Temporary Tribes. | Project Shrink

Temporary Tribes.

February 27, 2011 5 Comments

People get together to accomplish things.

Starting a movement to create a change in law. Developers and designers working together to implement a new system into an organization.

They get together. Accomplish stuff. And split up. A group is created. Their thing is done. A group is dissolved.

They are all on a Big Adventure. They are trying to find a treasure. They are going to retrieve a stolen secret document. They are going to set the princess free. They have a goal.

In his book “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us“ master marketing blogger Seth Godin popularized the term “tribes”. In Godin’s view “... tribes are groups of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other.” The central elements of a tribe are the leader and the idea.

I want to focus not just on an idea, but more on a result. A goal. Groups that together pursue the fulfillment of a certain outcome. And after they reach their goal, they stop being a group. Temporary tribes. A good example of temporary tribes are project teams. People working together to accomplish a desired outcome.

This temporariness creates an interesting challenge. If people have never met before, have only a short period of time to produce a result, how should they collaborate together?

Trust and Digital Communication

We all know that trust in a team is important. But how does trust evolve when you don’t know a person and almost have no time to bond? If you work in the same department for years, you know who to go to for certain problems. IT? You need to go to Bob. Difficult customer? Go see Heather. How do you know who to go to in a temporary tribe?

An important element of a temporary tribe is the communication infrastructure they work on. It’s digital, it’s mobile and it is global. Communicating over the Internet is different from talking face-to-face. In our current environment the best we can have is a bit of both. A hybrid mix of online and offline interaction. Good or bad. Whatever your opinion is. It is the situation.

What does that do to our collaboration when the temporary group is interacting on a hybrid infrastructure? If you have communication problems in your tribe and you are located in the same building, consider yourself lucky and please, train your communication skills. Simple techniques, we all know for decades, can improve your face-to-face communication immensely.

But what if we move our interactions into cyberspace? What if we throw out physical collocation and what if everyone of us has an entire different frame of reference? And now you run into problems.

According to famous studies by Albert Mehrabian, words just form 7% of our communication, the rest is 38% tone of voice and 55% body language. So the “standard” communication is not going to cut it.

Here we are. Having no time to get to know each other. Interacting through digital straws.

Oh. And to raise the stakes. These tribes create change. They change something in an existing social system. A country. An organization. Society maybe even. And where you change the status quo for some, some will push back. Stakeholders might block the project. Opponents might vote against your proposals.

Temporary tribes must be resilient. They must be able to handle disturbances in their environment while still maintaining their function. Their focus on the goal.

So. Temporary. Digital. Resilient.

Check. Check. Double check.

How do they do it?

Interactions and Collaborations

A temporary tribe is a bunch of people working together to achieve a certain goal. During this endeavor to laugh, cry, pull pranks, play dirty tricks and have all other kind of behavior towards each other. If you are lucky they even work to reach the final goal.

For example if you take everything away, and put people in the center of what a “project” is, you will see a group of stakeholders interacting with each other, just like any other group of people would do.

Just to make things easier on our lives, we call the result of all this behavior “the project”. In this sense it is nothing more than an abstraction. If we say “the project is late”, this doesn’t mean that some creature or entity from outer space showed up later than expected; it is the result of the project people working together that wasn’t finished on the time we predicted.

In this sense the word “project” is the same as “economy”. If our economy is improving, there is not some kind of energy force that is doing better than before. The whole system of people working, people buying and people living that is better off in some way than in the past. We need this kind of abstraction, just to be able to cope with it; it is easier to talk about the economy than about 100 million individuals.

Interesting is that this abstraction influences the people that make up the underlying system; if the economy is doing better, people will spend more, if a project is late, people will work harder.

The interactions of the tribe members should result into a productive collaboration that produces the desired end result.

Balances for Resilience

When the sea is calm, it easy to steer and navigate. It gets a lot more difficult to keep course when a storm hits your boat. When stress is put upon you or your tribe interaction and collaboration can be different. In order to have a tribe that is able to cope with disturbances while still being able to perform its function, in my view three balances must be taken care of.

Balance One.

The balance between homogeneity and cognitive diversity among tribe members. Cultural diversity can provide different interpretations of situations resulting in creative problem solving. Homogeneity makes sure the group operates as one. In a resilient tribe you need both.

However, if you put stress on this balance, people either lean towards diversity (“not being like them”) or homogeneity (“being among your own people”). This is just a matter of time. The balances are unstable. You can only make it last a little longer. It will not last forever.

