How Tribal Leadership Can Help Build Innovation Cultures

Posted in Innovation by AST on Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

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Last week’s #innochat (transcript, Bob De Jonge’s framing post) sparked a lively discussion around IP management, issues and barriers for Open Innovation that inevitably led us back to the topic of organizational culture and it’s impact on innovation—open or otherwise. During the course of the discussion (having jumped into the middle) it occurred to me that the root of the comments relating to control of IP at one level were rooted in Tribal Leadership Level 3 - “I’m great…(and you’re not)” thinking by both the organizations and the people responsible for leading those organizations.

If you’re not familiar with Tribal Leadership, it’s a book by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright that summarizes 10 years of their experiences in working to help organizations and offers some patterns and categories used to define various levels of leadership, but actually also individual thinking and personal world-views, they have identified. The levels, 1-5, range from the behavior seen in prisons and gangs to unarguably successful organizations like Zappos. For a 15 minute overview of the concepts in the book, check out Dave Logan’s talk at TEDxUSC.

Now that we’re all on the same page as to what it is, let’s think about how to apply it to innovation. As we all know, innovation is more than an idea, it’s the application of that idea to create value of some kind. Start-up investors put it slightly differently: “ideas aren’t worth anything unless you can execute them.”

For a moment, let’s step out of the gargantuan organization mindset that many of us live every day and think about the high-potential start-up. Why? Because it’s a crucible in which people with ideas are tested to either give up some level of control over the idea to create something bigger than themselves or their “big idea” goes up in smoke because they can’t quite get it executed. Start-ups live and die every day, all over the world, so they also provide a number of easily visible of examples of innovation attempts.

Dude, There’s More to Life than Just You

Back to the Gollum aspect of last week’s #innochat: you’re never going to innovate anything if all you do is sit around, obsessing about “my precious [idea]” and not sharing it with the people around you who can help turn it into reality. Why is the “Gollum Syndrome” so prevalent in organizations today?

According to Dave Logan, it’s because the majority of the people never make it beyond Tribal Leadership Level 3, “I’m great (and you’re not)”. It’s all about me, damn it! It’s my idea! I want the Ferraris, the private island and the hottie flight attendants on my private jet! Me! Me! Meeeeee!!!

You? Oh, well, you give me the money. Oh, and you do the work. Oh, and, by the way, that idea sucks. Have you seen mine? Well, I can’t tell you about it, or I’d have to kill you. You might steal it and get rich without me. When did you say the check’s going to be in the account again?

As the first step to making that idea a reality, you have to think back to kindergarten and remember how to share. Sure, you might get burned. That’s a risk, but the key to moving beyond Level 3 towards accomplishing some really great things at Levels 4 “We’re great (and they’re not)” and Level 5 “Life is great” is recognizing that there’s more to life than just you, and starting to let go of your idea, give up some of the control and set it free. If it’s really good, it’ll take on a life of its own and the rest will more-or-less look after itself.

Entrepreneurs have to “let go” of their idea in the following ways:

  • Talk to everyone you can about your idea so that you can improve
    and tweak it
  • Create a core set of believers around your idea that form the core
    of a Level 4 tribe that will help make it a reality
  • Share your idea (and your profits) with investors so you can get
    the funding to change the world (or, start small and bootstrap
    changing the world. Bring your lunch…and a Snickers)
  • Find people who are smarter than you, help them believe, then get
    out of the way and let them make mistakes

Only when the above things happen in that crucible will the idea turn
into an innovation that provides value to everyone involved.

Back in GargantuaCorp land, the same things actually apply too:

  • Royal Duch Shell survived the Oil Crisis of the ’70s through scenario planning, but most importantly, by delegation of operational control to the regional subsidiaries because they were closer to the problem and could find more correct (and occasionally innovative) solutions to the problem.
  • GE’s famous “Innovation is something we do every day” culture under Jack Welch and the “Work out” approach to solving problems. This meant that management stepped back and put a good deal of control into the hands of the people on the ground who were closest to the problem and encouraged them to come up with innovative solutions to help make the organization more effective.
  • Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks under Ben Rich became much more about empowering the individual engineering teams to come up with innovative solutions than it was before simply because he wasn’t the engineering genius Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was. He ran the programs and made the high-level decisions, but the day-to-day innovation was delegated to the people closest to the problems and the action.

Towards Levels 4 and 5 and Building an Innovation Culture

The fundamental thing that helps people push past Level 3 and engage in something larger than themselves is the either a common threat or a common enemy: “we’re gonna beat the other guys!” This externality is the fundamental glue binding a Level 4 tribe together, and, because it’s external to the tribe, it can easily evaporate once the crisis is over or the enemy is defeated (or you get squashed, but let’s stay positive here).

If, during life at Level 4, a shared set of values underlying the reason for solving the crisis or “beating the other guy” can be identified, articulated and strengthened within the group, you can achieve Level 5. When these values change, or people are added to the group who don’t share them, you can easily fall back to Level 4 (or further).

Like most things worthwhile, staying at Levels 4 and 5 requires conscious effort on the part of both the group and each individual to grow and maintain their commitment to the unifying cause or values. This effort also helps to maintain and grow the culture outwards, helping it move towards self-sustaining, reinforcing system.

For Discussion

“Finally!!” Hey, I heard that….

Some discussion points to get us started:

  1. Do you think Tribal Leadership and striving for a Level 4 or 5 culture is relevant to innovation?
  2. What cultural differences mark successful internal vs. open innovation efforts, if any?
  3. How can you re-frame your own innovation projects to create a sense of shared purpose through either crisis or a common enemy?
  4. Are there fundamental core values that must exist in any innovation project to be successful?
    1. Are these values different in open innovation than other types?
    2. How can you test for these values when building your innovation team or choosing your open innovation partners?
    3. What are the best ways to highlight these values in the throes of an innovation project?
  5. How can corporate innovation learn from entrepreneurs and exhibit more of the entrepreneurial cultural traits?

In addition to the book, there’s a free audiobook download from either Zappos or the Authors’ website.

BTW, I’m not affiliated with the Tribal Leadership thing in any direct way, I just think it’s the best framework I’ve ever seen to span the issues across the individual to the team to the community to the world in general that can help improve all of them using the same tools.


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    July 20, 2010 at 6:35 pm

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  2. Julian Bergquist said,

    July 21, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for the post.

    I’ve linked to a 1 hour call Dave Logan did last month on Innovation and Tribal Leadership. The call is free to CultureSync Open Source members.


  3. Twitted by CreativeSage said,

    July 23, 2010 at 6:51 pm

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  4. 5 Fav Business and Strategy Post – July 24 | Donald McMichael said,

    July 26, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    […] How Tribal Leadership Can Help Build Innovation Cultures  – If you’re not familiar with Tribal Leadership†, it’s a book by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright that summarizes 10 years of their experiences in working to help organizations and offers some patterns and categories used to define various levels of leadership. […]

  5. Rotkapchen said,

    August 18, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Great job. I’m looking forward to checking out the interview too.

  6. AST said,

    August 21, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for the comments! Most traffic the place’s had for a good while! :)

    @julian: thanks for the pointer to the call. Will have a look at it, as it sounds very interesting.

    @rotkapchen: Thanks! Really appreciate it, and thanks for heckling me into downloading the audio book! ;)

    I need to buy a few more copies of the printed book. I gave away the one I had and it’s required reading for our new venture.

    Again, thanks for the comments! Hopefully, in the next couple of weeks, I can come back out into the world again. Much toiling in the lair of late…

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