Punishers, Dissenters and Brainiacs

Once you acknowledge behaviors are crucial to R&D productivity, then hire for the behaviors. Look for individuals who have demonstrated levels of technical competency, and then concentrate on their personalities during the hiring process.

There is a common theme across many academic disciplines on the need for all teams to have a smattering of punishers, dissenters+ and brainiacs. These individuals play a very special, valuable, and disturbing role for the team. They possess skills not acquired in education or employment – they are personality types. These individuals are deliberately selected for these traits. They’ll drive you nuts if you’re unfamiliar with how their roles contribute to productivity. They’ll always make you uncomfortable. But ignore them at your own risk. It’s the role of team leadership to ensure these special individuals do not make the team dysfunctional, but more importantly that their special talents are not submerged in the name of consensus or conformity.

  • Punishers are those individuals who at great personal cost (anguish) ensure their colleagues are abiding by the rules. Most academic disciplines, from microbiology to anthropology, place special importance on punishers as integral to the smooth functioning of any group. Without punishers, unpunished peccadilloes grow into major infractions that can end up in the ruin of the perpetrator and sometimes of the whole family. The habit of disrespecting rules spreads like a contagion, and only an individual on the ground, the punisher, stops these bad habits in their tracks.
  • Dissenters are individuals not shy about pointing out faults in the thinking of others. Their dissent is not just occasional; it’s habitual. Dissenters are most at home in conflict. They only reluctantly say yes. Their instinct is to say no. Dissenters are the only sure fire remedy for avoiding retrospective distortion+ in team thinking. Dissenters improve the quality of decisions and the commitment to decisions once they are made.
  • Brainiacs are those unkempt geniuses that live at home with their mothers. They are not interested in anything having to do with the business but love the science, and reliably produce breakthroughs over time. There may be that one insight every 10 years but it can carry the entire enterprise forward for the next 10 years.

Michael Keaton plays the role of James ‘Jim’ Angleton aka Mother in The Company (2007), a made-for-TV miniseries based on actual events.
A fun illustration of a brainiac at work comes from a scene in The Company (2007), a made-for-TV miniseries based on actual events. Michael Keaton plays the role of the Brainiac, James ‘Jim’ Angleton aka Mother. Alfred Molina plays the role of Harvey Torriti aka The Sorcerer, a field intelligence officer with 30 years of street smart, and a strong distaste for the likes of Mother and his back office techniques. Mother (Angleton) explains how he was able to uncover one of the most damaging traitors in CIA history, a Soviet informer known by the codename Sasha.

Mother (James ‘Jim’ Angleton): The Company has roughly 20,000 regular employees and 4,000 contract employees. Clandestine system alone has 5,000. 4,000 in Washington, another 1,000 spread over the globe.

Sorcerer (Harvey Torriti): You’re loving this aren’t you, Jim? Taking your time, drawing it out. Your moment on the stage after years sitting in a dark little room with your little bits of information.

CIA Director: Torriti, we’ll hear him out.

Mother (James ‘Jim’ Angleton): You will want to hear me out, Harvey, because my tentative conclusion is that Pinnacle may be that rarest of breeds. A genuine defector.

CIA Director: You want to walk us through the information, Jim?

Mother (James ‘Jim’ Angleton): Information. Yes. Number one, Pinnacle claims Sasha is a Russian speaker. Two, Sasha’s last name begins with the letter K. The computer came back with the names of 244 Russian-speaking Company employees who have the last name beginning with the letter K, all of whom are expected to be away from Washington till Sunday. Which brings me to the point that I’ve put on the back burner for 13 years. You need the patience of a saint for counterintelligence. Nurturing seemingly meaningless bits of data, amassing and collecting thousands of unrelated facts and creating an interlocking picture which really only comes into focus through your own interpretation. And all the while you hear voices whispering behind your back. ‘Mother’s obsessed,’ they say. ‘Paranoid. A conclusion searching for confirmatory evidence.’ Believe me, I heard it all. I heard every word.

Sorcerer (Harvey Torriti): The information, Mother.

