This is an excerpt from my book, Tribal Alchemy: Mining Your Team’s Collective Ingenuity. The excerpt explores one quality of collective ingenuity: how a group behaves when they “circle” a challenge or opportunity.


How You Enter and Behave in the Circle Matters
I live my life and do my work in the shadow of a simple but powerful principle: the way you enter a situation has a lot to do with the way it will turn out. Now, of course there are limits to this idea and sometimes it’s just plain wrong. You can enter a situation with a positive attitude and great intentions, and it can still fall apart on you. However, mindsets do influence outcomes. Just head home tonight to your significant other in a foul mood, ready for a fight, and see what happens.


The way your tribe enters a conversation has a lot to do with the outcomes that conversation will yield.


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When alchemy-producing tribes enter a conversation about a challenge or opportunity, in the midst of the chaos and ambiguity, they direct their intentions toward insights. They desire to see the raw materials through different frames and organize those ideas and materials into new possibilities. This begins when tribes anticipate insight through their collective vision and conversation.


During times of circling, there are a number of unhealthy alternatives available to tribes. Here are just a few:


  • Splintering
  • Ambivalence
  • Blame
  • Distraction


The way you direct your thoughts (together) matters


The ambiguity of facing challenges and opportunities can lead to dysfunctional mindsets. In fact, sometimes it may be impossible to avoid them. We can’t be at our best in every moment of every conversation. However, dysfunctional strategies that emerge during a conversation are often a cue that a tribe needs to reset the direction of its thoughts. And in what direction do we want the thoughts of the tribe to move during this phase? Insight.


You “join” to uncover insights that can lead to the alchemy of your raw materials. Tribal insight is more likely when it is the explicit desire of the tribe. Remember the principle above? The way a tribe enters a situation (or conversation) has a lot to do with the way it will turn out. It’s likely your tribe knows this principle is important, but it’s quite another matter to practice it in the midst of strategic dialogue. Therefore, when your tribe “joins” in the circle, it’s important to set “insight” as your intention before you begin. If you’re all expecting insight (something we will talk more about later), it is more likely that you will bring your best effort to the circle.


If your tribe is new to directing thoughts toward insight, it’s best to begin conversations with that as the stated desire. “Okay, we have X challenge in front of us. We know it’s frustrating, but beyond the frustration, there is a creative solution. Let’s set our intention toward insight. As we talk, let’s do it with an anticipation that something will reveal itself.” Now you might think that stating that is just over the top. You might not be able to see your tribe inviting such an intention. Well then, I simply refer you back to the earlier principle stated a bit differently. If you don’t think you can do it, you probably can’t or won’t.


Mantras That Help You Reinitiate 


Your tribe would do well to develop some cues or mantras that initiate or reinitiate collective intention. Here are a few possibilities:

  • We bring our best energy to this moment
  • We stretch toward our challenge/opportunity with intention
  • Join the circle (now these words mean something more)

If these don’t resonate, develop mantras that trigger and cue mindful circling.


Once you’ve set your intention, don’t force it. Once your tribe sets insight as its desire, don’t work too hard to find the insight during the conversation. Spend your energy on the quality of the conversation about your raw materials and let the insights sneak up on you. If you push too hard for the insight, it will often elude you. If you focus on the raw materials and your tribe’s ability to uncover new possibilities, insights will pop.


Remember autostereograms? They can be helpful here. I noticed over the years of staring at these pictures that if I tried too hard to find the picture, it didn’t reveal itself. I needed a kind of relaxed focus that enabled the picture to pop. Tribes that push too quickly for solutions miss the relaxed but focused nature of the conversations that lead to insight. Set your desire for insight, keep it a part of your tribal psyche during the conversation, and then place your focus on seeing ingenious ways to use what you have. Let the insight come to you.