Tribes or Innovators

What to do when tribal thinking conflicts with innovation.

I’ve been reading a lot of Sebastian Junger lately, author of the best-selling book The Perfect Storm. I recently I picked up his book, Tribe, which he wrote over a number of years while embedded with US Army troops, studying the mentalities people develop when banded together overseas, especially during wartime – and what happens to them when they return home. In the book, he describes the tribal thinking that emerges in a close-knit band of soldiers – the way that they become a unit that spans across lines such as race, geographical origin, social status, and social income. Junger then goes on to paint a contrasting picture – how these soldiers come home again and find an America where we are all fighting, disagreeing, and separating ourselves from each other.

These soldiers who feel so connected to America while overseas end up feeling really alone when they come home. I haven’t finished the book yet (you may know that I’ve been busy at the Propeller Festival, connecting with some great thinkers and listening to some great music), but it got me thinking about the nature of tribalism. I think the question that Junger is asking is: Why can’t we mirror that tribal quality that soldiers experience overseas back here in America? As I transfer this over to the world of entrepreneurship, I think about all of the qualities that we strive for in our company cultures. We put a lot of effort into making everyone feel connected to one another in ways that align with our visions and missions. Reams of evidence show that people who feel deeply connected to a mission and outcome do better work. They work harder, they work longer, they’re more productive, and they feel better about it.

The thing about tribal connection in the military context is that it doesn’t really seem to allow a lot of room for innovation. I’ve spent a little time with the Pentagon, and I remember a three-star General telling a joke to our little group of 20 or so people. The General told us that the Pentagon has an invisible shield surrounding it that protects it from being penetrated by any sort of innovation. His delivery was so serious that it took us all a second to realize that it was actually a very funny joke about the fact that innovation is hard to come by in an organization as huge, complex, and rooted in history as the Army.

Generally speaking, military units are supposed to behave as predictably as possible. Entrepreneurial workplaces are certainly very different in that respect. So while I agree that feelings of tribal belonging and devotion to a shared mission are extremely powerful tools, I know that entrepreneurs don’t exactly think that way. At the end of the day, they operate in their own enlightened self-interest. And that isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. The individual who can envision something that no one else can yet see is at the point where innovation is at its greatest value. The hallmark of entrepreneurship is tying that sort of innovation to the risk of getting it wrong. I’m not sure that a tribe of people can be as innovative when they’re observing the rules and the history of their unit.

Entrepreneurs promote company cultures with a sense of mission, so they certainly understand and appreciate the power of tribal connectedness. But their journeys stem from innovation in the pursuit of their own enlightened self-interest – that’s what makes them entrepreneurs. One of the hallmarks of successful people in all sorts of ventures is the ability to hold opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. As we look at tribes and innovation and try to figure out how these two ideas can coexist in one person, the answer is in that ability.

Does your company culture make room for and respect innovation? How do you bridge the gap between creating a tribe vs. encouraging innovation?