Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Tribe

When I was in college a friend of mine hung out with a group of people who referred to themselves as "The Tribe." They were a like minded group of pseudo-hippie-student types. The core of the group all shared a house together with a very "casual" living arrangement.

It dawns on me now that even in the absence of written rules and organization, this group had a lot of preconceived notions of what behavior within their group was acceptable and what was "uncool." They were a clique--which resists newcomers who don't mesh well with the group. Even as informal as they were, just by human nature they were pretty highly organized.

From Wikipedia, a tribe is:
... a group of interlinked families or communities sharing a common culture and dialect.
Technical communities fit this pattern. We have a common dialect of technical terms as well as cultural aspects. Our web tools group (Ruby on Rails, Linux, etc.) is a related but different tribe from our GUI group (C#.NET, Windows, etc). At some level they speak the same language and share culture. But at a more detailed level they're different tribes.

When I was in school I took a linguistics class (which I highly recommend to any CSci students). Our professor said that in many Native American languages there are several words for "those people" or "that group over there." That is, these tribal dialects and languages spent a lot of their lexicon differentiating between groups of people, and separating us vs them.

I'm trying to find a good compromise between the imposition of standards in a development community vs letting small groups do their own thing. There is a funny irony to agility methodologies in that they quickly become religious wars: one group declares that another group isn't doing it right if the second group isn't following the first group's methods. But an organization as a whole is much more agile if smaller groups within the community are given the latitude to find solutions and to be creative.

More from Wikipedia:
Current research suggests that tribal structures constituted one type of adaptation to situations providing plentiful yet unpredictable resources. Such structures proved flexible enough to co-ordinate production and distribution of food in times of scarcity, without limiting or constraining people during times of surplus.
Yet some involvement of "state" organization of tribes is in the best interest of the state:
States would encourage (or require) people on their frontiers to form more clearly bounded and centralized polities, because such polities could begin producing surpluses and taxes, and would have a leadership responsive to the needs of neighboring states
and regarding tribalism in general:
because tribal life itself was not (and is not) the same for all tribes; the natural environment where a tribe lives has an especially important influence.
I often recoil at the idea that a central authority can/should dictate the specifics of how various development or engineering groups should operate. Smaller, more informal social structures are possible and natural. The state--in my case engineering management--should be more concerned with the creation of an overall environment that is conducive to productivity and realization of the larger organization's vision.

In this context, an operational group like mine should be supportive of the independence of the various groups within the organization rather than attempting to homogenize them with institutionalized tools and practices.


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