Alsing, the group’s microcode expert, was as warm and approachable as West was cold and remote. Alsing headed theMicrokids, the group of young engineers who programmed the newmachine. Ed Rasala, Alsing’s counterpart, headed the Hardy Boys, the group’s hardware design team. Rasala was a solid, hyperactive, risk-taking, detail-oriented mechanic: “I may not be the smartest designer in the world, a CPU giant, but I’m dumb enough to stick with it to the end” (p. 142).
Diversity among the group’s other top engineers was evident in specialty as well as personality. One engineer, for example, was viewed as a creative genius who liked inventing an esoteric idea and then trying to make it work. Another was a craftsman who enjoyed !xing things, working tirelessly until the last bug had been tracked down and eliminated.
West buffered the team from upper management interference and served as a group “devil.” Wallach created the original design. Alsing and the Microkids created “a synaptic language that would fuse the physical machine with the programs that would tell it what to do” (p. 60). Rasala and the Hardy Boys built the physical circuitry. Understandably, there
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was tension among these diverse, highly specialized individuals and groups. Harnessing the resulting energy galvanized the parts into a working team.
Example, Not Command Wallach’s design generated modest coordination for Eagle’s autonomous individuals and groups. The group had some rules but paid little attention to them. Members viewed de Castro, the CEO, as a distant god. He was never there physically, but his presence was. West, the group’s of!cial leader, rarely interfered with the actual work, nor was he around in the laboratory. One Sunday morning in January, however, when the team was supposed to be resting, a Hardy Boy happened to come by the lab and found West sitting in front of one of the prototypes. The next Sunday, West wasn’t in the lab, and after that they rarely saw him. For a long time he did not hint that he might again put his hands inside the machine.
West contributed primarily by causing problems for the engineers to solve and making mundane events and issues appear special. He created an almost endless series of “brush- !res” so he could inspire his staff to douse them. He had a genius for !nding drama and romance in everyday routine. Other members of the group’s formal leadership followed de Castro andWest in creating ambiguity, encouraging inventiveness, and leading by example. Heroes of themoment gave inspiration and direction. Subtle and implicit signals rather than concrete and explicit guidelines or decisions held the group together and directed it toward a common goal.
Specialized Language Every group develops words, phrases, and metaphors unique to its circumstances. A specialized language both re”ects and shapes a group’s culture. Shared language allows team members to communicate easily, with minimal misunderstanding. To the members of the Eagle Group, for example, a kludge was a poor, inelegant solution—such as a machine with loose wires held together with duct tape. A canard was anything false. Fundamentals were the source of enlightened thinking. The word realistically typically prefaced “ights of fantasy. “Give me a core dump”meant tell me your thoughts. A stack over!owmeant that an engineer’s memory compartments were too full, and a one-stack-deep mind indicated shallow thinking. “Eagle” was a label for the project, and “Hardy Boys” and “Microkids” gave identity to the subgroups. Two prototype computers received the designations “Woodstock” and “Trixie.”
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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).