Balance Two.

The second balance is between a closed mind and an open mind. If we are putting stress on ourselves, if we put fear in your mind, if you are exhausted, we will lock into one dominant mindset. This is great for focus. An easy reference frame to make decisions against. But it also makes a bad problem solver and communicator.

Having an open mind, being able to switch context, to use other mental models or mindset helps you to be more creative in problem solving. You are looking at the same problem from multiple perspectives. It also allows you to see other peoples perspectives faster and with that improving your communication effectiveness. An “open mind” also has drawbacks like a lack of focus. Lack of opinion. Unable to make decisions.

Balance Three.

And that leaves us with the third and final balance: private and public information flow. If everybody has access to the right and real information, better and faster decisions would be made. So all information should be public. But throwing all our stuff into the open also has a drawback.

Transparency makes sure people’s behavior will be noted around the globe. Although with a good reputation a lot is to gain, having a bad rep puts a lot at stake. So people will play things save. When stress is on the system, when changes occur and resilience is required, transparency leads to mediated information flow and “playing-it-safe” behavior.

Identity and Culture

At the heart of these three balances lies my conviction to focus on culture and identity and their role in interaction and collaboration as mechanism for resilience.

Identity is about how we view ourselves in respect to others. During your life you are a member of a lot of social groups, by default, by choice or by force. I am a Dutch white male, member of a no-child double income household, blogger and web aficionado, to name just a few of my own treats. The Dutch white male is something that I am by birth, by default. All other affiliations are more or less done by choice.

The group memberships determine how we see ourselves in the whole of society, it determines our identity. Actually, we have more than one identity. We can choose, we can switch depending on the situation. You have been dealt a lot of memberships, you can emphasize or down play each affiliation to create your identity.

Identity is about inward reflection and outward presentation. It determines which cues we decide to put out and how we perceive ourselves. Cues are expressions of a group that identify the group and can be seen by others. Others associate a person with the social group when recognizing the cues. If wearing party hats is a big thing in your group culture, the party hat becomes a social cue.

This affects all three balances. Not only does the outward presentation allow others to see what you are about, it is the inward reflection that determines how you view the world. To quote Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”.

Culture operates on the group level. It’s the collective sense of “how we do things around here”. Rituals, language, badges, protocols. They are all part of a group culture. Culture is the element of a temporary tribe that keeps its members together, committed to a shared cause. It takes care of bonding and protection from outside influences. It also sends out cues in respect of this group. Badges. Rituals. Language.

It’s the personal identity, the mental perception of an individual that can determine the boundaries of an entire group. A team. An organization. It’s the culture of a group that can enhance and nurture a persons identity.

Let us reflect on where we stand.

People don’t know each other. There is a short period to create the desired outcome. Interaction is largely digital. Stress is put onto the tribe, so resilience is required.

We need a mix of cognitive diversity for problem solving and homogeneity for operating as one. The members need to be able to operate with multiple mental models without reducing their own convictions. We need enough transparency for decision making while still providing the members with enough comfort.

This will require that the purpose of the tribe and the rules are easy and fast to understand. You cannot just assume that everybody knows for example Project Management practices. Nor should they. It will require that there is a healthy bonding between the members but still enough safety to express your individual identity to broadcast your strength.

On the level of collaboration I focus on the use of metaphors, storytelling, co-creation, visualization and game play. This is to enhance communication, social bonding and creativity for problem solving.

The reasoning behind this is that:

  • Metaphors stimulate creativity and communication.
  • It provides a shared vocabulary and mental model (part of a culture)
  • Different way of looking at things
  • Less intimidating than more “official” language
  • It is a vehicle for explanations
  • Reframing. To avoid people answering in ways they assume is expected, you can use a metaphor for your endeavor and frame all activities in an entirely different setting. One where there are no rules about how people ought to behave.

Before we can examine these elements in collaboration, we have to look closer to the underlying interactions first. Central here is this question: how we determine the reliability of our communication channel?

The effectiveness of interaction is determined by the quality of the channel, the quality of the interaction, if you will. If there is noise on a channel, the effectiveness of communication reduces. How do we detect this noise? This is about trusting the channel. Without too much personal knowledge of the communication partner. How do we determine “trustworthiness” by association and similarity?

When we understand the mechanisms of interaction within temporary tribes, we can see how the infrastructure and environment should be facilitated for resilient collaboration.

de el blog de Bas de Baar un buen artículo sobre trabajo colaborativo y la idea de cultura dentro de una tribu.


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