Adapted from the book, Tribal Alchemy: Turning What You Have Into What You Need. (2016). Dave Fleming. A Tribal Alchemy Resource.



At the beginning of the Apollo 13 “build-a-filter” scene, the Tiger Team enters the room to receive instructions. (NOTE: You can read about the true story of the filter, here). An engineer dumps the usable materials onto a table. The random pieces scatter and are in need of alchemy. As the Tiger Team encircles “the mess,” the directives are given. What appear to be random and disconnected materials await a tribal transformation. The scene ends as the engineers organize the elements to see what they’ve got.


When challenges and opportunities emerge, unknowns and ambiguities come along for the ride. At the outset of a challenge or opportunity, chaos and uncertainty are traveling mates (actually they travel with us most of the time). This means that a tribe must initiate the work of alchemy in the midst of the ambiguity, without knowing where it will all lead. Without this movement-into-the-mess, there can be no alchemy. I get energized by these unnerving moments because I know the possibility of transformation is hiding inside. There is no doubt that these moments can be frustrating and disorienting, but when the raw materials are lying on the table, resourceful tribes lean in.


This same chaotic moment occurs for your tribe, maybe multiple times a day. You too face challenges and opportunities that require transformation. The raw material of situations, objects, and people scatter across your “table.” Your tribe must harness ingenuity and creatively combine raw materials into needed solutions. This is the beginning of alchemy.


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The framework of Tribal Alchemy is only useful if a tribe views challenges and opportunities as positive invitations for change. Failure to alchemize is often due to unproductive mind-sets and attitudes that arise alongside difficulty or opportunity. Too often tribe members view a challenge as an irritation that breeds negative generalizations like,


      Things will never change

     This is so unfair

     Here we go again

     Great, just what we need right now.


This attitude toward challenge eliminates the possibility of alchemy. Passion for transformation wanes.


Tribe members can also have unproductive mind-sets around opportunities. Some view opportunities as “shiny objects” that divert attention from important work. Some recoil from change as if it’s a disease. Still others pin the future on one opportunity because they don’t want to do the hard work that would lead to sustainable effectiveness. Many tribal leaders are quick to turn opportunity into the next “big thing” that will make every other thing better. This can lead tribe members to diminish genuine opportunity because failed attempts of the past create skepticism about the future. This tribal dance—between leaders and people—eliminates the possibility of alchemy more times than tribes realize. I’ve watched the sabotage and frustration from both leaders and people ruin great strategic possibilities. When it comes to your tribe’s raw materials, collective attitude matters. If that’s amiss, the potential for alchemy is downgraded.


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Early Detection of Alchemy: Challenge and Opportunity


If challenge or opportunity had a voice they would say, “Hey tribe, it’s time. Heads up. This situation is ripe for creative magic making. Be awake, be mindful, and of course, get ready to practice alchemy.”

Instead of viewing challenges and opportunities as impediments or dreams for someday, they are cues and clues that the potential for alchemy is near. You can’t alchemize if you don’t know the situation is ripe for it. When challenge and opportunity emerge, your tribe must activate.


Make a Shift


When challenge or opportunity are near, try making these shifts.


Move from

Challenge as difficulty that blocks progress and frustrates the tribe


Challenge as invitation to rearrange raw materials in order to overcome barriers and advance the mission and the capacity of the tribe


Move from:

Opportunity as potential dream for the future


Opportunity as “revealer” of changes that must occur in order to create a better future