Shared lingo binds a group together and is a visible sign of membership. It also sets a group apart and reinforces unique values and beliefs. Asked about the Eagle Group’s headquarters, West observed, “It’s basically a cattle yard. What goes on here is not part of the real world.” Asked for an explanation, West remarked, “Mm-hmm. The language is different” (p. 50).
Stories Carry History, Values, and Group Identity In high-performing organizations and groups, stories keep traditions alive and provide examples to channel everyday behavior. Group lore extended and reinforced the subtle yet powerful in”uence of Eagle’s leaders—some of them distant and remote. West’s reputation as a “troublemaker” and an “excitement junkie” spread through stories about computer wars of the mid-1970s. Alsing said of West that he was always prepared and never raised his voice. But he coolly conveyed intensity and the conviction that he knew the way out of whatever storm was currently battering the group.
West also possessed the skills of a good politician. He knew how to develop agendas, build alliances, and negotiate with potential supporters or opponents. When he had a particular objective in mind, he would !rst sign up senior executives.
Then he went to people one at a time, telling them the bosses liked the idea and asking them to come on board: “They say, ‘Ah, it sounds like you’re just gonna put a bag on the side of the Eclipse,’ and Tom’ll give ‘em his little grin and say, ‘It’s more than that, we’re really gonna build this fucker and it’s gonna be fast as greased lightning.’ He tells them, ‘We’re gonna do it by April’” (p. 44).
Stories of persistence, irreverence, and creativity encouraged others to go beyond themselves, adding new exploits and tales to Eagle’s lore. For example, as the group neared completion, a debugging problem threatened the entire project. Jim Veres, one of the engineers, worked day and night to !nd the error. Ken Holberger, one of the Hardy Boys, drove to work early one morning, pondering the state of the project and wondering if it would ever get done.
He was startled out of his reverie by an unexpected scene as he entered the lab. “A great heap of paper lies on the “oor, a continuous sheet of computer paper streaming out of the carriage at [the] system console. Stretched out, the sheet would run across the room and back again several times. You could !t a fairly detailed description of American history . . . on it. Veres sits in themidst of this chaos, the picture of the scholar. He’s examined it all. He turns to Holberger. ‘I found it,’ he says” (p. 207).
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Humor and Play Groups often focus single-mindedly on the task, shunning anything not directly work related. Seriousness replaces playfulness as a cardinal virtue. Effective teams balance seriousness with play and humor. Surgical teams, cockpit crews, and many other groups have learned that joking and playful banter are essential sources of invention and team spirit. Humor releases tension and helps resolve issues arising from day-to-day routines as well as from sudden emergencies.
Play among the members of the Eagle project was an innate part of the group’s process. When Alsing wanted the Microkids to learn how to manipulate the computer known as Trixie, he made up a game. As the Microkids came on board, he told each of them to !gure how to write a program in Trixie’s assembly language. The program had to fetch and print contents of a !le stored inside the computer. The Microkids went to work, learned their way around the machine, and felt great satisfaction—until Alsing’s perverse sense of humor tripped them up. When they !nally found the elusive !le, a message greeted them: “Access Denied.”
Through such play, the Microkids learned to use the computer, coalesced into a team, and practiced negotiating their new technical environment. They also learned that their playful leader valued creativity.
Humor was a continuous thread as the team struggled with its formidable task. Humor often stretched the boundaries of good taste, but that too was part of the group’s identity:
[Alsing] drew his chair up to his terminal and typed a few letters—a short code that put him in touch with Trixie, the machine reserved for the use of his micro coding team. “We’ve anthropomorphized Trixie to a ridiculous extent,” he said.
He typed, WHO.� On the dark-blue screen of the cathode-ray tube, with alacrity, an answer�
appeared: CARL. WHERE, typed Alsing. IN THE ROAD, WHERE ELSE! Trixie replied. HOW. ERROR, read the message on the screen. “Oh, yeah, I forgot,” said Alsing, and he typed, PLEASE HOW. THAT’S FOR US TO KNOW AND YOU TO FIND OUT. Alsing seemed satis!ed with that, and he typed, WHEN.
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RIGHT FUCKING NOW, wrote the machine.� WHY, wrote Alsing.� BECAUSE WE LIKE TO CARL (pp. 90–91).�
Throughout the year and a half it took to build their newmachine, engineers of the Eagle project relied on play and humor as a source of relaxation, stimulation, enlightenment, and spiritual renewal.
Ritual and Ceremony Rituals and ceremonies are expressive occasions. As parentheses in an ordinary workday, they enclose and de!ne special forms of symbolic behavior. What occurs on the surface is not nearly as important as the deeper meaning communicated below ground. With little time for anything not related to the task of building the machine, the Eagle Group intuitively understood the importance of symbolic activity. From the beginning, leadership encouraged ritual and ceremony.
As one example, Rasala, head of the Hardy Boys, established a rule requiring that changes in public boards of the prototype be updated each morning. This activity allowed efforts to be coordinated formally. More important, the daily update was an occasion for informal communication, bantering, and gaining a sense of the whole. The engineers disliked the daily procedure, so Rasala changed it to once a week—on Saturday. Hemade it a point always to be there himself.
