Book Review: Smart Tribes by Christine Comaford

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Note: This review was published in the July 2013 edition of Strategic Finance. Many thanks to the editors at IMA/Strategic Finance for spending time to review and edit it.

Smart TribesWhat are the biggest challenges faced by rapidly growing companies? Ask the CEO of any such company and chances are that establishing a growth-oriented culture, where employees are self-motivated, loyal, can perform to their fullest potential, and are passionate about the company’s shared goals, would be at or near the top of the list.

Typically, such companies are characterized by rapidly shifting internal and external priorities, frequently changing business models, unclear directives and accountability structures, and/or the lack of alignment within the leadership team. As a natural response to such situations, employees fall into a “fight/flight/freeze mode.” In her book, Smart Tribes: How Teams become Brilliant Together, Christine Comaford refers to this as the “critter state.” People in the critter state are driven by fear, individual safety, and survival rather than collective success. Instead of focusing on real issues that impede growth, they’re emotionally disengaged, don’t collaborate, and spend time and resources on solving problems that either don’t exist or aren’t important. When management decision-making and behavior is driven by the critter state, it’s nearly impossible for companies to move up to the next level of growth.

In Smart Tribes, Comaford, an applied neuroscience expert and a New York Times best-selling author, presents a recipe to move employees out of the critter state. When in the critter state, decision-making is driven by the most primitive part of the brain, which is a stimulus response system focused on survival. Instead, employees need to be in the “smart state,” where decision-making is driven by the pre-frontal cortex, a more evolved part of the brain that enables us to plan, innovate, solve complex problems, and think abstract thoughts. Employees in the smart state are focused, accountable, collaborative, loyal, and imbued with a passion to solve problems. With their creativity, innovation, and passion unleashed, they not only outsmart the competition but do it consistently, again and again.

Employing well-researched neuroscience and behavioral science techniques, Comaford proposes a very structured approach to move from the critter state to the smart state. She recommends the following five accelerators that can help the transition:

  • Focus: Be aware of what is important and delegate, defer, or ditch everything else.
  • Clarity: Be aware of why you do what you do.
  • Accountability: Make accountability a part of the company’s DNA by having clear expectations, owner’s agreement, and well-defined rewards and consequences.
  • Influence: Be able to understand, empower, and motivate people.
  • Sustained results: Have energy to enjoy your work and avoid burnout.

Interspersed with numerous real life cases and examples, Smart Tribes is a very well-written book. Comaford follows a “do it yourself approach,” using assessment questions, resources, and actions plans at the end of each section, making it a very engaging and interactive read. Another highlight is that it’s backed by rigorous scientific research, making it very credible and trustworthy.

The issues Comaford raises in the book are extremely critical for success in the contemporary business environment. Smart Tribes is a great read for anyone managing a team in a fast-paced and dynamic environment.

PS: Copyright 2013 by IMA®, Montvale, N.J., www.imanet.org, used with permission.

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