The books written by SEALs generally underscore the important contributions of the team’s tightly knit culture. The members of Team Six “are bound together not only by sworn oaths, but also by the obligations of their brotherhood” (Pfarrer, 2011, p. 28). As one SEAL described it, “My relationship with Team Six has been more important than my marriage” (Wasdin and Templin, 2011, p. 254). Posttraumatic stress disorder among returning soldiers has been attributed to the loss of brotherhood. Published sources sometimes mention pranks, humor, ritual, and specialized language, but they don’t describe in depth the essential cultural components that create these intense emotional and spiritual bonds.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, Sixth Edition. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. ! 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by Jossey-Bass.
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Descriptions, prescriptions, and theories about improving teamwork often miss the deeper secrets and mysteries of how groups and teams reach the elusive state of grace and peak performance. Former Visa CEO Dee Hock captured the heart of the issue: “In the !eld of group endeavor, you will see incredible events in which the group performs far beyond the sum of its individual talents. It happens in the symphony, in the ballet, in the theater, in sports, and equally in business. It is easy to recognize and impossible to de!ne. It is a mystique. It cannot be achieved without immense effort, training, and cooperation, but effort, training, and cooperation alone rarely create it” (quoted in Schlesinger, Eccles, and Gabarro, 1983, p. 173).
With a population of only slightly more than 2 million people in the 1770s, how was the United States able to produce an extraordinary leadership team that included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington? In World War II, did anyone believe that Britain’s Royal Air Force could defend the island nation against the overwhelming power of Hitler’s Luftwaffe? As Winston Churchill later commented, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”
Did anyone expect the Iraqi soccer team to take home the Asian Cup in 2007? With all the turmoil and strife at the time in Iraq, it is hard to picture the country even !elding a team. And how could two graduate students who came from opposite ends of the earth (Michigan and Moscow), and who initially didn’t like each other, create a company whose name—Google—became a global household word?
Are such peak performances simply a great mystery—beautiful when they happen but no more predictable or controllable than California’s next earthquake? Too often we try to attribute success to extraordinary individuals, enlightened structural design, or political harmony. In this chapter, we scrutinize a classic case of a team that achieved a state of transcendence. Tracy Kidder spent a year embedded in a group of engineers, intimately observing it in operation. The unusually in-depth and close-grained story takes us directly to the symbolic roots of “ow, spirit, and magic. Very few studies of teams can match Kidder’s rigor and attention to detail.
THE EAGLE GROUP’S SOURCES OF SUCCESS Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine (1981) is the dazzling and detailed account of the extensive period of time he spent at the minicomputer !rm Data General in the 1970s with a group of engineers who created a new computer in record time. Despite scant resources and limited support, the Eagle Group outperformed all other Data General divisions to produce a new
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state-of-the-art machine. The technology they developed is now antiquated, but lessons drawn from how they pulled it off are as current and instructive ever.1
Why did the Eagle Group succeed? So many groups of engineers—or educators, physicians, executives, or graduate students—start out with high hopes but falter and fail.
Were the project members extraordinarily talented? Not really. Each was highly skilled, but there were equally talented engineers working on other Data General projects.
Were team members treated with dignity and respect? Quite the contrary. As one engineer noted, “No one ever pats anyone on the back” (p. 179). Instead, the group experienced what they called mushroom management: “Put ‘em in the dark, feed ‘em shit, and watch ‘em grow” (p. 109). For over a year, group members jeopardized their health, their families, and their careers: “I’m “at out by de!nition. I’m a mess. It’s terrible. It’s a lot of fun” (p. 119).
Were !nancial rewards a motivating factor? Group members said explicitly that they did not work for money. Nor were they motivated by fame. Heroic efforts were rewarded neither by formal appreciation nor by of!cial applause. The group quietly dissolved shortly after completing the new computer, and most members moved unrecognized to other parts of Data General or to other companies. Their experience !ts later successes at Cisco Systems, about which Paulson concludes, “All personnel are driven by the desire to be a part of a winning organization” (2001, p. 187).