Eagle’s leaders met regularly, but their meetings focused more on symbolic issues than on substance. “We could be in a lot of trouble here,’ West might say, referring to some current problem. AndWallach or Rasala or Alsing would reply, ‘Youmean you could be in a lot of trouble, right, Tom?’ It was Friday, they were going home soon, and relaxing, they could half forget that they would be coming back to work tomorrow” (p. 132). Friday afternoon is a customary time at the end of the workweek to wind down and relax. Honoring such a tradition was all the more important for a group whose members often worked all week and then all weekend. West made himself available to anyone who wanted to chat. Near the end of the day, before hurrying home, he would lean back in his chair with his of!ce door open and entertain any visitor.
In addition to recurring rituals, the Eagle Group members convened intermittent ceremonies to raise their spirits and reinforce their dedication to a shared, intensely zealous mission. Toward the end of the project, Alsing instigated a ceremony to trigger a burst of renewed energy for the !nal push. The festivities called attention to the values of creativity, hard work, and teamwork. A favorite pretext for parties was presentation of the Honorary
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Microcoder Awards that Alsing and theMicrocoder Team instituted. Not to be outdone, the Hardy Boys cooked up the PAL Awards (named for the programmable array logic chips used in the machines). The !rst presentation came after work at a local establishment called the Cain Ridge Saloon. The citation read as follows (p. 250):
Honorary PAL Award
In recognition of unsolicited contributions to the advancement of Eclipse hardware above and beyond the normal call of duty, we hereby convey unto you our thanks and congratulations on achieving this “high” honor.
The same values and spirit were reinforced again and again in a continued cycle of celebratory events:
Chuck Holland [Alsing’s main submanager] handed out his own special awards to each member of the Microteam, the Under Extraordinary Pressure Awards. They looked like diplomas. There was one for Neal Firth, “who gave us a computer before the hardware guys did,” and one to Betty Shanahan, “for putting up with a bunch of creepy guys.” After dispensing the Honorary Microcoder Awards to almost every possible candidate, the Microteam insti- tuted the All-Nighter Award. The !rst of these went to Jim Guyer, the citation ingeniously inserted under the clear plastic coating of an insulated coffee cup (p. 250).
The Contribution of Informal Cultural Players Alsing was the main organizer and instigator of parties. He was also the Eagle Group’s conscience and nearly everyone’s con!dant. For a time when he was still in college, Alsing had wanted to become a psychologist. He acted like one now. He kept track of his team’s technical progress but was more visible as the social director of the Microteam and often of the entire Eclipse Group. Fairly early in the project, Chuck Holland had complained, “Alsing’s hard to be a manager for, because he goes around you a lot and tells your people to do something else.” But Holland also conceded, “The good thing about him is that you can go and talk to him. He’s more of a regular guy than most managers” (p. 105).
Every group or organization has a “priest” or “priestess” who ministers to spiritual needs. Informally, these people hear confessions, give blessings, maintain traditions, encourage ceremonies, and intercede in matters of gravest importance. Alsing did all these
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things and, like the tribal priest, acted as a counterpart to and interpreter of the intentions of the chief:
West warned him several times, “If you get too close to the people who work for you, Alsing, you’re gonna get burned.” But West didn’t interfere, and he soon stopped issuing warnings.
One evening, while alone withWest in West’s of!ce, Alsing said: “Tom, the kids think you’re an ogre. You don’t even say hello to them.”
West smiled and replied. “You’re doing !ne, Alsing” (pp. 109–110).
The duties of Rosemarie Seale, the group’s secretary, also went well beyond formal boundaries. If Alsing was the priest, she was the mother superior. She performed the usual secretarial chores—answering the phones, preparing documents, and constructing budgets. But she found particular joy in serving as a kind of den mother who solved minor crises that arose almost daily. When newmembers came on, it was Rosemarie Seale who worried about !nding them a desk and some pencils. When paychecks went astray, she would track them down and deliver them to their intended recipients. She liked the job, she said, because she felt that she was doing something important.
In any group, a network of informal players deals with human issues outside formal channels. On the Eagle project, their efforts were encouraged, appreciated, and rewarded outside the formal chain of command; they helped keep the project on track.
Soul Is the Secret of Success The symbolic tenor of the Eagle Group was the actual secret of its success. Its soul, or culture, created a newmachine: “Ninety-eight percent of the thrill comes from knowing that the thing you designed works, and works almost the way you expected it would. If that happens, part of you is in that machine” (p. 273).
All the members of the Eagle Group put something of themselves into the new computer. Individual efforts went well beyond the job, supported by a unique way of life that encouraged each person to commit to doing something of signi!cance. Their deep commitment and unwavering spirit jelled in the ritual of signing up. Both were then intensi!ed and expanded by diversity, exceptional leaders, common language, stories, rituals, ceremonies, play, and humor. In the best sense of the word, the Eagle Group was a team, and the efforts of the individual members were interwoven by symbolic !bers. Cultural elements were the heart and soul of the group’s success.
