Hardwired to belong

The primitive instincts that urged us to cohere still operate today, argues Seth Godin. Our tribal nature must be understood if we are to galvanise moribund organisations and develop new leadership models

When you visualise innovation, do you see the lone inventor, pipe in hand, hunched over the worktable while the candle burns low? Or the naked guy running down the street shouting ‘Eureka!’?

Popular culture has painted innovators as charismatic Steve Jobs types, or Midas-like impresarios like Richard Branson. Apparently, you need to be isolated, brilliant and lucky to innovate.

I think history shows us something quite different. Real innovation almost always occurs through leadership, not alchemy. Humans have self-organised into tribal groups for millennia and for good reason. If you belonged to a tribe back in the day, you were less likely to be eaten by a sabretooth tiger. Tribes give us protection, companionship, productivity and access to mates. Most of us are hard-wired to belong.

In the industrial age, tribes served a different purpose. Tribes gave factories the glue they needed to build a coherent workforce. Tribes enforced the status quo and built markets where factories could sell the wares they produced. Josiah Wedgwood relied on the tribe of apprentice potters that he trained to work in his factory and on the tribal behaviour of the newly moneyed bourgeoisie in London to buy his goods (because their friends had).

Now, several decades into the information age, we’re seeing tribes as a more important factor in marketing, innovation and leadership than ever before. That’s because the internet has eliminated distance as a factor in assembling tribes. If I’m a Red Hat lady, I can find other ladies in any city on earth. If I’m a Linux geek, I can programme alongside someone a thousand miles away. The tribe that built Wikipedia is no different from the tribe that bought Wedgwood’s china in London. Well, there is one difference: they are everywhere, unbounded by geography. Gandhi was able to organise one of the largest tribes in history and he led that tribe to overthrow British rule without violence. His innovation? Understanding that masses of people with a single purpose were capable of changing the world.

The information age reduces friction wherever it can and removes barriers to entry. The reason that every newspaper is going out of business is because the friction and barriers they used to rely on (trucks, printing plants, paper, etc) have switched from assets to enemies overnight. Because they relied on these physical entities, they never bothered to build a tribe, and they are being rapidly replaced by organisations that didn’t have that luxury. eBay makes most of its money from a loyal tribe, one that they have connected with and have connections to. Its most profitable sellers are the sellers that depend on the site and on one another. The customers it makes the most money from are the frequent buyers, ones that also connect across the site and to its sellers. Pierre Omidyar’s innovation wasn’t a technical one, it was a tribal one. There were people who wanted to be connected and he connected them.

Hardwired to belongThe Grateful Dead are a great example, largely because so many in the music industry refuse to understand or emulate what the group did. The Dead only had one hit record in the United States, yet year after year remained one of the top-grossing acts. They regularly played live to a million or more people a year.

As part of their live shows, they encouraged fans to tape their concerts and share the tapes. This sharing created a community, which talked about the Grateful Dead and made the group the centre of their connection. This fuelled the tours, which generated more music and created a virtuous cycle.

The Grateful Dead didn’t sell records. They sold a shared experience as they led the tribe. This tribal connection works just as effectively in the business-to-business marketplace. Joel Spolsky runs a very small and very profitable software company in New York. His customer is the smart computer engineer in every organisation, the one that wants to do a better job of tracking bugs and shipping revisions. This is precisely the sort of person that reads Joel’s blog and his books, the bestselling ones of their kind.

Joel isn’t writing to sell software, he’s writing to make change, to lead a movement, to connect his readers to one another. His job board doesn’t exist to make a profit (though it makes a million dollars a year), it exists to make it more likely that great jobs find great engineers. Joel leads a tribe. The side effect is that Joel’s software company continues to thrive and grow, regardless of the economy.

It’s easy to characterise tribalism as a negative human trait, one that leads to warring religions and ethnic hatred. And it is and does. But tribalism also connects us. It helps us thrive and it is the centre of where marketing success comes from now. Not tribalism where the goal is to denigrate competing tribes, or to diminish their standing or humanity, but tribalism that answers our primeval need to have a friend, a connection, someone watching out for us. I believe the key driver of the growth of Facebook and other sites is: what do other people think of me? And the second: will they miss me if I’m gone?

No one joins a tribe that’s run by a boring, mediocre, middle of the road defender of the status quo. Why would they? What’s to talk about? Where is the movement? Heretics are the ones that lead us. Heretics are the challengers, the individuals who won’t settle, who see an opportunity to make things better and insist upon it. Top management now wants leaders. It wants heretics who will create change before change happens to them. Top management understands that they need followers, that they have to engage the tribe with change and remarkable initiative.

