Mechanical Engineering

Confessions of a (former) tribal warrior

April 18, 2018

I have a confession to make. My co-worker Stefanie used to drive me nuts.

OK, as long as I’m being honest, while that’s technically accurate it’s not entirely past tense. My co-worker Stefanie still occasionally drives me nuts. But – and here’s a really important distinction – nowhere near as much as she used to. More about that in a bit.

I know what you’re thinking. Coworkers who drive each other nuts are hardly rare. And hardly blog-worthy. But here’s the thing. What drove me nuts about Stefanie – and what drove her nuts about me – is rooted in a personal and organizational dysfunction that’s so common as to be cliché and almost laughable. Almost – if it weren’t so deeply toxic, damaging and dangerous. Dangerous to firms that are trying to innovate, damaging to teams, and toxic to people, their careers, and their sense of wellbeing.

You see, Stef and I hail from entirely different tribes. I come from the Research and Development tribe. Talk about a cliché. I’m an engineer. My dad was an engineer. My grandfather ran a mechanical contracting firm. I love math and science and spreadsheets and gears and fast cars.

Stef? Well, her tribe hails from design strategy. Her work can be most closely aligned with Marketing. Her background is in the social sciences and the arts. She loves food and culture and psychology and figuring out what makes people tick. And I haven’t noticed any particular affinity for gears.

Ironically, if I’m being honest again, I’m not really an engineer anymore. Stef and I have risen to places in our organization and our careers where our day-to-day jobs share a remarkable amount of similarity. We grapple with many of the same strategic, financial, organizational and personnel decisions. We’ve shared 15 years of common experiences. We run what is, by all accounts, a successful design and innovation firm. By now, you’d think we’d have easily arrived at working detente. And we have. But it certainly wasn’t easy. It’s taken a long time, been occasionally painful, and involved a lot of learning.

You see, the traits of our tribes run deep. Very deep. In many ways, these traits were present in us from birth. They probably influenced the friends we made, the hobbies we chose, the schools we attended, the classes we took, the careers we pursued. Beyond that, these traits were further reinforced. Hammered into us subtly, slowly, painstakingly over years of education and indoctrination by other members of our tribe. And they’re so core to who we are as people that certain aspects of them will always be there, lurking.

So, when Stef and I found ourselves at the same company on different sides of the innovation spectrum we were already loaded for bear, so to speak.

Conflict between the technical and customer-facing parts of an organization remains one of the most fundamental challenges facing firms as they seek to be innovative.

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