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The experience of the Eagle Group is not an outlier. After extensive research on high- performing groups, Vaill (1982) concluded that spirit was at the core of every such group he studied. Members of such groups consistently “felt the spirit,” a feeling essential to the meaning and value of their work. Bennis (1997) could have been writing about the Eagle Group when he concluded, “All Great Groups believe that they are on a mission from God, that they could change the world, make a dent in the universe. They are obsessed with their work. It becomes not a job but a fervent quest. That belief is what brings the necessary cohesion and energy to their work” (p. 1).
More andmore teams and organizations, like the Eagle project or SEAL Team Six, realize that culture, soul, and spirit are the wellspring of high performance. The U.S. Air Force, in the aftermath of the VietnamWar, embarked on a vigorous effort to reaf!rm traditions and rebuild its culture. The air warfare arm of the U.S. military added “Cohesion is a principle of war” to its list of core values. Project Warrior brought heroes—living and dead—forward as visible examples of the right stuff. The Air Force also instituted a “reblueing” ceremony to encourage recommitment to its traditions and values.
Other organizations have taken similar steps. In 2006 Starbucks’s performance had begun to slide, then dip. By 2007, the company’s stock price had fallen by 42 percent. In February, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz sent a con!dential memo to top executives linking the downturn to slippage in the !rm’s culture: “Over the past 10 years, in order to achieve the growth, development and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have led to the watering down of the Starbucks Experience, and what some might call the commoditization of our brand” (Schultz and Gordon, 2011, p. 23).
The “con!dential” memo became public, and bedlam reigned at Starbucks. Schultz resumed his former role as CEO and took immediate steps to breathe new spirit into the company’s once vibrant way of life:
• A brainstorming meeting of company leaders to ponder the question: What is the soul of Starbucks?
• A ritual closing of 7,100 Starbucks outlets nationwide for an evening to refresh baristas in the texture and magic of a perfect espresso
• A meeting of top executives and managers to review, re!ne, revive, and recommit themselves to the company’s values
• A large meeting of shareholders featuring, with dramatic panache, new products, a frequent customer reward program, and a new espresso machine
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• Ameeting in New Orleans of almost 10,000 Starbucks managers—a gigantic celebration with themes of “Onward” and “Believe”; a recommitment to the company’s cultural history, values, and ways; and, to seal the deal, a rousing speech from Bono
The Air Force and Starbucks con!rm that too much emphasis on sorties “own or quarterly numbers can divert attention from sustaining and revitalizing culture. That, in turn, can jeopardize the outcomes an organization or team is trying to maximize. Team Six, Starbucks, Zappos, and other successful companies and teams understand and live this lesson. When asked, “How much of your time do you spend dealing with cultural issues?” a wise executive said, “Not enough—maybe half my time.”
CONCLUSION Symbolic perspectives question the traditional view that building a team mainly entails putting the right people in the right structure. The essence of high performance is spirit. If we were to banish play, ritual, ceremony, and myth from the workplace, we would destroy teamwork, not enhance it. There are many signs that contemporary organizations are at a critical juncture because of a crisis of meaning and faith. Managers wonder how to build team spirit when turnover is high, resources are tight, and people worry about losing their jobs. Such questions are important, but by themselves, they limit imagination and divert attention from deeper issues of faith and purpose. Managers are inescapably accountable for budget and bottom line; they have to respond to individual needs, legal requirements, and economic pressures. Leaders serve a deeper andmore durable function if they recognize that team building at its heart is a spiritual undertaking. It is both a search for the spirit within and creation of a community of believers united by shared faith and shared culture. Burton Clark calls this an organization’s saga, a story “between the coolness of rational purpose and the warmth of sentiment found in religion or magic . . . it includes affect that turns a formal place into a beloved institution” (Baldridge and Deal, 1975, p. 98). Peak performance emerges as a team discovers its soul.
NOTE 1. Unless otherwise attributed, page number citations in this chapter are to Kidder’s book. From
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Copyright! 1981 by John Tracy Kidder. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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14 c h a p t e r
Organization as Theater
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It
More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare captured an enduring truth we sometimes neglect in our love affair with facts and logic. Much of
human behavior aims at getting things accomplished. The assumption of linear causality works sometimes when outcomes are tangible and a link between means and ends is clear. A factory, we surmise, rises or falls on what it produces. But the logic falters when outcomes are less tangible and the connection between actions and outcomes is more elusive.
Think about a church or temple. Shall we rely on income statements and congregation size to gauge success? How do we capture the value of souls saved and lives enriched? Such elusive variables are hard to quantify, but focusing on what we canmeasure rather than what we care about is a formula for disappointment and failure. In theater, what appears on stage is draped in perception. The same is true of organizations. We judge them by how they appear and how well they follow the script we expect. Shared faith and liturgy tie believers together and bestow legitimacy. As in theater, performance, faith, and devotionmatter more than data and logic.
This is illustrated in a story and its accompanying drama that are central to the faith of Ethiopian Christians. The existence and location of the Ark of the Covenant is one of