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Book Review: Hot Spots
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Book Review: Hot Spots by Lynda Gratton

Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces and Organizations Buzz with Energy—and Others Don't

Written by: Lynda Gratton. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2007. 213+xii pages. 
Reviewed by: George Castellion

Hot Spots

Product development and innovation practitioners will find value in Lynda Gratton's clear account of her research on her concept of hot spots, which occur when people are working together in creative and collaborative ways. The concept's framing can help practitioners flesh out effective ways of supporting corporate strategy initiatives such as open innovation. From her research they will also learn how to identify and avoid big freeze traps, which drain hot spots' energy.

Gratton uses a thermal imaging metaphor to view the hustle and bustle of work in a firm as if seeing it from a mountain. Most of the vista appears green. Work is happening with unexceptional excitement or energy. Some areas, however, flare up in bright orange and red: hot spots. Here people are working in out-of-the-ordinary creative and collaborative ways. In other parts of the vista the color appears blue. Here, for these people the energy is going down, and they are beginning to chill: the big freeze. The metaphor sounds corny, but it worked for me in understanding the book's peer-reviewed research and case studies that underpin the metaphor's insights.

The author's research on hot spots started in 1995 when she and a colleague, Sumantra Ghoshal, at London Business School studied some of the world's top-performing companies in producing business value. From these studies grew a large-scale research project, Cooperative Advantage Research (CAR), launched in 2003. This project surveyed more than 500 employees in 42 work teams in 17 companies in the United States, Europe, and Asia. The author asked team members about their experiences when working in the team and the context in which they worked. The author also asked about the design of the tasks a team worker performed and the team worker's view of the team performance. In addition, the author collected data from the leaders and heads of each team and from members of the firm's human resources group.

Within hot spots, for example, new product opportunities are identified and become contagious. The CAR project describes three elements—cooperative mind-set, boundary spanning, and an igniting purpose—that, in combination with productive capacity, cause hot spots to flare up.

cooperative mind-set is an innovative capacity that comes from people freely sharing intelligence, insights, and wisdom. While training and rewards can play a key role in supporting a cooperative mind-set, in the long run new hires learn cooperation by noting how other employees of the firm treat one another.

The value of boundary spanning depends on which boundaries are spanned and to what extent. One outcome occurs when members of an existing group exploit their common knowledge for continuous improvement. A second outcome occurs when people know each other well but have different roles. Good value is created as each person with different mind-sets explores in depth what the other person knows. A third outcome occurs when boundaries are spanned between relative strangers with different mind-sets. In this third outcome, innovation of great value results through the insights and the novelty of new relations with others.

One of the insights of the CAR project is that at the heart of every failure to develop hot spots are deep “unwritten rules” of the firm. Some firms have rhetoric and written values singing the praises of cooperation and boundary spanning, but the reality is different. One firm's unwritten rules encouraged people to outshine everyone around them. Turf battles between senior executives were a common practice and often spilled out into the hallways. As a result, a big freeze set in. Important knowledge was hoarded even though the firm's value statement highlighted that “teamwork is crucial to the performance of this company.” Within the first month, new hires clearly understood the unwritten rules and learned to talk about cooperation but to act competitively.

In the mind-sets of people, there are two types of knowledge: explicit and tacit. The former is objective and easy to write down and access; the latter is experiential and more difficult to express and codify. People in hot spots will share their tacit knowledge with someone else only if they get to know and trust the other person.

One counterintuitive finding of the hot spot research was that weak ties rather than strong ties between acquaintances and associates across boundaries were important for creating innovative value. Where strong ties exist, people talk about what they already know, and there is redundancy of knowledge. Paradoxically, weak ties help diffuse information faster and create innovative value through energetic new combinations and access to novel information.

When an igniting purpose flares up, people flock to it—they want to be part of it. At the center of igniting purpose are conversations between peers. Sometimes it takes the form of an igniting question, one that results from people thinking about the future. Other times it's an igniting vision, which creates an image of what the future could be. Finally, for some hot spots, it's an igniting task, which is so ambiguous and with so much potential business value that people flock to be a contributing part of it.

The more complex a hot spot, the greater the need for making sure its productive capacity is available to release latent energy to increase an innovation's value. Complexity is high when most members of the hot spot are not in the same geographical location or even the same time zone, when they have not met fellow group members, and when they have different characteristics and experiences. Five productive practices, in the sequence in which they often emerge in a hot spot, are (1) appreciating talents, (2) making commitments, (3) resolving conflicts, (4) synchronizing time, and (5) setting up a rhythm.

Without any form of conflict, a potential hot spot can evolve into a tepid country club. The author's research found that the most frequent sources of conflict revolved around the use of time, both in synchronizing work and in individual pacing preferences on the rhythm of work. The members of the hot spot need to surface and admit these conflicts. They resolve them by keeping in mind the needed performance outcomes such as meeting deadlines while retaining the dexterity to provide time for reflection.

While hot spots provide the energy to fuel performance improvements and innovations, they are a challenge to craft and develop. Gratton notes that hot spots emerge with regularity in organizations where the executive group first locates existing hot spots. Next, they view areas where the big freeze has taken over. They then map the system to see how it works together and to understand the context in which hot spots emerge in their organization. Then they explore new ways to create fertile ground for emerging hot spots in big freeze areas of future importance. Finally, the executive group takes action to invest significant numbers of people, time, and money to shepherd emerging and necessary hot spots through the forces working for and against change.

In the final chapter, Gratton describes how the U.K. telecom company BT used experiments to map the system where a big freeze has taken over. Data from the engineering group at BT showed this was becoming an increasingly disengaged group. The engineers were not willing to work cooperatively with each other. When members of the executive team examined the situation, they realized the engineering teams felt so overwhelmed by the pressure of their work that they were working more and more as individuals and less and less cooperatively.

In the past, BT had made little use of work redesign. Now, however, a couple of members of the executive team designed three experiments to build the business case for job redesign. Before beginning the experiments, the team defined the criteria they would use to evaluate the experiments. They chose the following: absence rates; engagement of the engineers with their work (using a survey with 20 engagement items); and measures of productivity, such as cooperation of engineering team members and a team's rate of productivity.

In the first experiment, nothing was changed about the way the engineers worked. In the second, they used the habitual BT response and ran a two-day reengagement program. In the third experiment, the team worked with the engineers to redesign the way work was done with an eye to reducing time pressure and stress.

After one year the executive team, using the evaluation criteria found that in the first experiment there was no change. In the second, there was a slight initial change, but after six months the evaluation criteria results fell back to normal. In the third experiment, the BT engineering team was on average 20% more productive and 20% more engaged, and absence rates had decreased significantly.

The book closes with three appendices. Appendix A contains 13 pages of resources for creating hot spots. Included are diagnostics, profiling tools, mapping techniques, and questions designed to help surface key issues when using these tools and techniques. Appendix B briefly discusses six disciplines—psychology, sociology, economics, human resources, organizational development, and philosophy—and how they influenced the thinking underpinning this book. Appendix C outlines the method of the hot spots research.

Seasoned and new practitioners wrestling with collaboration and open innovation issues will find tools and insights they can apply to help in resolving the issues. The clarity with which Gratton presents her research and its outcomes will reward consultants who want to help their clients understand the how and why of effective cross-functional product development projects.

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