Leadership & Management

How to Cultivate a "Hot Group" to Ignite An Organization

Small, close-knit sets of motivated people can do great things fast — but need they room to develop organically.

December 01, 1995

| by Janet Zich

You may have called it a “team” or a “study group” or nothing at all. You may have been at work or at play, or even at war. But if you’ve ever belonged to a “hot group,” chances are you’ll remember it, by any name, as one of the most creative and productive experiences of your life.

“A hot group is just what the name implies: a lively, overachieving, dedicated group, usually small, whose members are turned on to an exciting and challenging task,” say Harold J. Leavitt , the Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology, Emeritus, at the Business School, and Jean Lipman-Blumen, Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Claremont Graduate School. Although hot groups are usually temporary, while they last, they “completely captivate their members. They do great things fast.”

Small companies may be hot groups in themselves. Startups are often hot until their financial backers insist they grow up. Apple Computer in its “adolescent” years was a hot group — as creative as it was informal, defiant, and possessed of the moral certitude that Apple played David to IBM’s Goliath. If hot groups are rare in large organizations, and they are, the exceptions are instructive. For example, the very traditional AT&T gave its Bell Labs the freedom to be a laboratory for hot groups. Universities and theatrical groups, similar only in that they tend to be people-oriented rather than task-oriented, often stimulate the growth of hot groups. Even the U.S. government has hatched a hot group or two. Perhaps the most memorable was the brainy but politically diverse executive committee that President John F. Kennedy assigned to defuse the Cuban missile crisis.

While none can claim to have quite the effect as the group that sent Khrushchev’s warheads back to the Soviet Union, hot groups can be as important to the organizations that nurture them as they are to the individuals who take part in them. In fact, note Leavitt and Lipman-Blumen, “small, close-knit sets of motivated people are rapidly replacing the individual as the human organization’s fundamental construction material.”

Unfortunately, real hot groups often don’t survive organizational management. “The day- to-day groups we live with in our organizations — teams, committees, task forces — are mostly dead cold. Those groups are almost always overplanned, usually from above,” say the two researchers. “Groups that develop into hot groups aren’t planned, at least not in the usual sense. When the conditions are right, they happen.” But, they warn, “conditions are seldom right in organizational settings where regularity, predictability, and uniformity are the unbreakable commandments.”

Hot groups, like other rare and precious plants, need proper soil and care. In a paper called “Hot Groups: Their Seeding, Feeding, Weeding, and Harvesting,” Leavitt and Lipman-Blumen identify several situations in which hot groups can germinate:

Communication is open and access across organizational boundaries is easy Crisis or competition stimulates action Truth is valued by the institution Enthusiasm for a task leads to the spontaneous eruption of a group.

Leavitt and Lipman-Blumen also list a number of conditions that stimulate a hot group’s growth:

The presence of a task that is both intellectually and morally worthy Route markers that signal progress A sense of community A hands-off attitude from the top, particularly in demands for immediate results.

“At present, hot groups can more easily be compared to plants than to manufactured products,” Leavitt and Lipman-Blumen conclude. “They need to be raised rather than engineered fertilized, rather than constructed. At some future time we may understand them well enough to design and build them deliberately, but right now, most such efforts fail.”

“In our new flatter, faster, boundary-freer world, we need the intensity, innovativeness, and passion of hot groups…. We had better think more about our people the way farmers think about plants: patiently, nurturantly, supportively. If we can add to our managerial repertoire the skills and attitudes of good farmers, seeding and feeding bumper crops of hot groups, perhaps we can harvest just the nutritious food our new organizations will need.”

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