A Conversation with Geoff Bellman, Author of Extraordinary Groups, on March Madness and the Future of OD

By admin on March 17, 2011

At our 2010 Organizational Development Summit, I had the opportunity to speak with Geoff Bellman, a consultant for over 40 years and the author of six books, including his newest, Extraordinary Groups.  At the 2011 Summit, he will lead a session on “Employee Engagement and Establishing Trust” as part of our HR Generalist School. Enroll in the HR Generalist School now, and you will also get a year of leadership video broadcasts as part of our Thought Leader Series.

Geoff Bellman

Geoff Bellman

You led a very popular workshop here titled, How to Help Your Team Deliver Amazing Results. Tell me about it.

I was talking about a field study that my co-author, Kathleen Ryan, and I initiated now about four years ago.  We were intrigued by what makes great groups great, so we decided to go out and talk to them.  We talked to people from 60 groups, about half of them more traditional work groups – instructional systems, design groups, marketing, accounting, financial executives – but we also talked to motorcycle clubs and basketball teams and hospice groups and marriage retreats.

Our thesis was that great groups have a lot in common.  Small groups of 2 to 20 people that get really excited about something will have the same kinds of excitement, whether it’s a basketball team or a group of financial executives in Switzerland.  Our study bore that out.  The content in the session includes the results of that work, and so does the book, Extraordinary Groups.

Can you share some of the results with us?

Of the areas that we wrote a lot about, based on our interviews with all these people, was what goes on in extraordinary groups.  What is it that they do that makes them so great?  We came up with eight indicators of extraordinary group performance.  I’ll mention a couple here:

One extremely important one is that these great groups have a purpose all the members of the group find compelling – just blow-out compelling.  It’s important in their work.  It’s important in their lives.  You could awaken them in the middle of the night, and they can tell you what the group’s compelling purpose is.  They share that purpose.  It makes them different from ordinary groups in that an ordinary group maybe the leader can tell you that compelling purpose, but others can’t.  So, that’s one.

Another one, speaking of leaders, is these groups typically share leadership even when there’s a designated leader—and there isn’t always—but even when there’s a designated leader, people in the group feel responsible for helping the group move to where it needs to go now.  So they initiate.  They don’t just turn to the woman at the head of the table and say, “When in the hell is she going to do something about this?”  No.  They take responsibility. So, that’s a couple of examples – compelling purpose, shared leadership – two of the eight performance indicators we talk about.

If I’m a member of a group, what can I do to make it extraordinary?

You can pay attention to the things like shared leadership.  Are you doing your share as a member of the group?  Are others?  If you’re not, that’s a block to extraordinariness.  It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be an awful group.  It’s just that you’re not going be an extraordinary group.

Could I awaken you in the middle of the night and ask you what the purpose of this group is and could you tell me in a really convincing way?  Does that purpose align with how other people in the group see it?  Are you all aware of that purpose?  Do you use that purpose to make decisions day to day?  Extraordinary groups do. So you could pay attention to what the group is doing.

Another thing you can pay attention to is how people feel as a result of being in the group.  Extraordinary groups exude energy.  They’re highly energized around what they do.  They’re very positive.  They’re very hopeful about the future.  They feel that the group experience itself has changed them.  Look at your group.  Is it energized?  Is it hopeful?  Does it feel changed in positive ways around the work that it’s doing?

I am going to look for these things in NCAA teams when I fill out my bracket for March Madness.

Extraordinary Team

An Extraordinary Team at the 2010 Organizational Development Summit

Yes.  When you look at what great basketball teams report when they get interviewed afterwards, it is the same kind of data that Kathleen and I collected when we talked to people from these 60 groups.  Extraordinary groups deliver results – tangible results that they value, tangible results that their sponsors, their corporation, their employers, for example, value.  But they also deliver intangible results: those great feelings that they have amongst themselves that they haven’t been able to find elsewhere and that they want to repeat again and again in their lives.  Often the March Madness teams report out on that softer intangible stuff that’s valued by the team itself and not necessarily fully appreciated by people that are outside the team.

You’ve been in the field of organizational development for a long time.  Talk to me about the changes you’ve seen.

I got into this field in the late sixties. In those early years, I was among the majority of people that didn’t know what the hell they were doing in organization development.  Even the people that we looked to for guidance on organization development, like Ed Schein, didn’t know what they were doing.  It was a time of great experimentation.  We didn’t have all of these books that are available now.  We didn’t have all these peers that show up at an OD summit, like Linkage offers, where you can talk with other people who do the work that you do.  We didn’t have that.  We met each other occasionally and sporadically.

So, we had to make up a lot of stuff, and we made a lot of mistakes along the way.  One of the great things that did for us is it made us into designers of change interventions, designers of events, designers of ways to engage teams and groups.

Nowadays, there’s all this stuff that’s available.  Nowadays, too many people are choosing from menus, and they ought to be designing more.  They ought to be figuring out what to do, not, “Would Harrison Owen say this is the right way to do open space?”  No.  Take Harrison Owen’s ideas – those that you like – and use them, and reject the rest.  Combine them with Marv Weisbord’s and Peter Block’s and other people’s ideas about how to engage organizations.  Become a designer.  Become more of an architect than just a builder with other people’s products.

On the other hand, we have far more people doing organization development work now than we’ve ever had.  They’re not always called OD people.  There’s really been a setback in organizations as far as people that hold titles like that, but line managers are doing organization development work.  Human resource people are, and organization development people are as well.

That’s the big shift: more people out there doing it.  We’ve had a profound influence in Western business.

Walter Bond

Walter Bond will speak at the 2011 Organizational Development Summit. He also knows a lot about extraordinary basketball teams.

As you look ahead, what do you see for the field of Organizational Development?

We are in transition.  People have been saying, “Is OD alive?  Is OD dying?” Frankly, I’m not worried about that.  This field has only been around for 45 or 50 years.  This is not a very well-established field.  Our knowledge, though shared widely is kind of ambiguous at its core.

I think that OD is still evolving, emerging.  We don’t know what it’s going to become, and some of us who’ve been around longer are inclined to lament some of the things that we’ve lost from the past.  That past informs where we’re going.  It’s a different world today.  We don’t have as much time as we used to have.  We’ve got a lot of different media available to us.

I think that we’re going find more ways to mediate virtual groups and bring those OD values around human beings and the contribution they make into these highly diverse teams that we’re putting together now.

Where can they get the book, Extraordinary Groups, that you and Kathleen Ryan have written?

If you want to learn more about those points that I just touched on, you can go to http://ExtraordinaryGroups.com.  That will tell you a lot more about it, and if you want to buy the book, you can do it through there.

I expect to see a big spike in sales right in March as people are filling out their basketball brackets.

Yes.  It’ll help March Madness a lot.

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