Harold Leavitt RIP

It must be all of thirty years since I first read one of Harold Leavitt’s books, Managerial Psychology; since then, I’ve dipped into the book a number of times. But not as often as I’ve dipped into a more recent book of his, Hot Groups. Or, to use its more formal title, Hot Groups: Seeding Them, Feeding Them, and Using Them to Ignite Your Organisation.

Written by Leavitt and his wife, Jean Lipman-Blumen, the book encapsulated a number of studies they’d done in the 1980s and 1990s, looking at how social networks behaved in organisations, leading on from earlier research on group decision-making and small-group behaviour. [Incidentally, I’d read some of the works of Dr Blumen without ever realising that I’d also been reading her husband’s books. Her 1996 book, The Connective Edge, is brilliant.]

To them, “hot groups” were small, passionate, idealistic groups who, for a brief period, exerted disproportionate influence on the strategy and direction of a firm. They took care to look at how these groups formed, what made them tick (an overwhelming sense of shared passion, purpose, belief), why they operated at the speed they did, what made them die out.

I think their work on “hot groups” is greatly underestimated, something I am trying to put right in the book I am writing with Chris Locke. Over the years, I have watched these Mayfly Marauders arise and die many times in large organisations. Every now and then I’ve been part of such a group, and learnt the hard way how the immune system of the firm crushes such change agents.

More recently, however, I’ve realised something quite valuable. That “Enterprise 2.0” tools actually help hot groups survive and thrive, that we finally have immunity from the attacks of enterprise immune systems. But more on this later.

In the meantime, do go read the works of Harold Leavitt and his wife; they can teach us a lot about the human aspect of complex adaptive systems; the world is a poorer place for his passing, and my condolences go to his wife and family. I learnt valuable things from what Dr Leavitt wrote, and I’d like to acknowledge my debt.

1 thought on “Harold Leavitt RIP”

  1. On Hot Groups and the immune systems of large firms, a quote from Donald Michie, an AI researcher, is quite applicable … “If a machine becomes very complicated, it becomes pointless to argue whether it has a mind of it’s own or not. It so obviously does that you had better get on good terms with it and shut up about the metaphysics” :)

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