Tribal Insights

Exploring Your Organization's Subcultures Reveals Hidden Benefits


By Karen Smits

Effective project professionals are truly part of the tribe, and they know how to build relationships and drive results by building a culture.

I look at the world—and organizations—from a different angle. As an organizational anthropologist, I was taught to uncover assumptions behind what is considered normal—to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. To me, every organization is a tribe with a distinct culture.

Study Subcultures

Where you see meeting rooms, I see a dynamic environment with town squares and town halls. I see places where the real conversations take place—in hallways and coffee corners. I see chiefs (executives), elders (board of directors) and hunters (salespeople).

When people say, “This is the way we do things around here,” I ask, “Why? Does this make you happy?” These types of questions help project managers rethink their habits and redesign processes to achieve better outcomes.

To be effective, a project manager needs to understand the ins and outs of his or her tribe—and view the project and project team as a distinct subculture. Can you identify the power struggles, the meaningful rituals, common language and unwritten rules of this culture? An anthropological lens can offer unexpected insights into organizational subtleties.



Learn Lived Values

Here's a good starting point for gaining insights: Pay attention to what team members value on a daily basis. Why do they work on this project? What do they find important? By knowing people's lived values—rather than just the organization's official values, which tend to be designed at the top—you can learn a lot about how to motivate and engage team members.

And here's something we can learn from traditional tribes: The chief is not considered to be at the hierarchical top of the organization. Rather, he or she is the person at its center. This leader doesn't need to conduct surveys to know how people feel—he or she knows because of the connections made with team members through regular dialogue. It's the difference between managing from the inside and from the top, and between truly knowing team members and viewing them as instruments to getting work done.

From all my work inside various organizations, I've seen the value of going beyond the habitual playbook of templates, processes and delivery structures. Effective project professionals are truly part of the tribe, and they know how to build relationships and drive results by building a culture. So try playing the role of anthropologist for a day—and start establishing a new normal. PM


Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Singapore. She can be reached at [email protected].

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.



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