Feynman on high-performing teams

So anyone who knows me IRL knows that I read stuff (probably too much). There are a few writers I keep looping back to – who teach me things about the world and about myself – and I probably read them (as in all the books I have by them) once or twice a year. One is Richard Feynman. This morning I got a treat of synchronicity, as I finished a report for a client explaining the importance of making sure the “why” of the things they worked on is known from end to end through the chain of value and work. I emailed the report off, and sat down to read and relax a bit. Then I tripped over this, from Los Alamos From Below (Feynman was a PhD student when recruited to the Manhattan Project, and finished his PhD while working on it):

And so, I was asked to stop working on the stuff I was doing in my group and go down and take over the IBM group. I noticed the disease (ed: the ‘playing with computers disease’) and I tried to avoid it. And although they did three problems in nine months, I had a very good group. The first problem was that they had never told the fellows-they had selected from all over the country, a thing called Special Engineer Detachment. There were clever boys from high school, who had engineering ability, and the Army collected them together in the Special Engineer Detachment. They sent them up to Los Alamos. They put them in barracks and they would tell them nothing. Then they came to work and what they had to do was work on IBM machines, punching holes, numbers that they didn't understand, nobody told them what it was. The thing was going very slowly.

I said that the first thing there has to be is that the technical guys know what we're doing. Oppenheimer went and talked to the security people and got special permission. So I had a nice lecture in which I told them what we were doing, and they were all excited. We're fighting a war. We see what it is. They knew what the numbers meant. If the pressure came out higher, that meant there was more energy released and so on and so on. They knew what they were doing. Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. They didn't need supervising in the night. They didn't need anything. They understood everything. They invented several of the programs that we used and so forth. So my boys really came through and all that had to be done was to tell them what it was, that's all. It's just, don't tell them, they're punching to do three problems before, we did nine problems in three months, which is about nearly ten times as fast.

I’ll call that a case study. Share it around and think about what doing that might look like in your world.