Perhaps the group’s structure accounted for its success. Were its members pursuing well-de!ned and laudable goals? The group leader, Tom West, offered the precept that “not everything worth doing is worth doing well.” Pushed to translate his maxim, he elaborated, “If you can do a quick-and-dirty job and it works, do it” (p. 119). Did the group have clear and well-coordinated roles and relationships? According to Kidder, it kept no meaningful charts, graphs, or organization tables. One of the group’s engineers put it bluntly: “The whole management structure—anyone in Harvard Business School would have barfed” (p. 116).
Can the political frame unravel the secret of the group’s phenomenal performance? Possibly group members were motivated more by power than by money: “There’s a big high in here somewhere for me that I don’t fully understand. Some of it’s a raw power trip. The reason I work is because I win” (p. 179). They were encouraged to circumvent formal channels to advance group interests: “If you can’t get what you need from some manager at your level in another department, go to his boss—that’s the way to get things done” (p. 191).
Group members were also unusually direct and confrontational: “Feeling sorely pro- voked, [David] Peck one day said to this engineer, ‘You’re an asshole.’Ordered by his boss to
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apologize, Peck went to the man he had insulted, looking sheepish, and said, ‘I’m sorry you’re an asshole’” (p. 224).
The group was highly competitive with others in the company: “There’s a thing you learn at Data General, if you work here for any period of time . . . that nothing ever happens unless you push it” (p. 111). They also competed with one another. Their “tube wars” are a typical example. Carl Alsing, head of a subgroup known as the Microkids, returned from lunch one day to !nd that all his !les had become empty shells: the names were there, but the contents had vanished. It took him an hour to !nd where the real !les were. Alsing counterattacked by creating an encrypted !le and tantalizing the team, “There’s erotic writing in there and if you can !nd it, you can read it” (p. 107).
Here we begin to encounter the secrets of the group’s success. The tube wars—and other exchanges among group members—were more than power struggles. They were a form of play that released tensions, created bonds, and contributed to an unusual group spirit. A shared and cohesive culture rather than a clear, well-de!ned structure was the invisible force that gave the team its drive.
From the Eagle Group’s experience, we can distill several important tenets of the symbolic frame that are broadly applicable to groups and teams:
• How someone becomes a group member is important.
• Diversity supports a team’s competitive advantage.
• Example, not command, holds a team together.
• A specialized language fosters cohesion and commitment.
• Stories carry history and values and reinforce group identity.
• Humor and play reduce tension and encourage creativity.
• Ritual and ceremony lift spirits and reinforce values.
• Informal cultural players contribute disproportionately to their formal roles.
• Soul is the secret of success.
Becoming a Member Joining a team involves more than a rational decision. It is a mutual choice marked by some form of ritual. In the Eagle Group, the process of becoming a member was called “signing up.” When interviewing recruits, Alsing conveyed the message that they were volunteering to climbMount Everest without a rope despite lacking the “right stuff” to keep up with other
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climbers. When the new recruits protested they wanted to climb Mount Everest anyway, Alsing told them they would !rst have to !nd out whether they were good enough. After the selections were made, Alsing summed it up this way: “It was kind of like recruiting for a suicide mission. You’re gonna die, but you’re gonna die in glory” (p. 66).
Through the signing-up ritual, an engineer became part of a special effort and agreed to forsake family, friends, and health to accomplish the impossible. It was a sacred declaration: “I want to do this job and I’ll give it my heart and soul” (p. 63).
Diversity Is a Competitive Advantage Though nearly all the group’s members were engineers, each had unique skills and style. Tom West, the group’s leader, was by reputation a highly talented technical debugger. He was also aloof and unapproachable, the “Prince of Darkness.” Steve Wallach, the group’s computer architect, was a highly creative maverick. According to Kidder (p. 75), before accepting West’s invitation to join the group, he went to Edson de Castro, the president of Data General, to !nd out precisely what he’d be working on:
“Okay,” Wallach said, “what the fuck do you want?” “I want a 32-bit Eclipse,” de Castro told him. “If we can do this, you won’t cancel it on us?” Wallach asked. “You’ll leave us alone?” “That’s what I want, a 32,” de Castro assured him, “a 32-bit Eclipse and no mode bit.” Wallach signed up. His love of literature, stories, and verse provided a literary