It’s Tribal

January 26, 2010

Yesterday we explored how recognition of the importance of attractors allowed the Plexus Institute to produce nonlinear positive results in the reduction of MRSA in health care settings. Complexity Theory really works! How can organizations amplify attractors and increase their productivity, effectiveness and have enjoyment in the process? No, you’re not dreaming. It’s a “tribal” thing. Read on…..

One of the most useful and rewarding aspects of my own studies at the Marshall School of Business of USC was exposure to the thoughts of Dave Logan. In 2008 he, along with coauthors Halee Fischer-Wright and John King, published “Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization”. It is perhaps the clearest, most concise study on the effects of organizational culture on productivity to come out in the last 20 years. Not just descriptive, it includes practical lessons on advancement of organizational culture for anyone who wishes to lead a more productive (and enjoyable) enterprise. More information, and a link to download an MP3 version free of charge, can be found here:

I’ll give a capsule summary, but why not hear it from Dave Logan himself? One of the best TED lectures can be found here: TED Talks It is one of those “must sees”. In brief, “Tribal Leadership” is the result of almost 25,000 interviews the authors made over a decade with individuals in various organizations. They found that just as fish school and birds flock, humans organize themselves into a unit that is best described as a “tribe”. These are the 20-150 people you know well enough to greet on the street. The tribe itself was most likely an societal adaptation to insure survival in the Ice Age–we are, after all, living in a Complex Adaptive System! We can belong to many tribes, and an organization can be a “tribe of tribes”. Tribes are different from “teams”, “work groups” and probably distinct from Dave Snowden’s concept of “crews”. Perhaps more on that in a subsequent post. The interaction of the tribe with each other and their environment determines productivity, satisfaction and probably even “utility”.

Although the authors never consciously make the connection between the Tribe and Complexity Theory, it is clear that the two concepts are intimately connected. It is my contention that the dominant culture of the Tribe determines just how close to “the edge of chaos” an organization is. Logan and associates found 5 Levels of Culture in their research:

Level 1-“Life sucks!” (less than 2%)
Level 2-“My life sucks!” (@25%)
Level 3- “I’m great–and by the way, you’re not!” (@48%)
Level 4- “We’re great–and by the way, they’re not!” (@23%)
Level 5-“Life is great!” (just under 2%)

Three additional important findings: as an organization advances in its culture, the level of productivity increases in a nonlinear way(Complexity Theory would predict that); it is only possible to advance one level at a time; the dominant culture of an organization can be observed by listening to the language of the individuals involved.

Unfortunately for our discussion, virtually all physicians, along with lawyers, accountants and university professors, operate their entire careers at a Level 3 culture. And we all know that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that academic physicians-those whose responsibility it is to teach the next generation-have the double hex of “physician” and “professor”. It is no wonder that in the very circle that could advance the concepts of health care most needed, the individuals involved are ossified, no, fossilized, at Level 3!

If that is the bad news, the good news is that most physicians are at Level 3! That means they can move to Level 4. What is needed is the “epiphany” Logan and coauthors describe: the realization that they can get more work done, enjoy it more and do it in less time if they can transition themselves and their organization to Level 4. If we want to give value in health care to society, we need to do it through Level 4 organizations harnessing the creativity and productivity found “at the edge of chaos”.

What could that look like? I’m not exactly sure, but to anyone who wants to see a Level 4 organization in action, I urge you to view the multipart presentations on IDEO available on youtube:

Perhaps some visionary health care organization will realize how they could create a sustainable competitive advantage by advancing their culture as well as their strategy. It may be a large integrated health care network or a forward thinking medical school, or even just a group of individuals who want something the current system can not provide. It is coming. I hope it is soon. Maybe some reading this blog will start to have the “epiphany”.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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