The Project Manager is by definition a leader and a change agent. We lead temporary endeavours created to ‘make things better’ in some way. In some environments we encounter little resistance but in most, we encounter a lot of resistance. We’ve got a lot of tools and methods for dealing with the resistance.
But for years now, I’ve felt that these tools encourage a micro-focus, when we really need to ask the question – what is it in our organization that causes us to have to take such a defensive posture in the first place?
To address those intangibles in the culture, the PMBoK advises us to assess a laundry list of ‘Enterprise Environmental Factors’ and gives us very few tools and methods to do so.
As a result, it’s like we PMP trained Project Managers are focusing on individual trees instead of the full eco-system. We’re well tool’d for tree and forest management, but don’t even have detectors for the eco-system. Sure, there’s Organizational Development (OD) and Conflict Resolution (CR) theory, but it seems like you have to really understand OD and CR theory first before you can analyze a culture. And no one has time for that.
I need an easy way to identify organizational culture, becuase it is constantly affecting my ability to conduct successful projects, in subtle and intangible ways. That’s been the case until now, thanks to the book Tribal Leadership.
The Tribal Leadership authors say that human beings like to belong to tribes. Here’s the key piece: tribes are identifiable by the language used by the tribe, which creates the overall tribal mood. The theory is that language reflects the prevailing belief system of the tribe; ie it is a very good indicator of tribal attitudes.
The authors suggest that there are five recognizable Tribal stages, along with thier subsequent mantra:
“Stage 1 runs the show in criminal clusters, like gangs and prisons, where the theme is “life stinks,” and people act out in despairingly hostile ways. This stage shows up in 2 percent of corporate tribes, but leaders need to be on guard, as this is the zone of criminal behavior and workplace violence. The best way for a leader to intervene is to get individual members out of the group and into another.
Stage 2, the dominant culture in 25 percent of workplace tribes, says, in effect, “my life stinks,” and the mood is a cluster of apathetic victims. People in this stage are passively antagonistic, crossing their arms in judgment yet never getting interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic, resigned. Tribal leaders intervene in Stage 2 by finding those individuals who want things to be different, and mentor them—one at a time. Tell them that you think they have potential. Over time, some will start to talk the Stage 3 language. At that point, invite them to mentor another member of the tribe.
In Stage 3, the dominant culture in half of U.S. workplace tribes, the theme is “I’m great” or, more fully, “I’m great, and you’re not.” In this culture, knowledge is power, and so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip People at this stage have to win, and winning is personal. They’ll out-work, think, and maneuver their competitors. The mood that results is a collection of “lone warriors,” wanting help and support and being disappointed that others don’t have their ambition or skill. What holds people at Stage 3 is the “hit” they get from winning, besting others, being the smartest and most successful. Tribal leaders intervene in Stage 3 by identifying people’s individual values and then seeing which cut across the tribe. Point out the values that unite people, and then construct initiatives that bring these values to life.
Stage 4 represents 22 percent of tribal cultures, where the theme is “we’re great,” and another group isn’t. Stage four is the zone of Tribal Leadership where the leader upgrades the tribe as the tribe embraces the leader. The leader transforms tribes of individuals into Stage 4 groups, and the tribal leaders in these groups focus people on their aspirations, and define measurable ways to make a worldwide impact. As the tribal attention shifts from “we’re better” to “we can make a global impact,” their culture shifts to Stage 5.
Stage 5 is the culture of 2 percent of the workforce tribes, where the theme is “life is great” and focuses on realizing potential by making history. Teams at Stage 5 have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was Stage 5, and we’ve seen this mood at Amgen. This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration. Identify which of these five cultures dominates your tribe, and start bumping your tribe to the next stage by noticing the social groups that exist in your company.”
From the book Tribal Leadership ©Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright
This breakdown is easy for me to grasp, and easy to explain. More importantly, I think it’ll help me get an accurate gauge, because I’m looking at language as an indicator of attitude. This is something anyone can do.
This table sourced from the book summarizes the stages. I’ve added the reference to representative sample cultures.
||Sample Representative Culture
||“Life is great”
||Na’Vi in Avatar
||we, our, team, do, them, have, did it, commit, value
||“I’m great and you’re not”
||I, me, my, job, did, do, have, went
||“My life sucks”
||boss, life, try, can’t, give up, quite, sucks
||life, sucks, F—, break, can’t, cut , whatever
Using the Stages
First, figure out where you are. Then figure out where your team is. Then figure out where your organization is. Then, think about the conflicts you’ve had on your projects; like resistance from stakeholders, or apathy to change. How would you have adjusted if you understood the tribal culture from the beginning?
More importantly, does your team or organization need to shift forward? For example, if your organization is predominantly Stage 2, are you really going to be able to implement change without first addressing the attitudes? If attitudes are unchangeable, should you come to the conclusion that some projects are not feasible?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to just throw your hands in the air and give up once you’ve identified tribal attitudes. I’m saying, think about it, understand it, and then figure out a way to lead up higher stages. As change agents and leaders, I don’t think the tools we use should match the organizational stage. Rather, we should push the envelope by using tools that force people into the behavior of higher stages. So for example, I’ve just come from a DoD environment; decidedly stage 2. But, as contractors, our tribe was situated at stage 3/4. So our tools, like change control boards, stakeholder identification and inclusion, collaborative team sites, forced our clients out of stage 2-like information hording, silo behaviors to engage in collaboration, discussion and team building. Which, incidentally, they quite liked.
At a minimum, using the Tribal System is a tool for analyzing the elusive Enterprise Environmental Factors, giving you a more complete understanding of all the challenges in your environment. For the maximum advantage, read the book. I’m only scratching the surface here. There’s a gold mine of information on moving through stages, and becoming a Tribal Leader.