IPMA International Project Management Association
26 January 2018 / 8:49

Leading a project tribe

Projects are performed by people. There has already been written a lot about project teams and leading them without disciplinary power. In this blogpost I want to utilize the metaphor of a tribe for the team and explain why this makes sense and fits much better in the dynamic world of nowadays projects.

Seth Godin wrote already a decade ago his bestselling book “Tribes – We need you to lead us” in which he defines a tribe as group of people connected to each other, connected to a leader and connected to an idea. Tribes have a shared interest and a way to communicate. They can be composed of people from one organisation or across several organisations. Up to this part of the definition, it sounds pretty much similar to our definition for project teams.

However, there are important aspects that differentiates a tribe from a project team. Firstly, tribes are about faith in an idea and in a community. Members of a tribe bring a very high intrinsic motivation to the table. They belief in the leader of the tribe and the idea that is commonly shared among the tribe members. In most of the projects, team members are assigned to the project, they certainly need to be convinced by the project manager to follow him or her as well as believing in the overall goal of the project. Secondly, a tribe is closely connected and building on intensive communication; formal and informal, interpersonal and collaborative. Project teams typically build on formal communication, they need to be invited to the meetings and someone needs to care for facilitation. Tribes organise that by themselves. They make use of internet, social media and messaging technologies, which allow an instant communication between all members of the tribe. Thirdly, tribes are made up of partisans, people who want to make a difference, to get things done (or not being done). This is a strong driver for complex and dynamic projects, it is difficult to channel it, someone needs to set boundaries, facilitate or influence the tribe towards the common goal, but it´s how challenging projects get done.

In the 21st Century we increasingly observe that people yearn for change, they want to be part of a movement, something that is remarkable and thus makes a difference for their lives. A flash mob is a good example of a tribe. Someone is sending a call for action to people via SMS, Facebook of WhatsApp and many people join at one place to do something together. Or, someone starts a crowdsourcing initiative to collect funds for a new movie people may get a payback, or their names will be highlighted at the end or they may be invited for a premiere. The Brexit Initiative, political movements or charity activities can be seen as tribal endeavours. Another example is IPMA Coaching 4 Development, a new initiative of IPMA, led by a project manager, gathering coaches and other supporters in order to make the project happen, developing concepts and proposals, but more important, helping other projects to be successful.

Leaders of a tribe need to transform the shared interest of the tribe into a passionate project goal. They need to provide tools to allow members to tighten their relationships and the communication. Communication is key, basically the informal, interpersonal and instant exchange between all tribe members is what drives them to grow and be successful. Leaders just need to allow the tribe to grow. It means to invite new members to join, to provide enough space for tribe members to act out their passion for the project and it´s commonly shared aim, and most importantly, allow for self-organisation and do not impose top-down leadership.

Seth Godin describes attributes for a successful leader: “Heretics are the new leaders, the ones who challenge the status quo, who go to the front of their tribes who create movements… Heretics are engaged, passionate, and more powerful and happier than everyone else. And they have a tribe that they support (and that supports them in turn)… Heretics, trouble makers and change agents aren´t merely thorns in our side – they are the key to success.”


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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.