Holiday Musings on Tribal Learning by Capucine Carrier, Change Consultant

Boy playing Minecraft

Sharing Minecraft knowledge

Summer holidays. A time for letting the mind wander from one idea to another, connecting the dots in less automatic ways.

This morning, a friend’s 11-year old son told me about his passion for the game of Minecraft. I usually stop truly listening after the seventh zombie or third giant frog, but this time, he was explaining how he and others learn to play the game. There are neither official instructions nor a manual: gamers share experiences and solutions. At new releases, “secret finders”, a vanguard of sorts, try to discover the changes that have occurred and whatever surprises the developers may have hidden in the code.

This brought back to mind what I had learned reading Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday” the night before: how members of the same tribe kept sharing and thus learning from one another in order to minimise the impact of risks they would encounter.

Of course, risks in New Guinea in the 60s were very real compared to a game’s vanquishing skeletons, yet I could not but see similarities in the learning process: decentralised, with an ear to the ground, inclusive of a variety of voices, and collaborative.

So is learning from your tribe increasingly relevant again?

(I am using Diamond’s shorthand, dividing societies of increasing size, centralisation and stratification into band, tribe, chiefdom, and state).

Reflecting on the complexity and unpredictability my clients in large organisations need to navigate, “tribal learning” may well be a more than valid complement to “state-like” centralised and stratified learning within given structures.

Two examples from my clients‘ worlds came to mind as I reflected:

  1. Star performers participating in a development program (“state-like” learning) have planned to revisit a process that they know as users. Enthusiastic, they produced a plan with stretch deadlines. This plan did not include consultation with the process owners or with other experts in similar processes. In my crystal ball, I see them generating higher visibility for the issue, and some impulses in terms of new thinking, but will these be easily actionable? Probably not. Sticking to formal structures (including that of the program aimed at challenging the status quo), they are not listening to enough of the tribe’s voices to avoid execution pitfalls.
  2. In my second example, volunteers have joined a strategic initiative to solve a process issue. They have formed a team of passionate users and producers who are looking at the challenges from various perspectives. They are leveraging grass-roots knowledge and energy within their “tribe” and beyond in order to propose solutions that they want to implement. They are working outside the org chart’s structure, have put consultation tools into place to listen to what people have to say and to suggest as process owners and users, and are meeting with others in related and unrelated parts of the organisation to learn from their mistakes and successes.

What do I see in my crystal ball?

If line management keeps giving them sufficient space to proceed in this way, they can make a genuine impact, handing over to the “state-like” structures when it becomes necessary. And the “tribe” as a whole will be a lot more knowledgeable and agile in its ability to face new situations.

About Dr Capucine Carrier, CMC, ACC

This month’s guest blogger is Dr Capucine Carrier who I met fortuitously on the very first day of a coaching programme. I say fortuitously, because Capucine is great at peer2peer learning, particularly when I need help with writing an essay! Based in Munich, Capucine accompanies international teams on their journey to making sense of a complex world and collaborating for the outcomes they want. A change consultant, facilitator and executive coach, she is the founder of NeoAxis®.



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