We’re all a member of a few tribes – whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you consider yourself to belong to a nation, align with a political party, support a sports team, work for an organisation – you’re part of a tribe – they’re all tribes of a sort. Tribes typically have a uniform (more obvious for sports teams but still subtly evident in others), demand an initiation of some description, offer a range of privileges (some of which are intangible and social) and expect certain behaviours and rituals to be respected and others to be vilified. Tribes have hierarchies (- in football for example, season ticket holders consider themselves far superior to ‘armchair fans’ (yep – you guessed right – I’m an armchair fan). Once you’re part of a tribe, you feel connected, you’re part of a shared history, a shared consciousness; you feel its joy and its pain (as a long suffering West Ham supporter I know this only too well).
Inevitably there is competition between tribes. This is fine when it involves a sports team but less healthy when it distracts two functions of the same organisation (or two organisations who have recently merged), who would do better to focus on a shared goal. Competition can develop into rivalry, hostility and perhaps sabotage. All of which drain energy, damage culture, and ultimately lead to poor performance outcomes. When tribes go to war, and seek to further their cause at the expense of the bigger picture, we start to have a major problem. Intransigent tribes can have a significant role in perpetuating wicked problems.
We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves and tribes are a powerful conduit for us to do this; how can we convert this tribal urge into a force for good?
Our first move is to chunk up to create a meta-tribe. An all-encompassing tribe that transcends the smaller conflict driven tribes, connecting them and amplifying their energy around a shared vision of the future or a compelling cause. A meta-tribe with a story of its existence and morals that story represents. A tribe that has its own recognised heroes and villains, customs and rituals, tribal elders that become role models (nothing to do with age), and tools to make it easy to connect and share. Energy is amplified and positive deviants (those who question the accepted order and illuminate the path) are welcomed in its midst. Meta-tribes can cut across geographies, organisations, cultures, languages and belief systems – you only have to look at Apple and other major organisations with a fanbase to see them in operation.
So we’ve established that tribes can complicate and perpetuate wicked problems. But thankfully, the tribe can be a powerful force for good if it is consciously created with a given wicked problem in mind. A wicked problem at its centre, its cause, its reason for being. A wicked tribe, born of a desire to move a wicked problem can be a master move.