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“Organising Genius” - a reading group


Solving the grand challenges that face humanity in the 21st century is likely to require bringing together extraordinary people to solve “wicked problems”. But while extreme talent is often associated with extreme achievement, it’s easy for organisations to be less than the sum of their parts.

This reading course looks at the problem of “organising genius” through the lens of organisations that, across a range of domains, have succeeded in aggregating the efforts of “outlier” individuals to achieve exceptional collective output. These organisations are responsible for some of humanity’s most striking achievements, from the moon landings to the establishment of the US constitution.

What can we learn from these organisations? What are their origins? How did they attract and organise talent? What do they have in common? How do they vary across time and domains? What causes them to fail or decline in prominence?

Each week of this course looks at a different domain of activity and concludes with a synoptic session that considers both the learnings and limitations of this approach.


The case studies are primarily of organisations focused on a common goal or purpose, rather than networks of talented people each pursuing their own aims. We are, though, interested in “bottom up” and emergent groups, as well as classic top-down organisations.

The case studies also generally focus on a single period of extreme achievement, rather than looking at longevity itself as an achievement (e.g. it doesn’t look at universities or elite military units that have remained pre-eminent for decades or centuries).


Matt Clifford and Arnaud Schenk will host a group in London that will meet fortnightly to discuss a single session’s reading.

We welcome volunteers who want to organise groups in other locations or with another cadence.



Session 1 - The challenge of organising genius

  • Introduction (1p)
  • The end of the Great Man (~16p)
  • Introduction (6p)
  • Collaborative Circles and Creative Work (19p)

Part one: Organised Excellence

Session 2: The Manhattan Project

  • The Manhattan Project (9p)
  • The Long Grave Already Dug (28p)
  • Chapters 14 to 17 (179p)
  • Part III (5p)
  • Part IV (15p)
  • Chapter XII (17p)

Session 3: The Apollo Mission

  • Introduction (8p)
  • Program management (24p)
  • Dominic Cummings

Session 4: The great technology labs

  • ARPA
  • Xerox PARC
  • Bell Labs
  • Lockheed Martin Skunkworks

Part two: Emergent Genius

Session 5: Silicon Valley and MIT

  • Tech Model Railroad Club
  • Fairchild Semiconductor 
  • The Homebrew Computer Club

Session 6: 18th Century Europe

  • The Invisible College and the Royal Society
  • The Encyclopedistes
  • The Select Society

Session 7: Disrupting politics

  • The American Revolution
  • The Mont Pelerin Society
  • Presidential Campaigns
  • Organizing Genius, “Selling a place called hope”
  • Chapter 2 (Liberal Legal Network)
  • Chapter 5 (The Federalist Society)

Part three: Themes and critiques

Session 8 - Non-Western perspectives

  • Reading list TBD

Session 9 - Do we know what makes organising genius work?

  • Leadership vs “holocracy”, Mission vs Discovery
  • Causation, correlation and survivorship bias