Mother (James ‘Jim’ Angleton): I always knew if we could find Sasha’s cutout (i.e., courier), we could find Sasha. And that is what I’ve been waiting for all this time. …1961, the FBI stumbled across an old communist named Max Cohen, aka Kahn. Kahn provided the perfect cover for a Soviet cutout who lived above his store, who delivered liquor to hundreds of clients in the Washington area. A cutout by the name of Dodgson, which, curiously, was the real name of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. … it makes you wonder if [he] isn’t, like Lewis Carroll, creating worlds within worlds for all of us to get lost in. Dodgson got away, but I didn’t forget him. Not for a moment. All these years, nurturing bits of data, seemingly meaningless pieces of evidence. You have to have the patience of a saint.

CIA Director: James!

Mother (James ‘Jim’ Angleton): I looked over Kahn’s delivery invoices for the past 10 years and discovered that sometime in the ‘50s, Dodgson had been delivering to a double agent, my friend and former colleague, Adrian Philby. With Philby gone, it seemed logical to suppose that Dodgson would act as a cutout for Philby’s replacement … Sasha. Dodgson knew he could sacrifice Philby, but Sasha was still delivering valuable information. Checking through Kahn’s clients who had been on the receiving end of deliveries during the previous 10 years, I was able to identify the names of 167 full-time Company employees and 64 contract employees.

Sorcerer (Harvey Torriti): You matched the liquor delivery list against the names of Company employees who are currently out of the country, whose last names began with K, and who spoke Russian?

CIA Director: That’s pretty damn clever, James.

Mother (James ‘Jim’ Angleton): It seemed too good to be true. And it was. None of the names cross-referenced. It may have looked like a dead end to the ordinary eye, but not to mine. Last Saturday, as my wife was on the telephone making restaurant reservations in her maiden name … security precautions … it hit me. Sasha could have a wife. Sasha could have his wife order the liquor from Kahn’s using her maiden name. In the six years between Philby’s disappearance and Max Kahn’s arrest, I’ve compared the maiden names of the wives Dodgson had delivered liquor to against the suspects from the Pinnacle leads.

Sorcerer (Harvey Torriti): That’s brilliant. So what was the maiden name?

Mother (James ‘Jim’ Angleton): You’re not going to like it.

CIA Director: What?

Michael Keaton plays his role as Mother brilliantly, fully showing the loneliness, the persistence, and the quirkiness of one of the most insightful and brilliant desk officers of the CIA. Mother was not someone you would invite out for a beer after work.

You often don’t know which behaviors will contribute to high R&D productivity. The Management Sciences provide some help: there are dozens of books describing personality traits needed for high productivity, for example completer finishers, team builders, etc. These are mostly directed towards activities having high levels of repetitiveness. I recommend the three types above as important to creative efforts and am supported in this conclusion by a large body of evidence+ across several academic disciplines.1234

For a major manufacturer of home building supplies involved in a major product liability case, hundreds of thousands of depositions from alleged victims were collected nationally. We established seven regional offices and gave each a mandate to gather, analyze and computerize as many depositions as possible. It was a highly repetitive task. The management approach for each office, which housed 20 to 100 paralegals, was left up to the principal in charge.

After a few months, a retrospective analysis was performed to see which management style gave the greatest productivity. Productivity in this case was a simple matter of counting database entries. What was found was that a variety of management styles, from laissez faire to command-and-control could be highly productive. Each office had defined its own unique style and even the most unexpected, laid back office showed high productivity. Also there seemed to be no overriding feature that predicted low productivity levels.

One common observation in highly productive offices was there seemed to be a sense of passion and fun in the paralegals that overcame the repetitive nature of the work. For example, in one highly productive office the paralegals diligently maintained a laugh board containing the most outrageous comments culled from the depositions, complete with prizes and ceremony. The bulletin board was spontaneous and informal. It worked, but was a sign of high productivity, not the source.

To get individuals to continually grow and evolve (i.e., continue to be highly productive) throw extra ingredients into the mix. New individuals add a touch of randomness. Without them a team can become static. One intriguing concept is an open team approach, where members walk in and out, but several remain as a backbone of the team. Behaviors evolve through continuous exchange with these outside personalities.

There is no one correct answer for team composition in highly-creative organizations. Take a starter set of recommendations and try them. If they work, great. If not, then adjust.

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