While history tends to single out individuals, the truth is that when you look behind the story of any heroic leader, what you find is a network of loyal supporters, active collaborators and outside facilitators that are behind any great achievement. Nobody accomplishes anything significant alone.
That’s probably why it’s become fashionable for pundits to encourage us to “find our tribe,” a network of like-minded people who share your ambitions. Don’t listen to them. The truth is that great things are achieved not by taking comfort from your tribe, but from going beyond it and reaching out to those who aren’t of like mind.
The problem with focusing too much on your tribe is that those people tend to think the same way you do. They frequent the same places, watch the same TED talks and read the same blogs. That may be great for giving you some comfort and confidence, but it also acts as an echo chamber that will reinforce flawed assumptions and lead you down a false path.
The Problem with Closed Networks
In 2005, a team of researchers decided to study why some Broadway plays become hits and others flop. They looked at all the usual factors, such as production budget, marketing budget and the track record of the director, but what they found was that what was most important factor was the informal networks of relationships among the cast and crew.
If no one had ever worked together before, both financial and creative results tended to be poor. However, if the networks among the cast and crew became too dense–for all intents and purposes, becoming a tribe–performance also suffered. It was the teams that had elements of both, strong ties and new blood, that had the greatest success.
The same effect has been found elsewhere. In studies of star engineers at Bell Labs, the German automotive industry and currency traders it has been shown that tightly clustered groups, combined with long range “weak ties” that allow information to flow freely among disparate clusters of activity, consistently outperform close networks of likeminded people.
Just as we need to invest in building strong, trustful relationships, we also need to go beyond our comfort zone and seek out new connections. It’s far too easy to hide in a tribe.
The Discomfort of Diversity
Just as studies show that closed networks lead to worse performance, it has long been established that diversity improves performance. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that diverse groups can solve problems better than a more homogenous team of greater objective ability. Another study that simulated markets showed that ethnic diversity deflated asset bubbles.
While the studies noted above merely simulate diversity in a controlled setting, there is also evidence from the real world that diversity produces better outcomes. A McKinsey report that covered 366 public companies in a variety of countries and industries found that those which were more ethnically and gender diverse performed significantly better than others.
Yet diversity also has a downside. In Political Tribes, Yale Professor Amy Chua notes that we are hardwired to be suspicious of others. For example, in a study where young children were randomly assigned to red or blue groups, they liked pictures of other kids who wore t-shirts that reflected their own group better. A study of adults had similar findings.
So you can see the attraction of tribes. We feel uncomfortable with people who we perceive as different. Surrounding ourselves with people who see things the way we do, on the other hand, makes us feel confident and powerful.
Mixing with the Heathens
Growing up in Iowa in the 1930s, Everett Rogers, noticed something strange in his father’s behavior. Although his father loved electrical gadgets, he was hesitant to adopt hybrid seed corn, even though it had higher yields. In fact, his father only made the switch after he saw his neighbors hybrid crop thrive during a drought in 1936.
This became the inspiration for Rogers’ now-familiar diffusion of innovations theory, in which an idea first gets popular with a group of early adopters and then only later spreads to other people. Geoffrey Moore later pointed out that most innovations fail because they never cross the chasm from the early adopters to the mainstream.
A study done by researchers at Kellogg and Stanford explains why. They put together groups of college students to solve a murder mystery. The groups made up of students from the same sorority or fraternity felt more confident and successful, even though they performed worse on the task than integrated groups that experienced more conflict, uncertainty and doubt.
That’s the problem with staying in your tribe. Sure, it feels great to have your ideas supported and reinforced by people you like and respect, but they are doing so because they already believe the same things that you do. To actually achieve something worthwhile, however, you have to go beyond preaching to the choir and start mixing with the heathens.
Do You Want to Make a Point Or Do You Want to Make a Difference?
In my upcoming book, Cascades, I cover a wide range of movements. Some, like the civil rights movement and the campaign to save 100,000 lives, succeeded brilliantly. Others, like Occupy and the technology companies along Boston’s Route 128, failed miserably. Another thing I found is that many movements that ultimately succeeded, failed initially because they failed to go beyond their tribe
These were very ‘Occupy’ type of protests where we occupied the five biggest universities and lived there in our little islands of common sense with intellectuals and rock bands while the rest of the country was more or less supportive of Milošević’s idea. And this is where we began to understand that staying in your little blurb of common sense was not going to save the country.
In a similar vein, Nelson Mandela started out as an angry nationalist, but eventually learned that to get results, he would have to actively collaborate with others that didn’t quite see things the same way he did. In Poland, Solidarity’s first actions were disastrous, because they only involved workers. It was only through a later alliance between workers, intellectuals and the church that the movement ultimately succeeded.
Today, both America and the world have become increasingly tribal and it’s easy to retreat into what Srdja calls “your little blurb of common sense.” You can state your beliefs, make your point and see the heads nod around you. You can live in comfort, knowing that any voices of dissent will be quickly shouted down, as you self righteously feel they should be.
However, at some point, you will have to decide if you want to make a point or whether you want to make a difference. To achieve anything worthwhile, you have to go beyond your tribe.