Oral Traditions and Organizations
What can we learn?
What Can Oral Traditions Teach Us About Organizations?
I’m standing in studio C3, on the third floor at Fazil’s – a building that dates back to the 1920s and is well known as a rehearsal hall for professional dancers. I’m waiting for Ted Levy, one of the key tap dance performers and educators of the time. It’s the late 1990’s. For tap dancers, we’re living in the wake of Noise/Funk (LINK). I felt stuck in my process and isolated in the community. Ted had agreed to coach me after I inquired. It was a secret gift. I was to tell no one of the work we were doing – he didn’t coach a lot of people. But there I was in the studio, practicing what I had learned from our previous session.
Ted bursts through the door, excited to see that I was already working. He turns as says, “Okay, we’re going to play a game.” He asks me to give him 2 bars. And then another. And then another. Then he looked at the wall, pointed to an interesting section with exposed pipes, and said, “Okay, now play those pipes.” With a simple request Ted introduced me to the idea of cross-genre inspiration. He was asking me to interpret the visual aspect of the exposed pipes into a tap dance step. My mind experienced an expansion of possibility. Ted was the first to teach me to use things I saw in world around me (like exposed pipes) to inspire what I could find in Tap Dance Land. If a set of pipes could inspire a tap dance step, what kind of dancing could come from other areas of inspiration? What other kinds of connections could be possible?
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt to draw out some of the connections I’ve experienced and experimented with in my journey. If they ring true for you, I’d love to know. I’m going to begin with a connection between oral traditions and organizations.
Here we go.
When we think of oral traditions we might think about family recipes, communal celebrations, or indigenous crafts. These traditions, unwritten as they are, are remembered and passed down because of their immense importance. But what could be so important about a family recipe, for example? Let’s explore. Food is connected to a number of aspects of life together. The meals that are remembered as family recipes are deeply connected to available food and geography, available time (to make and share meals) and one’s sense of it, special events and people, and the specific way a meal happens within the family (who ends up in the kitchen, who gets kicked out, where people eat, and who eats together). The recipe is the vehicle that brings together all these other formative aspects of the life together. The vehicle is important as it facilitates the embodiment (or the doing) of all the other things. Not only does the recipe facilitate the formation, it serves as a reminder for the family of everything else that has helped shape who they are.
In his book, Tribes, Seth Gobin applies the ideas that undergird oral traditions and the small communities that engage in them to the world of marketing, branding, and change-making. He highlights our inherent need to be connected as a leverage point. “We know we are of the same tribe, because we [do/think/have] the same thing.” There is a deep desire in humans for belonging, but what if, instead of using what people deeply need for the sake of business, sales, marketing, or general change, we used the same mechanisms for the sake of transformation toward the good?
There are specific aspects of oral traditions that may help us understand ways organizations work that may help. Here are a few:
Indoctrination and Variance
Oral traditions indoctrinate and acknowledge variance. With every participatory activity, oral traditions help participants form into the kinds of people for whom membership in the larger group is easy. Participants take on the understandings of place, time, people, events, and methods of the larger group that are baked into the activity. Interaction with the group’s geography, pace of life, important community members, important festivities, and the means and ways of accomplishing tasks is facilitated in the microcosm of partaking in the oral tradition. The tradition facilitates the taking on of the communal knowledge of life (indoctrination) while, in healthy oral tradition environments, identifies, highlights, and encourages variance in the tradition on account of individual personality. Not every cook will cook a recipe the exact same way, to go back to our earlier example. However, the standards of a “good” cook are known to all in the community. Good cooks are recognized and celebrated. In this way the community is able to pass along and uphold important aspects of identity and knowledge of life from one generation to another while also celebrating the variance within the group that comes from individuals.
In organizations, this translates to an explicit understanding, especially in the on-boarding process, of what things need to be indoctrinated and how individual variance will be identified, highlighted, and encouraged. Of course, the dynamic and ability to do either may vary by organization (size, resources, mission, etc.), however, these two aspects must always be in the field of view. We must, to whatever degree possible, address them intentionally to build healthy work environments. The alternative is that the important things that undergird a business will not be indoctrinated – at best left to wither away, or worse replaced by opposing ideas – all seemingly unintentionally. And, that individuals will not feel valued for who they are within the context of the business. Better to work towards an environment of life together in the organization that is clear about who a member is to be at their core, and how variance is expressed.
In organic ways, such as play and communal participation, participants are often immersed in oral traditions from the earliest opportunity. “Come and cook with me,” a family member might offer. This benign invitation to cook is full of meaning. The offer here is not imposing. Rather, it is meant and seen as an invitation to do an activity together. In communities which have a high value on relationship, invitations like this are seen as ways to facilitate being together, not merely the completion of a task. The act of cooking, then, is the vehicle to facilitate the time together and whatever might be learned explicitly or gleaned implicitly by doing something together.
