‘Simply putting clever people together does not make a team’, and, ‘There are many examples of extremely bright and talented groups that signally underperform’. So say Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in ‘Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.’ (1) This book, which Elisabeth Goodman, principal consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, picked up as a result of attending a Cambridge Network business lecture delivered by Professor Gareth Jones, should definitely be read cover-to-cover by any leader wishing to fully understand the challenges and opportunities of working with their most talented people.
Although the focus of the book is on how to lead clever people, there are passing references to the implications for applying knowledge management, process improvement and project management to create effective teams. In this blog, Elisabeth Goodman discusses some potentially provocative statements, and expands further on her insights and reflections as to how these disciplines might apply to ‘clever’ teams.
Goffee and Jones define ‘clever’ in the English Oxford Dictionary context of being skilled or talented. More fully, they define clever people as “highly talented individuals with the potential to create disproportionate amounts of value from the resources that the organization makes available to them”. Their book includes a wealth of examples and insights from a wide range of disciplines and organisations such as Pharmaceutical R&D, Banking, Consultants, Universities, IT / software, Formula One Racing and many more. A few of the examples are quoted here.
Knowledge is power and not to be defined. Personal (or ‘tacit’) knowledge and how to apply it is the currency of clever people. So, whereas sharing knowledge is at the heart of effective knowledge management, ‘clevers’ might have a sense that sharing their knowledge will devalue them. However ‘clevers’ do:
- Recognize that in order to be successful, they need to work with others who will help them to translate their ideas into tangible deliverables. There is therefore a recognized need to share knowledge within a team.
- Build networks with others like them both within and outside their organisations, and so again there is an implicit sharing of knowledge within these communities.
Effective leaders recognize that risk taking and failure are pre-requisites for innovation by ‘clevers’. These experiences provide ideal opportunities for learning by all members of the team or networks.
‘Clevers’ are resistant to anything that looks like bureaucracy or unnecessary distractions from their core interest of pursuing their ideas. Effective leaders aim to minimise such distractions. Knowledge management processes and systems that require ’clevers’ to spend time in meetings, or filling out information that detracts from their core work could be categorized as such.
The challenge, and opportunity for leaders and for those with a remit for knowledge management is to find ways to harness the conversations that take place in teams and in networks, the learnings from experiences, and the general ‘tacit’ knowledge of ‘clevers’ in as un-bureaucratic a way as possible. This could be an argument for ensuring that organisations continue to have individuals with a dedicated remit, and with the credentials, to facilitate and record conversations within teams, networks (or Communities of Interest / Practice), around learnings, and from interviews with ‘clevers’ on an ongoing basis.
Werner Bauer, chief technology officer of Nestlé, and one of the interviewees in the book, sees knowledge networks, and managing know-how through people (rather than systems), as a key element of his job. It would be interesting to discover how this is handled at Nestlé.
Many will argue that the role of ‘clevers’ should focus on innovation, rather than processes, process improvement, or efficiency. Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Score Card approach(2) clearly shows how there is scope for both perspectives in an organisation’s strategy.
- Elisabeth Goodman’s experience of running Lean and Six Sigma workshops for research scientists in Pharmaceutical R&D reinforces the fact that effective teams have an iterative dynamic between the two. They develop new models and assays, add them into their screens for new drug candidates, continuously review and improve these processes, and innovate some more.
- Cisco, a highly innovative organisation, has replicable models, and believes this is the right thing to do because it helps to predict the future. But at the same time, these too must continuously improve.
- The McClaren team is obviously strongly focused on ‘process improvement’. Goffee and Jones give a wonderful account of the recent Formula One World Championship, when Lewis Hamilton swept to victory assisted by the perfect timing of the team as to when to change the tires on a slippery circuit.
As management writers such as Steven Covey and Peter Drucker point out, we should recognize that the nature of organisations has changed, and that the focus should not necessarily be on efficiency. Organisations are becoming increasingly complex, and built on networks and know-how, rather than pure production or services centered within one organisation. Examples of these ‘Clever Collectives’ include Google and Microsoft. This is also increasingly the model being developed by Pharmaceutical organisations.
There needs to be a disciplined rigour to ‘kill’ poor projects. Something that may be hard to do where ‘clevers’ are keen to pursue a particular idea. Again, this is something that Pharmaceutical R&D organisations strive to do through effective portfolio management.
Good management will involve transitioning projects from ‘clevers’ who may be more concerned with the ideas, to ‘implementers’ who may be more skilled in operational procedures.
A continuous focus on the vision, goals, and ongoing communication will be absolutely key to keep clever teams on track with what needs to be delivered. Goffee and Jones provide good illustrations of how Will Wright, the man behind SimCity and Spore at Electronic Arts, achieves just that with his team.
In conclusion, ‘Clever’ provides a rich source of information and insight for how to lead clever people and teams, not only from a general leadership perspective, but also for those looking to apply such disciplines as knowledge management, process improvement, and project management in today’s increasingly complex organisations.
(1) “Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.” By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Press (2009)
(2) “The Execution Premium” by Robert S Kaplan & David P Norton, Harvard Business Press (2008)
(3) This article focuses on three of RiverRhee Consulting’s 4 main areas of expertise for enhancing team effectiveness for improved productivity and team morale:
- Focusing on your customers
- Simplifying and streamlining what you do
- Optimising information and knowledge assets
- Ensuring successful business change