Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Old Wives' Tales

Beginning with aboriginal tribes and throughout history, the beliefs, folklore and mores of groups have been passed from generation to generation through oral history or tribal knowledge. The term “tribal knowledge” has been adapted to the practice of modern Six Sigma methodologies. It is defined as the unwritten knowledge that is known within the tribe but is often unknown outside the tribe. I am wondering if, in addition to tribal knowledge, we also have tribal behaviors in our organizations. I will share an example from my own life growing up. As a young child, during a severe thunderstorm with much lightening, my mother would have her seven children put on their shoes. I was living in a dorm in college when I learned that this was not a common practice outside of my family. Perplexed about this custom, I asked mom why we did this. My mother explained that while growing up, my grandmother practiced the same ritual with all her children. She did this because her family would frequently live next door to natural gas storage tanks due to the fact that my grandfather’s occupation was drilling natural gas wells. In the event of a lightning strike, my grandmother and her children would be prepared to “run from the house” thus explaining the practice of putting shoes on during a thunderstorm. My mother was simply carrying on the “tribal behavior.”
 What “tribal behavior” is part of your organization’s culture? Is the behavior essential to your organization’s operations? Or, is it simply being done because “that’s the way we’ve always done it?”


  1. Willie, Your use of the term "tribal knowledge" is spot on. There is another term used in organizations which is "shadow culture."

    I use that when speaking of the not so nice things that happen in an organization.

  2. But in reality, isn't everything around us a blend of the light and dark? Good and evil? Yin and Yan? Perhaps it is the shadow culture that needs to be addressed in organizations. The secrets are all hidden in the shadows, aren't they?

  3. Seth Godin talks about the potential for harnessing tribal power as leaders. Worth checking out his book and what he has to say on his blog, on TED, etc.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Kristine. I watched Seth's TED video and I like what I heard. Thanks for the suggestion!