In organizations, organic immersion is already happening in the workplace (notably, one of the underlying arguments for a return to the office). However, by focusing on relationships and invitations – of course, amidst the needs of achieving set goals – organizations may shift their culture from one of pure achievement orientation to one of working together toward a common good. With proper indoctrination establishing a communal vision of what is good, and support of variance towards that good, members may come to enjoy their work environment and easily complete tasks and hit goals. This being the natural outcome of a communal environment that is steeped in meaning and healthy relationship.
Immersion Transfers Personality
In the case where the invited participant takes a genuine liking to the activity, the door opens for deeper learning. More time is spent together with the teacher, more nuance about the activity is learned, and more focus leads to more explicit learning. However, as with the many anecdotal stories of bad teachers ruining a particular subject for a student, in oral traditions the personality of the teacher is immensely important. Here, the lessons learned by the student and the personality and character of the teacher are often intertwined. This is only amplified in the apprenticeship model, often used by oral traditions, where the relationship between student and teacher is one-to-one.
In organizations, this idea simply illuminates something we already know. That is, the way everyone in an organization shows up matters. A lot. Everyone, as they show up has the opportunity to affect those around them. There is little neutrality in relationship. That means that the personality and character of people matters. By extension, and from an organizational standpoint, experiments and policies can be implemented from the perspective of what they might do to people, rather than only the aim they are meant to hit. I like these questions as prompts to a thought experiment around this: Who will people become if they work in a particular kind of environment? Is that a good thing? If it isn’t what is one small, low risk, thing that we can change that might deliver a different outcome for the people?
Oral traditions operate across generations. As a tap dancer, I can trace my lineage back almost 100 years. As I look back, I can see the things that tap dancers held as important (in the aggregate), and identify what individuals thought were important (in the specific). Their values are baked into their dancing. I can see when one individual’s perspective was adopted into the broader community. In Tap Dance Land, this kind of adoption takes a long time. In most oral traditions the time it takes for things to change is quite long. There is a keen sense of the fragility of the tradition (as it relies on people – who are inherently fragile), and the importance of what it carries (keys to individual and communal formation). So, communities don’t experiment dramatically or frequently with the tradition, for concern of the entire thing breaking. This is a valid concern. However, the sense of fragility and weight of importance may be couched in something even deeper. That is the long view of purpose. Oral traditions, as we briefly mentioned earlier, are vehicles for the formation of members of the community. This is something that engenders a multigenerational view. Simon Sinek’s description of infinite games applies here. The goal for the community is to continue living as a community (not necessarily to come to the end of their life with the most points). To frequently, dramatically, or worse arbitrarily change an oral tradition would signal a frequent, dramatic, or arbitrary change to the community itself. The consequences would be a shift or possible tearing of the social fabric of the community. With that in mind, oral traditions evolve slowly and often over multiple generations. It’s not that they don’t change, they do, but with great care and concern for everyone involved.
The pace of life and the market today are anything but slow. However, organizations that shift their perspective from putting out daily fires and beating their closest competitor to the view of intergenerational longevity can experience a different kind life. Their focus and pacing may both shift. The focus may shift to deeper questions of meaning and relationship within the organization, with clients, systems, and products. The pacing may shift to an unhurried (although not necessarily slow) way of addressing all the demands of the market and life.
This is not an easy shift. Many want to be winners (especially in comparison to their competitors) and have been formed by the destructive virtue signals associated with burnout culture. But if there is anything that we can learn from oral traditions about organizations it is that the things we do affect the people we are with, and we don’t get to where we want to be as a community or organization without the people we are with. While many will come and go in our organizations, being concerned with the organization as a vehicle for the formation of the people has the potential to dramatically change how everyone interacts in every relationship.
One Word About Change
All of this is even more important when we come to experience change – something that seems to be happening with greater frequency and intensity. If, in our organizations, we have developed the conscious and explicit connection between what we do and who we are – our activities and our values – then we can confront change by working through that very connection. When change arrives we can ask a question like, “What else can we do while still being who we are (assuming our value system is good)?” Maybe a particular value needs to be highlighted in our activities to encounter a particular challenge more directly. Or maybe we ask, “What value are we missing in order to address the challenge at hand?” Maybe a particular activity needs to be modified or introduced to instill a particular value more deeply. There is nothing about oral traditions – or more generally, the way we do things – that is unchangeable. They can and should evolve. However, what undergirds them – the way the community or organization sees the world, the values they hold – should be something that we want to live forever. The way we do things might change. However, when we communicate that what we are doing is still rooted in the deep values of who we are, and meant to keep how we see the world alive, the experience of change itself can change. Where there might be turbulence, there could be calm. Where there might be tension, there could be ease. Where there might be resistance, there could be hope. Imagine that.
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