Heretics are the people of faith who will risk everything to challenge the prevailing religion of the day. Faith in where people can go, or in the core ideas behind their mission. By ‘religion’ I mean the rules and procedures that are in place. These rules were originally invented to amplify our faith, to make it easier to be passionate. But, in all organisations, over time the rules get more solid and the faith begins to waver. That’s why real change in an organisation can only come from people with belief in the key mission and disrespect for the bureaucracy that has grown up over time. So why doesn’t everyone lead a tribe? If money isn’t a barrier, and the effects are so profound, why is this behaviour so rare? Fear. Fear of change. Embrace of the status quo. Exaggeration of risk combined with the natural inclination to fit in, not stand out. It’s pretty simple: no one joins a boring tribe. No one follows a leader who demands that things remain exactly as they are.

Hardwired to belongGreat tribes make change. They are going somewhere. And that can’t happen if the leader is stuck. I call this behaviour ‘sheepwalking’. Sleepwalking through life, acting like a sheep, fitting in, doing what you’re told.

There are terrific historic and organisational reasons why most people sheepwalk. In a factory model, a business organised from the top down, there’s little incentive for the big boss to hire and reward heretics, because the boss IS the status quo. The best way to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company is to start at the junior executive level and stick around long enough until you get picked. Your competition, the ones that take big risks, gets wiped out and you win in the end. This is a great plan unless your company turns out to be General Motors. Spend years avoiding hard decisions and you’re toast.

The alternative is to find, encourage and reward the heretics. There are people in your organisation right now who believe that they could contribute, stand out, lead and make a difference. Who is in charge of finding and amplifying these people?

Academic studies have shown again and again that organisations that take bold steps during recessions are far more likely to succeed than those that hunker down and wait it out. Consulting firm Bain & Company found that companies are twice as likely to shuffle their positions in the marketplace during a recession as during stable times. Tribal marketing is also becoming ever more essential in politics. Barack Obama is the current clear example of this. He didn’t run for president, he ran a movement.

Obama’s campaign created a culture, a visual language and a sense of belonging. He made it easy for people who were disaffected with the bumbling and toxic administration in power to turn that frustration into a positive connection. Instead of fanning discontent, he amplified hope. Hope is something that people in a tribe can work to increase, can augment and connect over. Once a tribe is established, the leader of that tribe has permission – not to manipulate or to spam, but to lead. In politics and in business, we’re seeing again and again the power of permission, the ability to bypass gatekeepers and bring a relevant message directly to your tribe.

Compare two politicians or two retailers or two religious leaders. Imagine that one has permission to talk to her tribe of 100,000 people with anticipated, personal and relevant messages they’d like to get. The other has to rely on press releases and traditional media. Not only is it clear who is going to have more influence, but also the very nature of the communication also changes.

When you don’t have to worry about a filter, or about being newsworthy, you can talk more openly and honestly, you can be subtler, you can consistently drip your message to people who want to hear it. That’s why the controversy over data trading and privacy is so silly. As long as you are acting in the best interests of your tribe, they will give you all the data you want. The moment you stop and begin acting selfishly, it doesn’t matter what the laws and regulations are. You’ve lost. We won’t continue to listen. You become invisible and the downward spiral to irrelevancy begins.

This means that power has shifted. Leaders no longer have the power to yell or to bully. Instead, there’s a new partnership here, one in which the enthusiastic participation of the tribe is at least as important as your goals or your profits.

You’re not going to find rapid growth using traditional tools of big advertising or even classic technical innovation. Instead, it will come from heretical market behaviour, from leadership and from connecting your customers – who are lonelier than you think.

Seth Godin is a marketing expert and author; his new book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us is published in the UK by Piatkus.

Neighbourhood 2.0

RSA Fellow Will Perrin believes the moment is right for online tribes to seize the initiative. ‘If people can organise themselves online around a campaigning issue, is there any need for NGOs?’ he asks.

His not-for-profit project, Talk About Local, promotes a model of neighbourhood websites and trains local activists in exploiting technology to communicate and network. However, these websites are not intended to replace local newsgathering, he says – instead, it will be a symbiotic relationship.

He also rejects the notion that communities should be encouraged to engage face-to-face rather than online: ‘Why is it more effective to expect people to make the trip out after work to a grotty town hall where there are no childcare facilities? The time cost is much lower for people to communicate online.’

Perrin is taking a career break from the civil service to coordinate the roll-out of Talk About Local and is already looking to engender further tribal connection through a planned ‘UK Hyperlocal Alliance’. This will be a web resource where existing community networks will be able to sign up to a simple statement of intent, and he has already been inundated with offers of support. ‘When I posted the idea, I had more than 20 responses that evening,’ he says. ‘It demonstrates that if you are genuine in your intentions, people will follow.’

Perrin does not see himself as a ‘heretic’ though. ‘I’m not a formal leader in any sense – it’s about collaborative action. I know from the civil service that you can’t achieve anything without it.’

Talk about Local is an example of how the ideas behind the RSA’s Connected Communities project can be put into practice. It aims to enable people living in deprived communities gain the confidence and skills to use technology to influence services and decisions in their areas.

Damani Goldstein, senior researcher in the Connected Communities team, says: 'We must ensure that individuals and communities have a real say in shaping their future lives and local environments.'