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Human beings have always organized themselves into tribes, whether along the lines of age, race and sex, or in more modern times gender, politics and football teams. Tribes offer a sense of identity and belonging, reinforcing values and creating support networks. There was a time when one’s “tribe” was generally to be found geographically, or within kin. Now, enabled by the digital revolution and social media, tribes of all kinds can connect anywhere and everywhere. “Finding your tribe,” no matter how specialized, has never been easier.
But tribal thinking and behaviour is usually underpinned by the idea of the binary, the concept of X and “not X,” where X is “people like us” and “Not X” is all the rest. Social psychology refers to these as ingroups and outgroups, giving us vegans and non-vegans, English speakers and non-English speakers, liberals and non-liberals. This binary mindset can lead to social fragmentation, and on a smaller scale “siloed” behaviour in our clients’ organizations—quite a challenge when you are trying to create a cohesive culture.
However, tribalism can offer some advantages: passion, loyalty, identity. You might be Tottenham and I might be Arsenal, but what we can agree together is that football is a great game, we both love it fiercely and will defend it to the death. In We are all Weird, Seth Godin discusses the tendency towards tribalism, challenging marketers and employers to speak in a targeted way to all the different “normals” rather than trying to get people to conform to a single type. As the architects of collaboration our challenge is how to bring all these different normals together to build something. We want to use tribal loyalties and specialisms to create momentum and innovation, without suffering from the resistance created along the binary that puts one’s own tribe above all others, leading to discrimination and animosity.
On a recent DesignSession, it became clear that our client faced exactly this issue. To highlight it, we introduced an exercise that first facilitates the rapid formation of tribes and then—under a position of stress—asks all participants to relinquish the values and identity they have just created. The first part of the exercise is already interesting, asking small groups to align on a number of value judgements, choose totems, find their voice. But the second part of the exercise speaks loudest. After an introduction from each new “tribe,” where they proudly state who they are and what they hold dearest, an ultimatum is given and they must all enter into negotiations on whose set of tribal values and symbols will be adopted by all. In effect, we have asked a diverse set of ingroups to adapt a homogeneous culture at odds with their own, face severe consequences.
Some groups attempt to form coalitions, teaming up with other like-minded tribes, to leverage that as power in negotiations. But even when agreement would be to everyone’s benefit, people are unwilling to let go of the values and identity they created only moments before. Of course, this is powerfully analogous to where participants may find themselves in their day-to-day jobs. Different parts of the organisation may be siloed, or have their own, strong sub-identity or sense of comparative value to the business or organisational goals, and once adopted, those identities are difficult to relinquish. Why?
It’s in our DNA. Anthropology teaches us that humans have a limited capacity for operating in large social groups. One thing we know is true, for example, when we design and facilitate our Design Sessions, is that while a group of eight people will typically work well and cohesively, a group of nine will split into subgroups of four and five. On a larger scale, and thinking ahead to maintaining momentum in your transformation, people can only maintain meaningful close relationships over time with a relatively small community: depending on the study the numbers vary from 150 to almost twice that. In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell refers to a personality type he calls ‘Connectors’ – those who are successful at bringing these otherwise unconnected groups together. Identifying these people at the start of a programme in a large organisation can be vital.
As we co-create collaborative Design Sessions with our clients, one key step in the process is intentionally leveraging – and intentionally breaking – existing ‘social’ structures within the organisation, and then recreating the networks to inspire collaboration, innovation, and creativity by knowing how to add two ideas together to create an entirely new idea. In our DesignSessions, nobody compromises, we encourage disparate passions and identities to give birth to new concepts. We manage the full group, whether 20 or 120 participants, with all its ingroups, to reveal existing conflict where necessary in order to treat it, but most of all, seeking to leverage the values of all the organisation’s tribes and help everyone collaborate to best effect.
Later in the transformation process, particularly when we are focusing on values, it’s equally important to bring people together to share their different experiences and understanding of organisational behaviours in a controlled and collaborative way (this is when we both agree how much we love football). Thinking back to how tribal behaviour works along the binary, no matter what an organisation’s stated values are, they are often played out differently depending on if someone is ‘management’ or ‘not-management’, customer-facing or not. We use Dilemma, a tool that takes the form of a multiple-choice game for small groups, to discuss what behaviours really exist and why, creating alignment across ‘tribes’ on what the right behaviours should be and agreement on how to achieve that going forwards.
No matter what you want to bring your people together to achieve, recognising how tribal tendencies work in your organisation is the first step to turning them to your advantage.
Innovation Arts is the globally recognised hybrid strategy and design consultancy known for its work with some of the world’s leading companies, as well as a range of global NGOs and public sector organisations. Named by GQ as the ‘management consultant of the future’, Innovation Arts has enjoyed over 10 years of helping business leaders to successfully navigate transformational change and organisational challenges within their companies. On the public stage, Innovation Arts works with organisations as diverse as the World Economic Forum and TED where they support the emergence of new ideas through creative collaboration. Innovation Arts’ head office is based in London with satellite operations throughout North America and Europe