“Human beings can’t help it: We need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people.” – from the book Tribes by Seth Godin
I have been doing a good deal of what I call “skim reading” lately. It’s a process that I use that allows me to get some overview of a book I am interested in before I invest my total attention to the book itself. What has interested me the most within the past few months is the idea of “tribes” inside an organization.
The reason I even started exploring this idea was simple and two fold. As a leader, I have a strong belief in 3 core principles surrounding this idea:
- I believe that ability to make decisions that affect the work should be made at the lowest reasonable level.
- If I did my due diligence and hired well, then I have to have trust those whom I have hired.
- I ask everyone that I lead to apply (at a level outside of their personal satisfaction) the measurement of reasonableness and responsibility. Are we doing something that makes sense for the organization and is it responsible to ourselves, our team members and our organization? If we can meet this litmus test, I am willing to back an experiment to learn.
The other rationale for my exploration of this idea is selfish. I saw a good deal of items “in queue” for myself and my team leaders without much movement and more and more ideas coming on the horizon. We were stuck. I realized that if my organization expected me to care about everything with the same passion that the person originating the idea had, I might always be the bottleneck as the horizon is far too vast.
So after spending some time skimming materials and thinking of what might be holding back, I decided to try an experiment and see how it stuck. This is how the use of tribes began to be something I cared about. An idea came to me that I could better serve my organization by harnessing the power of other people’s passions and creativity to move items as opposed to trying to be the launching pad for new ideas.
What is a tribe?
My definition of a tribe is a loose voluntary collection of individuals that self-organize around a defined cause and work to implement action from their group to address the need. I know some may think this sounds like a committee but there is one critical distinction, the tribe is voluntarily created from those individuals passionate about the idea or willing to invest their own time and energy and not people assigned to carry something forward to an action.
Also, I think another key distinction is that these tribes do not have to exist in perpetuity, the form, change and dissolve via guidance of the tribe itself. How many “planning committees” have you found yourself on that lived on well after the usefulness of the meeting to develop a plan had been met?
How many of these committees such as these have you found yourself appointed to in which you had little to offer, were appointed based on role or just basically did not care about the outcome? My thought is that if we harness the passion of people who are truly interested in an idea and allow them to apply their own creativity, we stand the potential to gain amazing results. Three examples from my current environment are:
- A tribe that determined how to organize birthday celebrations for people in our group. This tribe really likes the idea of personalizing this and worked diligently not only to produce a list of people’s birthdays but surrounding information around team members so that the celebrations could hold higher personalization.
- A tribe that helped craft our final core team values and took ownership to work with me for input and ensure that unit presentation and buy-in occurred.
- A tribe that has surrounded the idea and organization of our first Shipit event including branding through logo creation, planning, support and organization.
These are just three current examples of how we used this concept and the outcomes from a group of passionate people surrounding an idea.
How does this work?
I wanted to keep the idea as simple as possible so that we did not find ourselves bogged down in process over trying to get something done.
- If you have an idea for which you want to garner tribal support, send out a “call to action” for volunteers. Currently this is an email out to our group. I’d like to think about a more visible way to do this as my hope is to spread the idea across the division (maybe a tribe for that?)
- Tribes ideas are discussed in the leadership meeting (the tribal council) bi-weekly to ensure that we are doing things that are in line with missions and goals. This is not a rigorous test but just for visibility primarily.
- Tribes are voluntary. If no one steps up to join your tribe, then this might be a solitary passion or not the right time to generate action on this idea. Do not take it personally.
- The owner of the idea for which the tribe is sought is the chief and default point person for that tribe. It is their responsibility to make the idea and action visible, get backing or resources needed (or reach out for tribal support) and implement.
- It is unnecessary for lead members to be on any or every tribe. In our organization, everyone has a voice in how we work and tribes should reflect this. Leaders might be seen as guides for which ideas can be discussed, clarification given, information obtained, etc. I believe that this helps people feel connected to each other and to the organization as a whole by knowing that their voice is heard.
- Tribes will band and disband as dictated by value and the group. If improvement of a prior tribal idea is sought, a new tribe can be created in the future (supports continual improvement) or the former tribe may re-group.
- Once formed, the tribal members determine how and when they meet.
- Once an actionable plan is formed (and any supporting needs met) the tribe should make visible their intent to implement this action.
- The tribe is responsible for gathering feedback if needed and adjust as appropriate.
- The tribe stays connected until they determine the action is in place and disbands if necessary.
- If I tribal action fails, we learn from it and move on. we don’t dwell on it. We “improve or move on”.
Benefits of Tribes
I think the core value to using this concept is that we support a cultural idea that anyone can drive change in their world. This gives them a mechanism to do this.
Secondly, to be an effective leader, we cannot give our attention and care to every idea that comes up. This allows us to utilize the creativity and drive of people who have a passion for an idea to drive change. I am a firm believer that if someone is passionate about an idea, they will work harder to make a better concept if given the space to do.
Third, it supports self-organization and self-management principles within your organization. It allows groups to guide how they work together in the best way possible to the group. By leaving the guidance out of the organizational structure, it allows the tribal members to shape how they interact and how they manage the idea to action.
Last, it supports trust within our organization. If as a leader, we do a good job of communicating base level expectations of how we approach things as an organization and we hire for the best people who fit culturally and skill-wise into our organization, then we are doing a true disservice to our team not to trust them and allow input, daily work decisions and drive for change not the lowest possible level.
I wanted to share this idea and how I implemented it in my organization. This is not a new concept by any means; and used in tribal leadership management styles, holacracy and a lot of other team focused management approaches, but this is how we do it.
So, I ask you … Is there a nagging need in your organization that has been hanging around with no traction to action? Do you think there are others who are impassioned to see this succeed? Maybe try forming a tribe, even if informally as an experiment. You might be impressed to see that idea move towards action.
I came across a quote regarding tribes and found it meaningful while thinking about this post that I will close with …
“You are truly home only when you find your tribe”
– Srividya Srinivasan