision to align all the “iron filing” artists in the same direction.

The Lifetime of Genius

All Great Groups, according to Steve Jobs, put a dent in the universe. They do their best work when moving towards a tangible outcome. Invent the office of the future. Develop a new kind of painting. Create an atomic bomb. For most of their lives, Great Groups are ultimate outsiders, fighting against a mainstream system which doesn’t understand them. After they succeed, they become ultimate insiders. They become the new mainstream, and are embraced by the same institutions which used to oppose them.

Great Groups live fast and die young. Once they achieve their mission, they often spin apart. Without a shared vision or a common enemy, group members go their separate ways. Committing to a Great Group is a sacrifice: members give up years of their lives to achieve something special. Most great groups are formed of members in their mid-twenties, and ten years down the line they’re all past thirty. For these veterans, starting a family is more alluring than the call to adventure. The cultural ties that bind the group start to fray.

Some organisations like US Navy SEAL teams retain cultural cohesion for decades, by promoting older members out of the “group” level into a more senior managerial role. But most Great Groups don’t do this, and have a natural lifetime of around fifteen years.

It is time to retire the myth of the lone genius. For every scientist, artist, or engineer who changed the course of history, there was a Great Group of collaborators encouraging her. By learning what makes Great Groups Great, we can create fertile conditions for groups of our own. And perhaps we can put a few more dents in the universe along the way.

Criticisms

While I believe all of the above to be true, it is important we don’t create a new mythology of genius by taking it as Gospel. There are some critiques of this week’s reading which are worth mentioning.

  1. Most of the Great Groups studied were not financially constrained. Money is scarcely explored in the readings at all. This means that any learnings may not directly apply to start-ups, non-profits etc. who are always fighting to stay alive.
  2. Survivorship bias is a huge problem. By studying only those groups that succeeded, we limit our sample size. How much of their success was due to their individual organisation, and how much due to factors outside of their control? This factor can be moderated by comparing similarities between groups in different times and cultures.
  3. Great Groups are not a completely positive force. Social organisation is a technology, and like any technology can be used for good or ill. Was the Manhattan Project a good thing? We need to make sure that we are not accidentally justifying the ends by praising the means.

Questions:

These are questions I have not yet found the answer to.

Thanks to Ben Hooper for reading a draft of this essay.